Students walk on the downtown campus of West Virginia University. Photo courtesy WVU.

As students return to campus, painful cuts to degree programs and faculty positions at West Virginia University are on the horizon as administrators work to fix a $45 million budget deficit.

Based on enrollment trends and revenue, administrators proposed cuts to dozens of programs, including eliminating some bachelor’s and advanced degrees, merging other programs and laying off faculty.

Next, faculty will have the chance to appeal the recommendations made by administrators before a final vote from the university’s board in September.

The process is expected to be finished by mid-fall and will result in some tenured professors being laid off as programs are downsized or eliminated.

“Please understand how demoralizing, heartbreaking, and scary it is to think you are secure in your faculty position only to now live in fear every day that it will be cut,” wrote a faculty member in a public comment — one of almost two hundred submitted in response to a recently proposed rule changes that will make it easier to lay off faculty. 

In one letter to the board, dozens of professors said that the way in which the layoffs are being done will make it difficult to recruit faculty, undermine academic freedom, imperil WVU’s research efforts and ultimately hurt students.

Here’s what you need to know.

Why is there a budget crisis at WVU?

Rhododendrons are in bloom on the downtown campus as seen Monday, May, 22, 2023. (WVU Photo/Jennifer Shephard)

Student enrollment, the single biggest source of revenue through tuition, has steadily declined over the past decade and is expected to continue going down. Today, around 5,000 fewer students are enrolled – and paying tuition – than in 2014.

The enrollment decline started before the COVID-19 pandemic but was exacerbated by it. Both in West Virginia and nationwide, fewer high school seniors are choosing to attend college than before the pandemic. 

At WVU, a long-term budget problem became an immediate budget crunch after the university enrolled smaller freshmen classes during the pandemic and administrators underestimated how many students would graduate in spring of 2022. More students left than were coming in, and tuition revenue went down.

WVU’s budget situation is also closely tied to actions by state lawmakers. Public funding has gone down over the last decade, forcing the university to become more dependent on tuition revenue, according to analysis from the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. 

While both enrollment and state funding have declined, expenses have increased. Changes made by lawmakers earlier this year to the state health insurance plan will cost the university $10 million more next year. Inflation and higher wages have also affected the budget, according to administrators.

“At the end of the day, we’ve dropped enrollment,” Rob Alsop, vice president for strategic initiatives, said during a meeting with faculty earlier this summer. “Our expenses are up. Our state appropriations are not going to save us. And we’ve got to figure out a pathway collectively forward.”

What is WVU going to do about its budget deficit?

In March, WVU administrators announced the $45 million budget shortfall and quickly began a review of degree programs. By mid-summer, almost half were placed “under review” based on enrollment and revenue. Faculty and leaders have defended their programs and made the case for why they should be kept.

The proposed cuts include:

  • Laying off faculty in programs including engineering, education, art, music, theater, law, design, forestry, chemistry, communications studies, English, math, public administration, management, medicine, pharmacy and public health. 
  • Closing the world languages program that teaches Spanish, French, German and other languages.
  • Combining pairs or groups of similar bachelor’s degrees into single majors.
  • Discontinuing master’s degrees and PhDs in areas that include higher education administration, piano, music composition, landscape architecture, creative writing, legal studies and public administration. 

Closing or shrinking programs and the resulting layoffs are the latest — and most drastic — cost-cutting measure that WVU has asked faculty to go through.

Since 2020, administrators have been looking to cut costs through a process that they’ve called “Academic Transformation.” Prior to the current review, they have merged two pairs of colleges and restructured other programs.

At the beginning of this year, budget officials implemented a hiring freeze and stopped spending on supplies, employee hospitality and travel in most situations. Printing on physical paper was specifically discouraged.

Who is to blame for the budget crisis? Who will fix it?

President E. Gordon Gee delivers his State of the University address earlier this year. (WVU Photo/Matt Sunday)

In a state with a declining college-going rate and poor economic conditions, several external factors have contributed to the crisis. 

President E. Gordon Gee, who just had his contract renewed through 2025 by the university’s governing board and says he plans to step down afterwards, has presented the budget cuts as a necessary step to continue attracting students to a smaller institution. 

“My friends, we have been overgrown for a very long time,” he said in a March address to faculty and students. 

After Gee was chosen as WVU’s president in 2014, he pledged to increase enrollment to 40,000 students, an increase of several thousand students. Enrollment has steadily gone down since and is now around 26,000

Administrators have been in the driver’s seat during this crisis. They’ve decided when to release information, changed rules to make it easier to lay off faculty members and, ultimately, will decide who to cut. 

Faculty acknowledge that the budget crisis must be dealt with but have sharply criticized the speed and manner in which cuts are being made. Several times, faculty members have asked why highly-paid senior administrators are not taking pay cuts to help with the crisis.

Alsop, who oversees much of the university’s business operations, has said that this would be bad for morale and make it difficult to recruit future job candidates.

How does this change what WVU will be in a decade?

In a decade, there will likely be fewer faculty, fewer staff and fewer students at WVU. 

Gee has presented a vision of a smaller institution that is focused on programs that students want. He has also frequently emphasized WVU’s health care and research wings as significant parts of the university’s future.

Those areas have grown in recent years with more grant revenue to do research and WVU Medicine’s expansion across the state.

Some high school seniors may find that the program they want to attend no longer exists at WVU. 

This story was updated on Aug. 11, 2023, with information about the specific proposed cuts.

Duncan Slade is Mountain State Spotlight's Deputy Managing Editor