Bluefield State College President Robin Capehart didn’t come right out and say it, but the implication hung heavy in a recent speech that some professors might lose their jobs.
Capehart explained that there are now only 950 students enrolled at the public college in Mercer County, a 40 percent drop over the past seven years. And while staff numbers have dropped 30 percent in that same time, full-time faculty employment is roughly unchanged, he said.
Maybe this was inevitable. West Virginia is continually losing population but still has nine public, four-year colleges and universities, (with West Virginia University and Marshall University landing the lion’s share of in-state students) along with a host of community and technical colleges and private institutions.
And Bluefield State isn’t even the only public, four-year college in Mercer County, with Concord University only about 20 miles away. It’s possible that enrollment also took a hit because West Virginia University moved its WVU Institute of Technology from Montgomery to Beckley about two years ago, placing it within a 40-minute drive from Bluefield.
Capehart said Bluefield State is trying to raise money to build residence halls, and wants to get a football team back on the field. He defiantly rebuffed any notion of the college shutting down or merging with another school to sustain operations.
All of that is very noble, but is it realistic? Furthermore, is it possible for a state expecting to slash $100 million out of its next budget to help sustain nine four-year schools, seven of which have enrollment lower than 4,500?
Most West Virginians know, whether it’s health care, employment or education, that access is everything. It would be a shame to see any public higher-education institution close or to see any educators lose their jobs. The situation around Bluefield State is especially devastating, because of its cultural significance as a historically black college. If it were part of a merger, would it lose its identity?
Sadly, more and more West Virginia colleges and universities will be faced with these types of decisions in the immediate future.