WVU Vice President for Strategic Initiatives Rob Alsop speaks to a committee of lawmakers on Monday. Photo by Perry Bennett/WV Legislative Photography.

Facing a $45 million budget shortfall and declining enrollment, West Virginia University administrators announced plans last month to discontinue some degree programs and lay off faculty. The list of programs to be cut or pared back, they said, was based on student demand.

But it was also based on another factor: the state’s higher education funding formula. 

Through a law passed last year, state lawmakers changed how West Virginia’s public colleges and universities are funded and now, have been able to indirectly influence the decision-making for the budget cuts. 

“As we worked through the programs that we’ve recommended for reduction or discontinuance, we were guided by the state’s funding formula,” Rob Alsop, vice president for strategic initiatives at WVU, told lawmakers on Monday.

The new performance-based funding formula rewards universities and colleges that help students work towards and complete their degrees on-time, particularly for students who are over 25, low-income or unprepared coming out of high school. 

But the formula also particularly prizes degrees that are designated as state priorities for workforce development, including engineering, health care, social work, education, computer science and transportation. 

Lawmakers view a presentation on WVU’s budget on Monday during an interim committee meeting. Photo by Perry Bennett/WV Legislative Photography.

And those state priorities are reflected in WVU’s proposed cuts. Academic programs that are bringing in large numbers of students — and valuable tuition dollars — have largely been spared. Programs that the state had deemed as priorities will see some layoffs, but just one of 18 will be discontinued.

In a nearly hour-long presentation, Alsop vigorously defended the proposed budget cuts and assured lawmakers that there was plenty to be proud of at WVU. Research revenue is up, many robust degree programs are still being offered and WVU is still a “comprehensive university,” he said.

“Rumors of our demise have been greatly exaggerated,” Alsop said.

The proposed cuts have brought significant blowback. Last week, faculty called a rare assembly and overwhelmingly passed a symbolic resolution calling for administrators to pause the budget cuts. They also overwhelmingly passed a vote of no confidence in President Gordon Gee’s leadership.

Despite this, state lawmakers have been supportive of the cuts.

“Under President Gee, WVU has embraced a future that treats higher education as an economic development driver,” said Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, in an opinion piece last week.

He said that the new funding formula — developed by officials from West Virginia’s two-year and four-year higher education institutions — has required schools to focus on training the state’s workforce, saying that WVU is a “true success story” by examining its programs and making difficult decisions.

While the root of WVU’s budget deficit is largely declining enrollment, it’s been compounded by the fact that the university’s budget has become more dependent upon tuition dollars over the last decade as state funding has declined

“Our biggest revenue is the tuition we generate from our students,” Alsop said. “We have to have academic programs that drive enrollment.” 

To improve its financial situation, WVU is focused on both recruiting more students overall and performing well in the funding formula to get more state money. 70% of WVU’s state appropriation will remain unaffected by the formula; the remaining 30% is dependent on its performance.

Gee was scheduled to speak to lawmakers at Monday’s meeting, but begged off, relaying a message that he had to stay in Morgantown because of a personal matter. After Alsop’s presentation, lawmakers asked some questions but few were hard-hitting. Several said they were reassured and recognized how difficult the cuts would be for faculty and administrators. The school has estimated around 150 faculty positions will be eliminated. 

Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, asks a question during a legislative interim meeting on Monday. Photo by Perry Bennett/WV Legislative Photography.

“I appreciate the disruptive task that you’re undertaking,” said Senate Finance Committee chairman Eric Tarr, R-Putnam. 

Tarr has been a vocal supporter of the WVU cuts, saying that administrators are doing what was asked of them by the funding formula: providing degrees that lead to jobs.

Asked by a delegate whether WVU had enough money in its coffers to weather the budget shortfall, Alsop drew a laugh from the assembled lawmakers, saying: “If the Legislature would decide, in its infinite wisdom, to provide additional money to West Virginia University, we would take it.”

But, he quickly added that one-time funding would not change the declining enrollment that has caused this budget deficit. And that the school is prepared to meet the priorities dictated by the new funding formula.

“What we have been told is: ‘If we want more money, succeed on the funding formula,’” Alsop said.

Duncan Slade is Mountain State Spotlight's Deputy Managing Editor