WVU faculty, students organizing amid looming cuts to programs and jobs

‘It seems there’s no way to argue against this and be heard’

By: - July 20, 2023 9:01 pm
A red brick building with a clock tower in the center sit behind a gold sign that says "home" with the "o" replaced with West Virginia University's Flying WV logo.

Woodburn Hall on the downtown campus of West Virginia University in Morgantown, West Virginia. (Lexi Browning | West Virginia Watch)

As West Virginia University is weighing faculty and academic program cuts, a group of campus employees is hoping to have a voice in the future of the state’s largest public university.

WVU is grappling with an estimated $45 million budget gap for the coming year. 

In response, the university has cut staff and raised tuition almost 3%. About half of its academic programs are under review, possibly to be scaled back or eliminated, including education, math and law, as administration looks to make up for the budget shortfall. Hundreds of faculty positions will be under review, too.

West Virginia Campus Workers, a group of campus employees and students, met in person and virtually Thursday evening to discuss how to join together to respond to the administration’s plan. They feel largely left out of the discussion, and some say they had no warning the funding shortfall was coming before the news went public in the spring.

“It seems there’s no way to argue against this and be heard. People want to have a stake in what happens,” said Ron Dulaney Jr., an associate professor of Interior Architecture who attended the meeting. “If we can speak collectively, then our voices will be heard.”

Anyone who receives a paycheck from the university is eligible to join West Virginia Campus Workers, including faculty, student workers and part-time workers. 

West Virginia University’s governing board plans to slash 12 graduate and doctorate programs. Departments under review were identified through enrollment trends since 2018, according to officials

University officials earlier this month said they had identified 590 full-time faculty member positions they will review under the departments up for evaluation. Later this month, the Board of Governors is expected to vote on a faculty and classified staff severance package schedule. 

“We can no longer afford to be in our discrete pockets of populations. I would like for us to stop being used to being ignored,” said Lisa Di Bartolomeo, a teaching professor of Russian Studies.

“This is going to affect a lot more people than in this room,” she added. 

WVU President E. Gordon Gee and top university officials have pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic and declining college attendance rates and student population along with a recent price hike in state health insurance premiums as reasons behind the financial crisis. However, data shows that the university has done little to slow its spending over the years despite college enrollment declining before the pandemic. 

“I am confident that we will get through these next few challenging months because I believe in West Virginia University,” Gee wrote earlier this month in a letter to faculty and students.

Speakers at Thursday’s meeting pushed back on many parts of the university’s narrative; R. Scott Crishlow, an associate professor of Political Science, said that despite declining enrollment, many of the university’s programs are profitable. Speakers agreed that, ultimately, the budget cuts will hurt West Virginia kids the most.

Leaders in departments up for review are currently in the process of a self evaluation that includes data on enrollment, faculty to student ratio and credit hours; the information will be turned over to university officials. 

Di Bartolomeo and other faculty members have taken to social media asking students and graduates for support in preserving their programs. Preliminary recommendations for potential changes will be made to departments by Aug. 11, and appeals will be heard starting later that month, according to the Associated Press.

“People really want to help and care, and yet there’s not really a space in the self study that we’re going to use to save our programs for the student voice, for the alumni voice and for the community voice,” Di Bartolomeo said. 

Dulaney added, “When we start to eliminate programs, we start to eliminate education opportunities for young people in our state. That’s the immediate impact.”

Delegate Evan Hansen, a Democrat who represents the Morgantown area, attended the meeting. He emphasized that, despite the university’s metrics for program evaluations, ultimately, the decision would be “calls made by administrators.” He encouraged faculty, staff and students to be involved in upcoming university meetings.

“The final results are not going to pop up out of the metrics,” he said. ”Those opportunities to weigh in as people make those decisions are going to be really important.”

Earlier this week, Democrat members in the House of Delegates asked Gov. Jim Justice for a special legislative session in August in part to address a “higher education funding crisis,” possibly with the state’s $1.8 billion fiscal surplus. 

The West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy has pointed to the state Legislature’s reduced levels of funding for higher education as a driving factor in WVU’s current funding shortfall. 

“We believe with the surplus that is available now that some of that money should be used to stabilize funding at WVU,” Hansen said. 

Sindupa De Silva, a doctoral student and president of the WVU Graduate and Professional Student Senate, also pushed back on the university’s new “SEVIS Fee” required of international graduate students at the university. The fee is $200 per semester along with $100 for summer enrollment. De Silva argued that the fee will force international students to pay more to study and would harm already struggling graduate workers while raising only $320,000 for the university. International students face strict employment guidelines under visa restrictions.

“Do we want to let the university paint this picture that education has a paywall?” he asked. “Most of us don’t know where we’re going to get this money from.”


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Amelia Ferrell Knisely
Amelia Ferrell Knisely

Amelia is an investigative reporter for West Virginia Watch. Her coverage regularly focuses on poverty, child welfare, social services and government.