Education officials confident in WVU Tech's revival
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- State education officials said Thursday that they were confident they could overcome major hurdles in saving West Virginia University Institute of Technology from a perfect storm of plummeting enrollment, deteriorating campus infrastructure, and a multi-million dollar budget hole.
"It's going to be a big challenge," said David Hendrickson of the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission and part of the 11-member Tech Revitalization team. "We're going to rework some programs and deal with deteriorating buildings to get Tech back on track."
Tech is reeling from a $5.6 million budget deficit caused by dramatic declines in student enrollment. The Montgomery campus' financial struggles caught the eye of the West Virginia Legislature last year, which commissioned a report released in October that laid out a series of broad recommendations to save the beleaguered institution.
The Tech Revitalization report said dramatically increasing enrollment at Tech -- which hovered at only 1,110 students this year -- was integral to the school's survival and said the campus needed $5 to $7 million a year for the next five years to improve campus facilities and academics and as much as $100 million down the road.
"The bottom line is that WVU Tech cannot recruit students without significant improvements," said the report. "Without recruiting, enrollment losses will occur to the point where WVU Tech cannot operate unless WVU keeps providing additional support. That would and should be a completely unrealistic expectation."
In November, the Legislature approved the Revitalization Report, but refused to fund the improvement plan.
Thursday's meeting in Montgomery was the first time the 11-member revitalization team publicly discussed the grim statistics and significant challenges Tech faces in the upcoming months. About 100 members of the public attended the event.
Carolyn Long, who stepped in as chief executive for Tech last year, said the struggling Montgomery campus needs to focus on the "3 R's" -- recruiting, retaining and rebuilding -- to see significant improvement.
In recent years, Tech has seen low student-retention rates -- and the school is ringed by counties that have some of the lowest college-going rates in West Virginia, which makes for a difficult recruiting environment.
Hendrickson said one of the biggest challenges the school faces in upcoming months is to find a way to plug a multimillion-dollar budget deficit or be forced to send tuition and student fees "through the roof."
Tech's financial problems have snowballed since March 2010, the month that Tech literally "ran out of cash," said Ed Magee, vice chancellor for finance for the Higher Education Policy Commission. WVU has propped up the school since that point, providing Tech with more than $9.2 million to keep the Montgomery campus afloat.
Tech's budget shortfall is projected to continue into the 2012 fiscal year, with an additional pinch of about $2.2 million.
Addressing Tech's crippling infrastructure problems also was a major subject of Thursday's discussions. A May 2011 report said Tech needs more than $70 million to address failing campus facilities and safety issues.
More than 80 percent of the buildings on campus were built more than 25 years ago, Magee said. One of the buildings is slated for demolition in the upcoming months.
Mostafa Shaaban, an economics professor at Tech since 1968, said he applauds efforts to turn around the school, but that any improvement plan must tackle the root cause of Tech's problems: a lack of program offerings.
"History courses are gone, education classes are wiped out, and we complain about a lack of students," said Shaaban. "We say we want to be an engineering school, but we don't have the other courses to support engineering."
"Money is the ultimate problem, and money comes with enrollment," Shaaban continued. "Well, enrollment comes with programs."
HEPC Chancellor Paul Hill said members of the revitalization team will prioritize which aspects of the Tech improvement plan -- enrollment, campus improvements and student life -- to emphasize to the Legislature for funding considerations.
Gail Harlan, chairwoman of the Take Back Tech Committee, a group that formed in 2006 and pushed to keep the campus based in Montgomery, said discussions about Tech's revival are exactly what the struggling school needs.
"We needed this to let people know that Tech is still alive," said Harlan. "This school, it's for coal miners' children. All those [Southern coalfield] counties feed into Tech. For families that don't have a lot of money to send their kids to college, Tech is their college, and we're going to fix it."
Reach Amy Julia Harris at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4814.