Editorials, Opinion

Can WVU avoid the austerity spiral?

As West Virginia University faces a $45 million shortfall — and a potential $75 million deficit over the next several years — its top leadership has approved a “reduction in force” and has already started combining programs and colleges to cut costs. 

We understand the need for some belt-tightening, but the university’s proposed actions seem to be trimming from the wrong areas. We’re afraid that WVU will be starting a higher-education version of an “austerity spiral”: cost-cutting measures meant to reduce deficit but that ultimately hinder growth and make the deficit worse. 

WVU’s administration has repeatedly cited decreased student enrollment as the primary culprit for the unexpected shortfall. However, eliminating programs means fewer students. Now, we understand that there’s a balance — is the program generating enough revenue to offset the cost of running it? — but if the problem is bodies in seats, fewer programs won’t help. 

The bigger problem is going to be reductions in faculty. The wording of the RIF means virtually any faculty member could see their job on the chopping block. Plus, it’s unfair to ask fewer faculty to shoulder an increasing burden, which will lead to more stress and burnout. Faculty who are stretched too thin can’t give enough attention and effort to everything demanded of them, resulting in poor performance in all areas: teaching, mentorship, grading, research, publication, etc. 

Good faculty is any university’s greatest asset. Students may complain about food, accommodations and recreation, but the instructors they encounter on their academic journey are far more influential on a student’s decision to stay in a program — or at a university — or go. 

That, and cost. Just as the university has to decide if a program is worth its cost, students will have to decide if WVU — with fewer professors and fewer programs — is worth the constantly ballooning price tag, as tuition, room and board (both on and off campus) become more and more expensive. 

This is where we fear the austerity spiral kicks in: WVU reduces degrees, classes and faculty to save money and increases tuition (because tuition always increases). Fewer students choose WVU because it no longer offers the degree program they wanted, they’ve heard class quality is declining and the price keeps rising; current students also see a decrease in quality, while the cost goes up year-to-year, so they leave. The university’s revenue goes down because of lower enrollment, so it initiates further cost-cutting measures, including eliminating more programs and laying off more faculty, and raises tuition, room and board. 

And the cycle repeats until WVU fails or is forced to beg for a bailout (which it’s unlikely to receive from a Republican-controlled Legislature).  

Instead of reducing teaching faculty or asking administrators to take a pay cut, we recommend WVU’s highest paid staff and faculty take a pay freeze for the next five years. This would communicate to the rest of the staff that the university’s leaders are truly invested in WVU’s continued success and sustainability.