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WVU VP to lawmakers: Gee’s role is secure

CHARLESTON — As West Virginia University continues cutbacks — and the week after an overwhelming no-confidence vote on President Gordon Gee — the university’s vice president of strategic initiatives addressed state lawmakers.

Rob Alsop defended the decisions by university officials. He said the university would certainly accept more state funds if offered, but concluded that wouldn’t resolve structural problems over time. And he said Gee is secure as the leader for the foreseeable future.

Gee had been on the agenda to speak before the Joint Standing Committee on Finance during interim meetings Monday, but he did not do so.

“I do want to apologize. President Gee had a personal matter that he had to attend to. He loves coming down to the Legislature and he’ll be back in a flash,” Alsop said.

Delegate Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, asked about Gee’s longer-term status and wondered if the university should start a search process for a new president.

Referring to the many constituencies of a university including administration, faculty, staff and students, Rowe said, “all those moving parts have to come together at some point and look to the future. And I’m wondering if the university or administration or perhaps the Board of Governors will be looking to establish a national presidential search.”

Alsop noted that WVU’s Board of Governors voted at the end of July to extend Gee’s contract by an additional year to 2025 and punctuated that by concluding “he is our president.”

“The assertion is that there’s going to be some sort of change, and I want to address that,” Alsop said. “First, our board when they saw the financial challenges — and we brought them to them earlier this year, and we’ve been talking about enrollment — our board directed us to go through this academic transformation.

“And so I know there are faculty upset with some of those specific recommendations. But the fact is, our board asked us to go through this process. And if you look at the recommendations we’ve made, we have focused on lower enrollment programs. The board may disagree moving forward, but no one has come forward and said this enrollment loss is not real or these deficits are not something that do not need to be addressed.”

The Board of Governors, whose members are named by the governor and approved by the state Senate, meet later this week and will vote on proposed academic changes. The Board of Governors put out a statement last week expressing support for Gee and the move toward change.

“Our president has the full support, I believe, or significant support with our Board of Governors. They asked for this. They’ll consider it on Friday, what they do going forward. President Gee’s current contract is set to expire on June 30, 2025,” Alsop said.

“I do fully believe, to specifically answer your question, as it gets to the end of President Gee’s tenure that our board will do a full national search to get the very best president of our university that they possibly can. And I would be deeply disappointed and shocked if our board did not do that. But they’ll do that as we work through a thoughtful transition at the end of the president’s term.”

West Virginia University faces an estimated budget shortfall of $45 million, which it is aiming to address through tuition increases, the use of financial reserves and by cutting employees and programs.

Rowe asked if WVU’s steps are getting the deficit under control or if the university still needs “some infusion of cash flow from the Legislature.”

Alsop said the university would accept help, but he expressed doubt that a one-time allocation would resolve financial problems over time.

“So if the Legislature would decide in its wisdom to provide additional money to West Virginia University, we would take it,” Alsop said.

He added, “We’ve been asked, ‘Well, why didn’t you just go and ask the Legislature for $45 million and just solve the problem?’ If I thought there was a realistic opportunity to get another $50 million or $60 million in base funding every year for WVU, we would have been down here. But one-time funding is not going to fix the enrollment challenges long-term.”

With just a one-time allocation, he said, “in a year we would have to do this process again unless something that we’re unaware of changes. So we would be grateful for additional monies. What we have been told, I think, is if we want more money succeed under the funding formula.”

WVU completed an appeals process last week for announced program changes, making some alterations to programs and numbers of faculty to be cut back.

Alsop characterized the cuts as a fraction of the university’s overall academic offerings, in line with a higher education funding formula established by the Legislature.

“I’ve heard a lot of comments that after the restructuring that humanities will essentially be gone, that students attending WVU won’t receive a well-rounded education,” said Delegate Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson.

“As a product of a liberal arts education myself, if I thought that was true, I would certainly be concerned. But I think your presentation here and other information I’ve seen seems to fly in the face of that.”

Alsop focused his response on cutbacks in the World Languages programs, saying some offerings such as Russian, German, Chinese and Spanish have relatively low enrollment.

“We initially proposed that, given the lower enrollment, that we would eliminate all of those programs,” Alsop said. “But after hearing from our students and our faculty, we’ve actually reinstated, I think it’s five faculty who will teach Spanish and Chinese.”