Lawmakers are observing the difficult cutbacks at West Virginia University, but they are not proposing additional state funding to ease the pain.
Senators Mike Oliverio and Mike Caputo, who represent the district surrounding the university’s Morgantown campus, issued a joint statement on Friday.
They acknowledged the process is difficult.
“We must remember that the University’s decision-making process is not merely a numbers game for profitability; this situation impacts real people and their families. It affects the very fibers of our community,” wrote Oliverio, a Republican, and Caputo, a Democrat.
But the two senators said the change is also unavoidable.
“We know some of the decisions the University administration is making are not popular and have real costs associated with them. However, we also understand that the University needs to make some serious changes in order to remain the community stalwart it has been in the past,” Oliverio and Caputo wrote.
The cutbacks are happening because WVU faces the likelihood of being down $45 million this year — potentially growing to $75 million over the next five years if steps aren’t taken to control costs.
University leaders are dealing with the shortfall with a tuition increase of about 3 percent, the use of some financial reserves and by cutting staff and programs.
WVU announced preliminary but significant cutbacks to academic programs last Friday. The proposal included cutting 169 faculty positions and eliminating 32 of 338 majors.
One the programs recommended for discontinuance, World Languages, means eliminating all 32 faculty positions. WVU is also recommending the elimination of several programs in the College of Creative Arts, graduate programs in higher education administration and special education.
Over the next couple of weeks, university officials will consider appeals.
Several factors have led to this point, but one has been the level of state funding for WVU, a land-grant institution.
If West Virginia lawmakers had kept higher education funding at the same levels as a decade ago, WVU would have an estimated additional $37.6 million in state funding for the coming fiscal year, closing the majority of this year’s budget gap, according to an analysis by the West Virginia Center for Budget & Policy.
“While no single factor is responsible for WVU’s current budget crisis and the loss of hundreds of good-paying jobs, reduced state investment from the legislature no doubt played a role,” said Kelly Allen, executive director of the center, which is a think tank and advocacy organization.
“Further, as colleges and universities had to increase their reliance on tuition revenue as state support declined, enrollment among low-income students has gone down — meaning that reduced state support in some part has helped drive the pre-pandemic enrollment decline.”
The state has money that it could allocate to WVU.
West Virginia’s state government ended the most recent fiscal year with $458 million in unappropriated surplus and worked through a range of appropriations bills during a special session this month. A couple of big approvals were in higher education: $45 million for Marshall University’s cybersecurity program and $25 million for the aviation maintenance program at Pierpont Community and Technical College.
“Those were investments in those institutions to enable them to do things going into the future: the cybersecurity at Marshall, the hangar and training facility at Pierpont. WVU’s came during the legislative session when we gave $50 million to the WVU Cancer Institute,” Oliverio said on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”
Caputo and Oliverio noted significant, specific allocations this year for WVU this year.
- $116 million dollars in general funding for WVU
- $55 million for WVU Medicine
- $50 million for WVU Cancer Institute
- $210 million for deferred maintenance for higher education buildings, funded for the first time since 2009. The senators anticipated WVU will receive most of that, based on enrollment.
“The state support has been significant,” Oliverio said on “Talkline.”
He added, “We have done a lot of things to help WVU with their cash flow, and now it will be up to them to make some decisions internally that they need to make.”
Less financial support over time
Allen of the center on budget & policy said the general funding amount needs context.
“The $116.5 million allocated to WVU’s general administration fund this year is $14 million less than the $130.8 million they received a decade ago, which would be over $172 million in inflation-adjusted 2023 dollars. That’s a 32.5 percent inflation-adjusted reduction in state funding for WVU, far outpacing the university’s 11 percent enrollment decline over roughly the same period,” she said.
Senate Finance Chairman Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, said the state hasn’t provided more financial support during WVU’s crisis because institutions have to make hard decisions.
He agreed that holding state spending steady has meant a longer-term drop in financial support, especially when considering inflation rates.
“Everybody’s heard us talk about holding four years of flat budget, and what that does is a couple things: One is it starts to decrease the spending that normally would increase with inflation over a couple of years, and that squeezes government agencies,” Tarr said on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”
“In this respect, I think you could look at WVU as one of the government agencies as you go through that the 3 percent a year that would increase in spending, as you do that, squeezes out efficiencies that otherwise agencies have no incentive to find.”
Many of the cuts at WVU are being recommended because of low student enrollment and the expense of the particular program.
“Here’s the scenario,” Tarr said. “You have these programs that have been continued to be propped up. They’re not producing such as they’re not drawing students or they could be swallowed up by some other educational piece within the university.
“What happens is you can either ask the taxpayer to pay more for an underperforming college or program or you can ask the students to pay more — which is the parents or whoever is paying that — or the university can go in and right-size, so you don’t throw that money unnecessarily back on the taxpayer or back on the student tuition hikes. Those are the options.”
Academic priorities can’t always be reduced to raw numbers, said Dr. Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors. She said faculty should be leading the way in guiding the university’s curriculum decisions, considering their educational value “not just bottom-line decisions of profitability.”
“This university is the driver of the economy, it’s an engine of social mobility, it should be a ladder into the middle class. Many avenues of opportunity for West Virginia students go through WVU, and to see it decimated like this is really, really concerning.”
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