West Virginia University is potentially facing a $45 million budget deficit in the next fiscal year, and considering its current tuition and enrollment trends, that gulf can grow past $70 million in the next five years.
As a result, President Gordon Gee is merging the College of the Creative Arts and Reed College of Media, heralding it as a “creative and innovative” transformation that recognizes its purpose to slash costs and improve administrative efficiency. The merger is “part of a strategic repositioning of the entire WVU System for success in a challenging collegiate landscape,” according to the announcement.
The college merger is the second announced in two years. WVU combined the College of Physical Activity and Sports Sciences and the College of Education and Human Services in May 2021 for similar reasons. Both mergers derive from a 2020 meeting between Gee and the Board of Governors, where the president urged the university to take proactive steps amid the public’s more skeptical outlook on higher education.
“The reality is we need to improve quality while we decrease costs. We need to differentiate ourselves in the marketplace and make WVU a destination institution,” Gee said. “My charge is not meant to instill anxiety—it is meant to inspire us to be better, to do better.“
University officials were transparent about the fact that some layoffs might occur and would be based on performance, qualifications and seniority. Consequently, some university faculty don’t feel as optimistic about the innovation.
In an open letter written to the board the same day the school announced the merger, they took issue with Rule 4.7 – Reduction in Force (RIF), which provides WVU more leeway in firing tenure-track faculty without involvement from peers. They also pointed out that RIF doesn’t protect employment on the terms described by officials.
“It is one thing to restructure and reorganize due to a budget crisis and another to use that crisis to transform institutional structures in ways that could well jeopardize WVU’s academic quality and freedom, while implementing exploitative labor conditions for faculty and staff for the foreseeable future,” the employees wrote.
However, it seems WVU is stuck between a rock and a hard place. During President Gee’s 2020 charge, Vice President for Strategic Initiatives Rob Alsop explained that measures taken so far at WVU to reduce spending have helped the school avoid large-scale layoffs or reductions in force.
How did the Mountaineers get here?
WVU’s budget woes derive from the usual suspects affecting the rest of the higher education landscape: Declining student enrollment, increased competition and lackluster long-term state funding. The West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy found that if the state had maintained the same funding as it did a decade ago, WVU would have had another $37.6 million in state funding for the upcoming fiscal year.
While one higher education company recognized the nation’s overall jump in state-funded higher education in 2021, it ultimately attributed it to pandemic-related federal support. Despite the positive blip, they predict the majority of colleges and universities to be financially vulnerable in the next three years, including public R1 research universities such as WVU.
The Provost’s Office will propose the merger to the board on June 23.