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WVU faculty question how university got in financial bind and why academics could be cut

West Virginia University’s faculty asked questions about the likelihood of coming job cuts, and a senior vice president said he’s sorry the university is in this position.

Rob Alsop

“I wish I had seen around corners better or seen things differently two years ago,” Rob Alsop, senior vice president for strategic initiatives said Monday during a two-hour faculty senate meeting. “And I’ve done a lot of soul searching over the past several months as it relates to how I can do a better job.”

Alsop shared that someone recently told him that if he were in the private sector, he might be out of a job because he let the budget problems snowball before taking action.

“And I do wish that I had raised issues earlier,” Alsop said. “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, all the way around.

“And that’s something I have to live with.”

WVU is tightening its belt while facing the likelihood of being down $45 million next year — potentially growing to $75 million over the next five years if steps aren’t taken to control costs. University leaders are working through how to deal with that potential loss.

Officials have said the financial strain is directly related to declining student population.

For 2023, officials said, WVU had just more than 26,000 students. For 2024, the university projects 25,082 students.

That trend means it’s possible that WVU could lose 5,000 of its student population over a decade. If they’re paying about $14,500 in tuition, that means a total financial loss of $72.5 million over that time.

The university has been working on a framework and timetable for how to trim programs and positions.

WVU employees recently published an anonymous blog post taking issue with university officials’ explanation of the reasons behind the budget crunch and outlining other reasons behind the tough times.

Frankie Tack

Those were some of the themes during the faculty senate meeting, too, with participants wanting to know if the rest of the university will be making sacrifices, if trends could have been identified earlier and if the state has been adequately funding higher education.

“And so I think what the faculty really wants to know is that it’s not just the academic side,” said Frankie Tack, the faculty senate chair-elect and clinical assistant professor in counseling and learning sciences.

Daniel Totzkay

Daniel Totzkay, an assistant professor of communication studies, said the message from officials has often sounded like: “Hey buddies, your programs — they’ll probably cut; sorry, that’s the way it is, gotta rightsize.”

And the response from faculty, he said, is: “Hey, is this equitable?”

Maryanne Reed

Provost Maryanne Reed responded that during earlier lean times the university trimmed non-academic areas that now just have very little give. She said those moves were made to preserve academic priorities.

“I think we could have done a better job communicating all of the changes that have been made in recent years. And the efforts to protect the academic side of the house,” Reed said.

“And I I’m telling you that some some budget cuts were really shouldered primarily at the central level, and there was a lot done to spare the academic enterprise. I don’t think we talked about that. We just did it.”

Reed later told faculty at the meeting that she understands the sense of frustration, anger and “sense of who’s to blame.” However, she said the problems are real.

“But higher education is going through an incredible time of disruption. You have to know that. You have to see it in the Chronicle. You have to see it in The New York Times. You have to see Inside Higher Ed,” Reed said. “This is not just us. It is not. We are being very transparent about what we’re facing and addressing.

“And I guarantee you, if other universities aren’t doing it now, they will do it. We are in a time where college participation has declined, where state support has declined, where the attitude about the necessity of a college degree has changed. And it’s terrible, but it is the world in which we live.”

Victor Mucino

Professor Victor Mucino of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering said “the house is on fire,” and he wanted to know who would bear the consequences for the situation WVU is facing.

“Now, they current crisis has been produced by a number of actions, mistakes, whatever you want to call them, that have not been produced by faculty members,” Mucino said.

“Nevertheless, to navigate this financial crisis, most of the burden will be placed on faculty members by not having access to resources, by having travel restrictions, by not having access to overhead, by the reduction in force. And that has already devastated morale.”

Alsop said the basic fact is that the university has 5,000 fewer students than in 2014.

“And so, I actually think we’re all accountable for that fact,” he said.

“And I think that if faculty are going to take the position that nothing that happened in the classroom had anything to do with word of mouth or anything of that value for students and enrollment — I think there’s plenty of things we could have done better, but part of our problem is dropping enrollment that we have seen, and that’s something that we all, I would hope, would want to try to do better at as opposed to just saying ‘Well, this has nothing to do with me; this is somebody else; let’s go chop off an arm or a leg or a head or move a senior administrator out’ because that’s not going to fix the particular challenge going forward.”

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