“The state of West Virginia University is strong,” President Gordon Gee said during his spring State of the University address on Monday. “And we will be even stronger in the decades to come, thanks to a concerted focus on what matters most.”
Gee, calling on the unique perspective his 42 years as a leader in higher education provides, also believes the country’s tertiary system is at a crossroads.
A declining college-aged population, lower college-going rates, rising financial costs, a national narrative questioning the value of college and lean financial and personnel structures emerged as challenges in 2019, and then the pandemic added new enrollment difficulties in 2020 and 2021.
While WVU student recruitment rebounded last year, the university also saw dramatically improved graduation rates, which resulted in a decline in total enrollment. And WVU has experienced the global inflation concerns like other colleges and universities, paying more for goods and services, personnel costs, as well as the recruitment of new faculty and staff.
As a result, WVU joins others navigating financial hurdles and projects an estimated $35 million structural budget deficit for fiscal year 2024.
“Keep in mind, the university operates a budget of $1.3 billion. A $35 million deficit equals about 3% of our total budget,” Gee said. “From a short-term financial perspective, the number is manageable.”
The WVU Board of Governors has directed Gee to lead a strategic repositioning of the entire WVU System, which he said must begin with a focus on “First Principles.”
“We must put our students first. Second, we must embrace our land-grant mission and the people we serve. And third, we must differentiate ourselves by investing in the initiatives that uniquely serve our campus community, reflect our values and play to our strengths,” Gee said.
Gee spent several weeks this winter speaking with student focus groups on the Morgantown campus. Safety, mental health resources and the cost of attendance were recurring themes.
Approximately 25% of WVU students are Pell Grant eligible, which means they have exceptional financial need.
“I am pleased to announce a new scholarship program called WVU Pledge. This last-dollar-in scholarship program will assist qualifying Promise scholars, who have an expected family contribution of zero, with their cost of tuition, fees, university housing and a meal plan,” Gee said.
“It is imperative that we remove as many barriers as possible to allow our brightest West Virginia students access to higher education. Ensuring that their basic needs are met allows them to focus on their education and their future.”
When combined with the efforts of faculty and staff in service and outreach initiatives, as well as groundbreaking research only possible at an R1 institution, students are a crucial component of the university’s land-grant mission creating a bridge between the “First Principles,” and they help to further define WVU’s unique place among its peers in higher education.
“Indeed, we are one of the few land-grant, R1 universities with a comprehensive health sciences portfolio that extends to a statewide healthcare delivery system. We are unique and we need to embrace that,” Gee said.
The Purpose Center, first announced during Gee’s 2021 State of the University address, has quickly become another point of distinction.
“Last year, the Purpose Center developed the path for us to become the only fully strengths-based university,” Gee said.
Starting this summer, every incoming first-year student and transfer student will take the Gallup CliftonStrengths assessment prior to attending New Student Orientation. Then at NSO, students will break into groups, learn more about their strengths and how to use them when they arrive on campus in the fall. Strengths will also be integrated into experiences, including Adventure West Virginia excursions, 191-level courses, residence hall life and Carruth Services, as well as special modules for upperclassmen. Parents will also learn more about the assessment and receive a co-branded Strengths parents book that will only be distributed at WVU.
“This differentiates us from the pack and provides our students with an advantage as they head into the job market,” Gee said.
These competitive advantages serve as a foundation for the changes needed to address the current structural budget shortfall, according to Gee. WVU will partner with consultants to gain new perspectives of administrative and academic portfolios and how they relate to students’ needs.
“This assessment and resulting data will lead to the development of an investment plan that establishes immediate, short-term and long-term goals, and measures for the growth of West Virginia University,” Gee said. “Among those, we will invest in academic programs that meet the needs of our students and the market.
“We will invest in initiatives that support student recruitment, retention, persistence and graduation, leading to increased student success. We will invest in student programs that provide opportunities for leadership, personal development, health and well-being, and career readiness.”
Gee also noted that a financial plan is being developed to serve the future growth and stability of the university. He said work would move forward quickly but thoughtfully — driven by data with updates shared frequently with students, faculty and staff. Gee will also continue to meet with student focus groups, and an initial Campus Conversation is planned at 11 a.m. Thursday via Zoom.
“Make no mistake, higher education is under attack. We must stand firm, and we must provide example after example of why an educated citizenry is the best path forward for our country and our state,” Gee said. “I believe we have an incredible opportunity to place our university in a position of great strength.”
Gee said he often draws inspiration for the future by thinking about why President Abraham Lincoln signed land-grant universities into being 161 years ago.
“When I dream of West Virginia University in 10 to 20 years, I see the current-day vision that President Lincoln had for us — providing an education for our students and caring for our citizens through innovative health care and life-saving research. West Virginia University can be all that we imagine — and more.”