WEST LIBERTY, W.Va. — Dozens of West Liberty University students placed handmade pottery on the stage during a faculty meeting Wednesday to protest proposed building closures that would impact some of the school’s fine arts programs.
During a Board of Governors meeting last week, Jack Wright, the university’s chief financial officer, proposed closing three buildings: College Hall, which houses a 450-seat music recital hall; the Annex building, which houses the ceramics studio; and Shotwell Hall, a faculty office building. The closings were presented as a cost-saving measure as enrollment is expected to drop 5 percent or more for the coming academic year.
In response, students rallied Wednesday to let the administration know they opposed the potential closures.
“By taking our art away, you pretty much take a part of us,” said Carley Mike, one of the students involved in Wednesday’s protest. “Our art is part of our soul.”
As he stood behind a podium surrounded by ceramic artwork of all shapes, sizes and colors, interim university president John McCullough told faculty and students gathered in Kelly Theater that no final decisions have been made about the facilities. He added the students’ message has been received loud and clear.
“The building closures were included as a possible option regarding budget cutting,” he said. “Other options are now being considered to offset the cost savings associated with closing those buildings.”
In addition to his comments during Wednesday’s faculty meeting, McCullough also sent the following message to students and staff via campus-wide email:
“The decision to close College Hall and the ceramics studio is not final. At this time, options and alternatives are being reviewed as relates to those facilities. Nothing will be done to jeopardize our outstanding academic programs in art and music,” he wrote. “I firmly believe a practical and workable resolution will be developed so as to effectively serve our students and faculty in those programs. We will work to expedite a resolution and to inform you as soon as possible.”
McCullough’s words were of some comfort to faculty members who were caught off guard by Wright’s proposal.
“The president shook my hand and said don’t worry, we will take care of this,” said ceramics instructor Lambros Tsuhlares.
Brian Fencl, chairman of WLU’s Department of Journalism, Communication Studies and Visual Art, however, called the lack of communication with faculty members about the possible changes “unacceptable.”
“I was stunned, because we did not know it was coming,” he said. “It was never discussed with us.”
Although the closure of College Hall wouldn’t mean the end of the school’s music program, Fencl believes the loss of its auditorium could jeopardize its accreditation.
“They have to have performance space, storage space, adequate practice space,” he said. “Kelly Theater is not a musical space.”
An online petition started Tuesday evening urging WLU to keep the facilities open had received almost 900 signatures in less than 24 hours. WLU ceramics instructor Lambros Tsuhlares said the students’ outpouring of support for the school’s fine arts programs during Wednesday’s meeting meant a lot to him.
“I think it was wonderful. It was heartwarming,” he said. “It brought a tear to my eye, it really did.”
Wright did not attend the meeting, but Vice President of Finance Stephanie Hooper was on hand to speak about the school financial challenges. In October, she said, WLU was looking at a projected $1 million budget deficit, but thanks to a variety of mid-year cuts she’s confident the university will be in the black at fiscal year’s end.
“We do have a balanced budget for next year, and it’s all of our jobs to make sure that we get there,” Hooper said.’s
Pre-registration for the fall 2015 semester is lagging behind expectations, McCullough said. He attributed that to a number of factors, including area population loss and declining enrollment at West Virginia Northern Community College which as a two-year institution often serves as a “feeder school” for WLU.
McCullough also said the college will graduate 390 students in May – 10 percent larger than a year ago.
“That’s a good thing, but the challenge will be to replace those students with incoming freshmen and transfers,” he said.