The West Virginia State University Board of Governors voted Thursday morning in an emergency meeting to authorize laying off an unclear number of employees. Specifics regarding the personnel moves were discussed by the board during closed session.
“These people haven’t been approached by the president or HR or anybody else,” board Chairman Chuck Jones said. “Until such time as the people who occupy certain positions are approached it’s improper ... we certainly wouldn’t want to be divulging that sort of thing.”
Hours after the meeting, the university released a statement saying it plans to eliminate 16 positions.
“This reduction in force is one of several measures the university will be taking in conjunction with a hiring freeze for non-essential positions, reduced spending, and other cost saving measures,” the statement said.
After spending a little over an hour in a private teleconference, the board members returned to the public online meeting and one made a motion.
“I move that the board approve the reduction of the specific positions that were discussed in executive session and to authorize the president to conduct that reduction in force,” said board member Mark Kelley, a Charleston attorney.
Reduction in force is another term for layoff. The board then voted to approve that motion, with no further discussion. There were no dissenters.
“The vote was giving the president the authority to eliminate particular positions, which we do reluctantly,” said West Virginia State professor Frank Vaughan, the faculty representative board member.
“We gave her the authority today,” he said. “What she does with it, it’s up to her. I know she makes these decisions very carefully and reluctantly.”
He declined to give further information on the layoffs.
State law reserves emergency meetings for “addressing an unexpected event which requires immediate attention because it poses an imminent threat” or “an imminent material financial loss or other imminent substantial harm to a public agency, its employees or the members of the public which it serves.” But boards can still call special meetings, and provide a few days of public notice in advance, between regular meetings.
Asked why the board called an emergency meeting to take the action, Jones noted the next regular board meeting isn’t scheduled until Nov. 20.
Jones said Wednesday evening that Thursday’s action would only go as far as putting a proposed “workforce reduction implementation” policy out for public comment, with board approval of that possibly coming later.
Two weeks ago, the board heard suggestions from West Virginia State administrators for possible across-the-board salary reductions or, in lieu of that, a layoff of 19 unnamed people and positions. It’s unclear whether 19 was the number ultimately chosen, or whether the salary reductions aren’t coming.
At that Oct. 22 meeting, board member and attorney Katherine “Kitty” Dooley said, “In view of our current enrollment, we certainly want to get those up, but we’ve taken a double hit with coronavirus and so we have to do the responsible thing here, because the institution has to be maintained. And so I think it’s really past time for us to be looking at these serious issues.”
Vaughan, the faculty representative, questioned at that same meeting the amount of money the university was still spending on vice presidents.
New President Nicole Pride has spilt a single vice president position into separate vice presidents over enrollment management and student affairs.
“We absolutely need leadership in these critical areas,” Pride said then.
“From an operations standpoint,” she said of multiple savings ideas, “if we do what we need to do at this point in time, that creating a cash flow, the intent of that is A, to address our debt and to pay the millions of dollars of debt that we’re in, and then, second, to create a cash flow that then allows us to enhance and increase salaries, it allows us to advance the work of the institution.”