CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Higher education is in line for cuts under the budget framework presented this week by the Republican majority in the state Legislature, but college presidents in West Virginia are asking lawmakers to think again.
“The single biggest return on investment that is made in the state is made in higher education,” said West Virginia University President Gordon Gee.
“And our university, my university, the people’s university is the single largest producer of jobs in this state. So why would you not invest in what we’re doing at a time when that’s precisely the kind of prosperity we can bring to the state.”
Gee made his comments in an interview at the state Capitol, where the state’s college and university leaders had gathered for Higher Education Day.
The day, which is an annual event, this year came at an opportune moment for higher education leaders to express their opinion about the state budget.
The GOP legislative majority this week outlined a budget framework that leaves $150 million of yet-unspecified cuts to be worked out.
They acknowledged that will mean cutting from the big state budget areas of K-12 education, the Department of Health and Human Resources and higher education — and they said the specifics of those cuts will be determined through the normal budgeting process.
“In general, what has been off the table for so long around here is the programs that are sacrosanct — DHHR, higher ed, public ed,” Senate President Mitch Carmichael said. “Those are elements that we recognize that we have to take looks at, and we are willing to do those things.”
House Speaker Tim Armstead added, “The bottom line is, we have talked about these three areas and avoided ever getting into the three areas that constitute roughly three-quarters of the general revenue budget, and that is DHHR, higher ed and K-12 education.
College and university presidents who gathered at the Capitol on Wednesday would dispute that they haven’t been touched by cuts until now.
From fiscal year 2013 to now, all public higher education two and four year schools have had their funding reduced by a total of $56.6 million, according to the state Higher Education Policy Commission.
“My institution has diminished its budget the last few years by about $30 million from state support,” Gee said. “As I tell everyone, we are no longer a truly state supported institution. We’re located in Morgantown and all over the state.
“But I believe in the state, and I believe an investment strategy in the state is what we need to do. We need to make some courageous decisions in that regard. We will not have a budget problem if courage prevails.”
The House and Senate both have passed bills providing colleges and universities more flexibility with personnel decisions. West Virginia University is the driver behind the legislation.
The legislation, which now would need to be signed by the governor, would give higher education institutions the ability to eliminate protections staff members enjoy like bumping and recall procedures. The schools say they need the flexibility because of tough economic times that have included millions of dollars in less funding from the state. Classified staff members fear layoffs.
Gee said the flexibility provided by the bill would be valuable.
“The reason is, higher education is built upon the premise of responsibility to our faculty, our staffs and our students. And it’s also built upon the premise of recognition. We want to be able to recognize and value people, and that is precisely what it allows us to do.
“The premise is performance, and I tell everybody those who perform well should have no fear about this bill.”
Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert agreed that the legislation is helpful, but he said it wouldn’t make up for another round of cuts.
“What they’re saying is they’re going to give us flexibility in terms of how we manage our personnel, but I don’t want to release personnel if I don’t have to at Marshall,” Gilbert said. “I would prefer to keep all of our staff in place. We’ve already cut 136 jobs and we’re really operating on what I would consider a very reduced, almost a skeleton crew in terms of the number of people we have.
“So to cut additional people would really hurt the quality of education, would hurt the delivery of our educational program. I don’t think that’s a good option. If they say you need to cut jobs, what I would say is then your’e telling me we need to reduce the quality of higher education in West Virginia.”
Gilbert said Marshall already has been making do with less.
Since 2013, he said, Marshall is down $11.5 million in state appropriations — about 16 to 17 percent of the state money it once received.
“We put together a team prior to my arriving a year ago to look at ways to create efficiencies on campus,” Gilbert said. “We eliminated vacant positions, about 136. We had energy savings. All of the things we did on campus summed up to a little over $6 million in savings that we did through a process called 20/20.
“Then we used tuition increases to account for about $3.8 million out of that. Then we used one and a half million dollars we borrowed from our reserves to balance our budget.”
Gilbert said that means Marshall has tightened its belt as much as it can.
“I think we have done a very good job of trying to make ends meet with less funding. The idea of them cutting us severely, like I’ve heard rumors of, would be devastating to us in higher education and would set us back significantly. It would increase the cost of tuition for our students,” Gilbert said.
The state’s colleges and universities could wind up having to raise tuition if state funding is cut, Gilbert said.
“We will cut some things on campus. We will try to squeeze some more money out of our budgets,” he said. “But eventually it’s going to end up in significant tuition increases to our students.
“They need to think about it because that’s really the reality– is that it’s going to convert into high tuition. I will say our tuition in West Virginia is not extremely high right now. This could push us up above the average in terms of our peer groups if we have to raise our tuition to meet these cuts.”
West Virginia State University President Anthony Jenkins, who arrived on campus last summer for his new job, has been through two rounds of budget cuts already.
“When I walked into the office my first day on July 1, we had just taken a cut,” Jenkins said. “This past January we took a 2 percent cut. I understand the state is in a tough economic situation.
“We in higher education, we don’t favor these cuts. Now we have to go back and continue to see what we can do so our quality of education doesn’t suffer and to make sure access remains a priority at State, which it will. And to make sure we can do all the things we need to do to keep educating our citizens and moving this state forward.”
Jenkins said institutions like his have allies at the Capitol, but that only goes so far in the face of the current budget challenges.
“We have some wonderful support. Senator Gaunch is a wonderful supporter of State. Eric Nelson is a very wonderful supporter of State. Tim Armstead is a wonderful supporter of State and the list goes on and on. We have some folks who are very committed to higher education and to West Virginia State University.
“I’m also mindful that I live in a world called reality where they have a tough hill to climb. I am hopeful we are left harmless and I know there are some tough decisions that have to be made.”
Jenkins noted that larger institutions like West Virginia and Marshall universities might have more flexibility to cope with cuts than smaller colleges do.
“They have more money than I do,” Jenkins said. “So they can find more areas to cut if it comes down to it than what I have. The smaller institutions, we are not as agile with our budgets.
“The more cuts we take, the more challenging it is for many of the regional institutions to survive.”
Gov. Jim Justice’s proposed budget, which focuses far more on raising revenue than it does on cutting, does roll back state funding to West Virginia University ($5.9 million) and Marshall University ($2.8 million) by 4.4 percent apiece.
But Justice’s budget leaves the other state colleges and universities as they are.
As the legislative session began, the Justice administration released an “alternative budget” that showed cutting the budgets of West Virginia and Marshall universities by 45.6 percent ($59 million and $48 million) and then zeroing out 46 additional colleges or programs.
While speaking to college and university presidents today, Justice administration chief of staff Nick Casey thanked them for their work and expressed support.
“What you do is you create for West Virginia one of the things we desperately need, which is a workforce of knowledgeable, caring people. Without that workforce, we suffer,” Casey said in his remarks to the higher education crowd.
Casey made reference to the reduced funding that the institutions have already experienced.
“We hope not any roe in the future although there’s conversation upstairs as you might have heard,” Casey said.
“In these tough times we’re all rallying together. At least from the governor’s office we see a bright light and some opportunities.”
Jeff Jenkins contributed to this story.