Smart Cuts at West Virginia University

By right-sizing its operations, WVU is embracing reality.

In the face of shrinking enrollment and a $45 million budget deficit, West Virginia University (WVU) has made the responsible decision to cut many low-productivity programs across the institution. Its actions should be a model for struggling universities across the country.

The cuts are part of WVU’s Academic Transformation efforts, which began in 2021. The program is intended to “align our resources to support and invest in areas of growth and opportunity and identify areas where we can have greater impact and be more effective.” Since then, several programs across the campus have been recommended for elimination by the Provost’s Office. Earlier this year, WVU raised tuition by three percent and cut expenses by roughly $10 million in an effort to fill its budget deficit. It also implemented a hiring freeze and decreased budgets for supplies, printing, employee hospitality, and most travel.

But even before then, WVU had been making strategic decisions to be more efficient. According to the WVU Government Relations Office, the university shrunk its non-faculty staff by approximately 509 positions between October 2015 and October 2022, from 4,068 to 3,559. The cuts were made through “a series of transformation efforts over that period of time,” according to an email made available to the Martin Center.

As the pool of academically prepared high-school graduates continues to shrink, more universities will be faced with challenges similar to those at WVU.The latest round of cuts began with preliminary recommendations, on August 11, to discontinue 32 programs, most of them on the graduate level. A few of the programs to be eliminated are the MA and PhD programs in higher-education administration and master’s programs in acting, collaborative piano, and jazz pedagogy. Final recommendations will be made on August 18.

According to WVU’s press release, the provost’s preliminary recommendations “also included 169 potential faculty line reductions, or 7% of total faculty in Morgantown.” The cuts will affect a smaller percentage of students: “147 undergraduate students and 287 graduate students, representing approximately less than 2% of total student enrollment,” according to WVU.

The university’s website explains how programs were identified for elimination:

The goals are to create a more focused academic program portfolio aligned with student demand, career opportunities and market trends that also serves our land-grant and research missions, while retaining our R1 classification; and to ensure that the programs in the portfolio are being delivered as effectively and efficiently as possible.

These actions are in keeping with the WVU Board of Governors’ rules on program creation and review, which require the board to review programs at least every five years, focusing on, at minimum, “a) mission, b) faculty productivity, c) student enrollment and graduation history, d) facilities and equipment, f) assessment, and g) program improvement.”

As the pool of academically prepared high-school graduates continues to shrink, more universities will be faced with challenges similar to those at WVU. Many are already facing shrinking enrollment and budget deficits. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, “Between fall 2010 and fall 2021, total undergraduate enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions decreased by 15 percent (from 18.1 million to 15.4 million students).” Management consultant McKinsey & Company projects that “declining birth rates will reduce the number of high school graduates starting in 2025.”

WVU’s plan to “right-size” its staff and academic programs should be a model for other campuses to follow.

Jenna A. Robinson is the president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.