Higher Education Day at the West Virginia Capitol brought few answers for college presidents looking to learn how much their state appropriations might be cut in the coming year.
As the House of Delegates honored several college presidents Wednesday morning, a plan from Republicans to balance the state budget loomed in the background. Announcing a plan that cut about $390 million from the current budget, lawmakers said cuts to higher education will come later this year.
“It’s a bit of a paradox, I guess, to have them say how great we’re doing on the one hand, then want to cut us 20 percent on the other,” Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert said. “I guess I don’t quite understand that. I think you can always cut things, and I don’t think they’re fully thinking out what a severe cut would mean.”
Gilbert said any cuts of that magnitude would force the university to enact a “tremendous” tuition increase of 15 percent to 20 percent, or roughly $1,400 more a year for in-state students.
“We will weather the cuts, sure, but I think the quality of education is going to suffer as a result,” he said. “I don’t think they’re necessarily thinking about it like that. We’re not a business. To just think that we can scale down like we do in a private business is not a good analogy.”
Had Marshall’s appropriations not been repeatedly cut year after year, Gilbert said, a 20 percent cut in one year would be more manageable. Since 2013, the school’s state appropriations were cut by more than $11 million.
When Marshall last raised its tuition, in June, the school’s Board of Governors approved a 5 percent increase, the highest increase a college can implement without seeking approval from the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission.
Under the school’s late president, Stephen Kopp, Marshall launched an initiative to find ways to trim its budget. Since then, Gilbert said, the school has eliminated 136 positions. That might save money, but it means some employees have seen significant increases in their workload.
“Higher education is clearly the best, if not one of the best, returns on investment the state is getting right now,” West Virginia University President Gordon Gee said. “If you think about reducing budgets across the board, that is a formula for mediocrity. No one wins; everyone loses.”
Gee has dealt with similar cuts to WVU’s state appropriations for the past several years. He couldn’t say how much he’s expecting to be cut this year.
“I don’t know,” Gee said. “That’s the reason I’m here. I’m not going to give out any estimate, because I don’t have one. I do know that they [lawmakers] have a dilemma, and my best guess of what we do is we develop an understanding on the investment. If you invest in the university, you’re going to return prosperity to the state.
“I just don’t get into any speculation about budgetary reductions,” he added. “I don’t believe in them.”
What would a 20 percent cut to the school’s state appropriations do? Gee said tuition would increase upward of 23 percent — a situation he described as “unthinkable.”
In October, Gee announced that the university plans to reduce its spending by $45 million by 2020. In an email sent out around the same time, he told students to expect a 5 percent tuition increase each year leading up to then.
“We have too many rules, too many regulations, too many people trying to second guess our board of governors,” Gee said. “We need to make higher education simple and responsive here.”
Gee said Gov. Jim Justice is writing a “higher education restructuring bill” that would lessen some of the “reporting requirements” WVU has.
Previously, leaders of the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine wanted to become a private institution. After Justice spoke out against that and offered to work with that school, Marshall and WVU on legislation to give the schools “more autonomy,” administrators reversed course and said they no longer want to privatize.
Justice has not yet introduced a higher education restructuring bill.
Another measure, House Bill 2542, gives broad authority for schools to set their own policies for hiring and firing employees and how much they should be compensated. It would eliminate the “bumping rights” of classified employees and allow some colleges to consider not only employee seniority when considering layoffs, but also job performance, skill set and other parameters set by each college’s board of governors.
The Senate approved that bill and sent it to the governor’s desk Tuesday morning. When asked if Justice supports HB 2542 and what his plans are for future higher education bills, press secretary Grant Herring said by email, “The Governor wants to reduce bureaucracy across the board and let our colleges and universities innovate without state government getting in their way.”
“As the amount of [financial] support goes down, it would be better to have less regulation. But having less regulation doesn’t account for or give us any way to compensate for the tremendous reduction they are proposing,” Gilbert said. “There’s nothing they can do to give us freedom that’s going to help us generate that kind of revenue other than raise tuition.”