University re-examining its priorities, resource allocations
By Don Smith
WV Press Association
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles from a WV Press Association interview with WVU President Gordon Gee on the State of West Virginia University.
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — “It is no secret that West Virginia University is facing challenging times.”
WVU President Gordon Gee made that statement during his March 27th “State of the University” address in Morgantown, speaking on campus to an audience of the university’s faculty, staff, students, guests and media.
Ironically, Gee’s statement may be reflective of the biggest challenge facing WVU and — as he noted — all higher education: The obvious facts aren’t, in fact, obvious to the general public.
While most university officials, faculty, staff, and even students may have been aware of the challenges facing WVU, Gee’s announcement of a $35 million deficit and concerns about the future direction of higher education was probably news to the many West Virginia residents, who may have thought the biggest problem at WVU was a lack of depth on the basketball team.
WVU is the state’s land-grant institution with campuses in Morgantown, Beckley and Keyser, enrollment exceeding 26,000 students, and the expanding WVU Medicine, which now operating more than 20 hospitals in the state. Troubles under the Flying WV?
Are West Virginians aware WVU, according to Gee, is at a crossroads, dealing with a demographic cliff, and currently not positioned to thrive in the future?
Apparently not. As Gee noted in his March 27th address, “I share (the news) not to alarm but to alert. We need to better understand the reality we face.”
“The state of West Virginia University is strong,” Gee said, but added this notice, “… and we will be even stronger in the decades to come, thanks to a concerted focus on what matters most.”
Recently WV Press interviewed President Gee to ask about that reality and get more details on the problem, the plans to resolve it, and find out what matters most at WVU. This is the first article in a series from that interview.
For several years, WVU has been aware of negative factors that would influence the university’s future:
- A declining college-aged population.
- A lower college-going rate.
- Rising financial costs.
- A national narrative that questioned the value of college.
Those challenges, Gee said, were greatly intensified when the COVID pandemic forced higher education “to work differently, teach differently, learn differently – all while managing the personal stress that accompanied a virus paralyzing the world.”
The COVID shutdown and restart dramatically impacted university revenue and expenses and also changed students’ priorities.
According to data from the National Student Clearinghouse, undergraduate college enrollment dropped 8 percent from 2019 to 2022, with declines continuing even after returning to in-person classes. Gee said students chose not to return to college due to a strong job market, the rising costs of attendance and a cynical perspective on education.
The Immediate Problem:
In his SOU address, Gee projected a $35-million-dollar budget deficit for Fiscal Year 2024, noting, “As we face the demographic cliff over the next five years, that deficit could grow to around $75 million based on enrollment and inflation projections.”
He said from a short-term financial perspective, the number is manageable, but from a long-term sustainability perspective, it is not unless WVU budgets strategically for the future.
In terms of the deficit, Gee said, “We are attacking the issue immediately and vigorously in order to make sure we don’t have a huge problem. … We know fundamentally we’ll have fewer programs and fewer people, but we will have a stronger institution. That is the issue.”
WVU had started addressing the budget before the SOU address. The university had already restricted some travel, hiring and spending. Gee said the school has a “frost … probably more of a freeze now” on certain spending.
However, Gee said WVU’s actions moving forward will be broader. “We are putting into place the kinds of things that will have an immediate action to allow us … to make certain this budget deficit doesn’t grow. If we don’t do anything, our … budget deficit will grow to $75 million. … I don’t want any growth in this (budget deficit). I want it to diminish as quickly as we can over time. “
“My message is, ‘I’m sorry we have this deficit. I really am … I didn’t think I would spend my golden years dealing with the transformation of a university. On the other hand, if we are the kind of institution I think we are, and have enough wisdom, we will come out of this a stronger institution.’ That’s not just … me being overly enthusiastic. It allows us to make the kind of decisions that we should have been making — that we probably haven’t done over time — in order to put ourselves back into a very positive investment position. “
In his SOU address, Gee said, “We will invest in our strengths – both in programs and in talent. Every unit will examine their priorities to ensure we are investing wisely. Armed with that data, we also will need to make the difficult decision to stop investing in those things that no longer meet our expectations.”
Talking with WV Press, Gee said, “I don’t ever use the words ‘budget cut.’ We do have reductions we have to make, but I really talk about where we are going to wisely use our dollars for investment so that we can grow. … The institutions that are in very serious problems are the ones who don’t have a vision for their future and who continue to invest. …”
Gee said, in many ways, WVU doesn’t have a resource problem. “We have a resource allocation problem,” Gee said, noting the issue was common among universities and colleges. “We tend to get beyond our boundaries and invest in a whole bunch of things without thinking them through very strategically. “
Gee explained the role of a land grant university is to create ideas that then create jobs.
“This is exactly what we are doing,” Gee said.
Citing a united universities effort, Gee said WVU and Marshall, with President Brad Smith, are working together to build an educational system and create jobs the educational system can support.
“We are going to grow ourselves out of the budget deficit in many ways,” Gee said. “That is exactly the way I think about it. If we just shut down, then we will shut down.”
Gee said WVU will not resolve the issue by seeking additional funding from the West Virginia Legislature or through large tuition increases.
“The legislature this year has been our partner. They have been very generous … They have supported our move to build one of the great cancer centers in the country. I can’t go to the legislature and say bail us out. We are going to bail ourselves out and we are going to be their partners in creating the kind of economic atmosphere in this state so that all of us grow,” Gee said.
“We do not intend on getting out of our budget deficit by doing it on the backs of students and families, Gee said, adding that any tuition and housing increase would be very modest and offset by financial aid increases.
Having been a university president for a long time, Gee said he knows how to address budget deficits. The university operates on a budget of $1.3 billion dollars, so the $35-million-dollar deficit equals about 3 percent of the total budget.
Gee said his experience also gives him insight into the bigger issues: “This is a different era, different kind of students. We’ve got a demographic cliff. We’ve got the great drop out. We’ve got the quiet quitting. We’ve just been through a pandemic. The world is upside down.”
To position for the future, Gee said WVU must focus on what matters most, what he calls the university’s “First Principles.”
First – Focus on the students: “We focus on our students. Our students will be the first priority.”
Second – Embrace the land-grant mission and the people of the state. “We are very blessed to be one of this nation’s most important land-grant institutions. (We are) about community building, making lives better for people in the state, about service, about extension and engagement. … Because of the fact we are in a very small state with this large land-grant institution, we have an inordinate opportunity to impact the quality of life here in West Virginia.”
Third – Differentiation. Gee said WVU must play to the strengths that exist at the university and in the state of West Virginia. “We are going to differentiate ourselves based upon who we are, what we can do, and, therefore, that will help to attract and retain the type of students, faculty and staff that we want to have.”
“Our pathway is pretty simple in my view,” Gee said.
Asked if WVU lost sight of its priorities, Gee said, “We have not exhibited the kind of discipline necessary to make sure that we keep ourselves focused on our strengths.”
Asked about his role, Gee said COVID was his biggest challenge. “If I give myself fault, I would say I didn’t anticipate how quickly this pandemic could impact everything we were doing. I was just caught up in a pandemic.”
Gee said he has certainly made mistakes while serving as president of WVU, although he doesn’t think he has made any big mistakes. “You are going to make mistakes, but you correct them, you live with them, and you move on. That is exactly what I have done.”
Gee said, obviously, he would prefer not to have a $35 million budget deficit, but “what it does do, is require all of us to think very clearly about what our future is going to look like.”