West Virginia University to Eliminate 32 Academic Programs and Cut 160 Faculty Lines!

Dear Commons Community,

Last week, the University of West Virginia unveiled a financial plan to eliminate 32 academic programs and cut 160 faculty lines. Based on Fall 2022 enrollments (see graph above), 12 undergraduate programs and 20 graduate programs will be close.  As reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education. 

It’s all part of an effort to manage a $45-million deficit for the 2024 fiscal year that could, if left unchecked, increase to $75 million by 2028, administrators say. WVU must right-size itself, they have argued, for the fallout that will come when the nation hits the so-called demographic cliff, a sharp, multiyear decline in the number of high-school students anticipated to graduate within the state and nationwide.

Gordon Gee, the university’s president, promised transparency in making program cuts during his State of the University address, in March. “Let everyone know exactly what we are doing,” he said. “Gather a lot of ideas. Move with speed. Speed is our friend, and obviously data.”

Gee also repeatedly promised over the years that the university’s systemwide enrollment would break 40,000 students by 2020. The failure to achieve that goal is not lost on members of WVU’s labor force and has only reinforced the notion among some faculty members that Gee’s administration lacks credibility when it forecasts dark days ahead if certain cuts aren’t made.

“First, the announcement was that we were going to be $13 million short. And that number just kept growing,” said Lara Farina, a professor of English. “And leadership has really refused to take any responsibility for the shortfall we’re facing. Yes, enrollment is dropping. But they won’t acknowledge that the university has spent a lot of money preparing for a projected enrollment increase.”

Asked in an interview in late June, as WVU’s administration finalized plans to cut programs, what he made of his standing with the faculty, Gee chalked up such criticisms to a basic workplace hazard, as “university presidents are always vulnerable to attacks of the moment.”

“But what I tell everybody is the fact that no one understands this more than I do,” said Gee, who has served as president of five universities. “The change is hard, and I understand how this affects our people. But I also understand that my role as a leader is to make sure that we are a strong and relevant university.”

How did it come to this? How did a president go from promising historic, record-breaking growth to anticipating enrollment declines as large as 7,000 students by 2033?

Administrators have mostly attributed the drop in enrollment, and the need to “reposition” the university, to the pandemic and the strong job market.

“I wish I had seen around corners better or seen things differently two years ago,” Rob Alsop, senior vice president for strategic initiatives, said during a tense Faculty Senate meeting on June 5. “And so I do wish that I had raised issues earlier. We can talk through the fact that I didn’t think during Covid, when we were seeing enrollment declines, that things wouldn’t bounce back. I wish in hindsight I hadn’t made that calculation. I wish I had seen things a lot differently, and regret that I didn’t take actions earlier to move things forward.”

But the roots of West Virginia’s current predicament run much deeper. They include external forces like the pandemic, declines in state appropriations, demographic trends, and budget battles at the federal level. But they are also the result of internal choices and miscalculations like debt-fueled spending on buildings and, most crucially, the big bet by university leaders on enrollment growth that didn’t pay off.

The story of West Virginia University’s current budget woes begins with the Great Recession. From the 2008 to the 2009 fiscal years, state appropriations for WVU fell by $7.3 million. Then again, in the following year, they fell by $1 million, resulting in a nearly $10-million deficit for the 2010 fiscal year (all figures are unadjusted for inflation). Although funding levels improved marginally over the course of the next couple of years, WVU leaders at the time anticipated volatile energy markets might depress state revenue, and they expected an even more volatile Legislature might not always be able or willing to deliver the appropriations they sought.

And over the next decade, that’s essentially what happened. From the 2013 to the 2022 fiscal years, state appropriations to WVU declined by nearly 36 percent, or $99.3 million, when adjusted for inflation, according to an analysis by The Chronicle. Even when appropriations were standardized to account for changing enrollment patterns, similar declines were still evident, like a 20-percent drop in state funding per full-time-equivalent undergraduate or a 12-percent loss in state appropriations per in-state resident undergrad.

I wish I had seen around corners better or seen things differently two years ago.

Had West Virginia continued to finance WVU’s operations at levels commensurate with state funding a decade ago, the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, a public-policy organization, argued in an analysis released in June, the university would now be faced with a $7.6-million deficit, far easier to contend with than the $45-million gap it currently faces.

Back in 2010, when state appropriations were dropping, WVU’s leaders came up with a plan to strengthen its finances, hoping to shield the institution from unpredictable and potentially devastating cuts. The plan was predicated on enrollment growth and the scaling-up of alternative revenue-generating operations.

“The possibility of changing financial conditions and a subsequent reduction in state appropriations still exists,” the university noted in its financial statements at the time. “The Board of Governors and the senior management team at WVU have developed a financial plan that addresses such a possibility and can accommodate changes in state funding.”

Core to the university’s growth strategy: a renewed focus on expanding funding for its research programs. WVU would also need to entice and enroll more out-of-state students and international students. But in order to scale up its operations and accommodate an anticipated flood of new students, WVU would need to acquire land and buildings through debt financing.

West Virginia University was hardly alone in following that blueprint for growth. Pennsylvania’s Cabrini University in 2017 authorized the issuance of $49 million in debt to help finance the construction of an on-campus residential hall; the university announced this year that it would close. Similarly, ambitions to expand enrollment at New Jersey City University would ultimately undermine the institution a decade later. And in his 2011 State of the University address, the University of Nebraska at Lincoln’s chancellor, Harvey Perlman, said that “by 2017 we should be a university approaching 30,000 students.” Instead, come 2017, UNL’s enrollment had only just cracked 26,000.

At West Virginia, though, the expected enrollment bump never came and the debt ballooned.

This will be painful.  I am worried that many other colleges and universities face the same financial dilemma.


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