While the gray cloud of looming state budget cuts was acknowledged, the West Virginia University Board of Governors also heard today (Nov. 6) about many silver linings.

During the board’s regular meeting, Provost Joyce McConnell talked about the improving academic profile of incoming freshmen and lifted up WVU senior Clara Beth Novotny, recently named a finalist for the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. Dixie Martinelli, the classified staff representative to the board, introduced several staff members who have long years of service. President Gordon Gee discussed several initiatives throughout the state to assist struggling communities, and noted several new appointments which are helping move the University forward.

Rob Alsop, vice president for legal, government and entrepreneurial engagement, briefed the board on the state budget picture, noting that revenues are under “significant stress.”

“Through October, tax revenues are $91 million behind estimates,” he said. “Severance taxes are down by more than 41 percent and natural gas severance tax collections are down more than 35 percent. Officials have predicted a $250 million shortfall this year on a $4 billion budget.”

Therefore Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin ordered a 4 percent mid-year budget cut for state agencies, including WVU. “We fully expect this cut to carry into next year and to be a base budget,” Alsop said. “The next few years, as we move forward, will be difficult.”

University officials have said they have been preparing for a reduction and the University was well-positioned to deal with the reductions. The University’s financial leadership will present the Board a plan for dealing with the budget challenges at its December meeting.

However, Alsop said, the state’s financial challenges present WVU with an opportunity.

“It gives us, over the next several years, opportunities to help lead on some of those initiatives for a knowledge-based economy and be a helpful partner for the state as we move forward,” he said. “We’re well positioned. People are looking at the university to lead and we will continue to do that.”

McConnell reported that student academic profiles are up on all three campuses. On the main campus in Morgantown, she said the incoming freshman ACT score is up to 24, retention has risen on both the main campus and at WVU Institute of Technology and Honors College enrollment in Morgantown has ballooned nearly 30 percent from last year.

She also reported on a recent ranking by The Economist magazine of colleges and universities based on alumni earnings versus expectations. The magazine measured qualifications and demographics of students upon entering college against those students’ salaries 10 years later. WVU ranked 79th out of 1275.

She also called the board’s attention to the annual report of the Textbook Affordability Committee to the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, noting, “The viability of more affordable options, such as textbook rentals and used books, continues to grow for students looking to save money on textbook purchases. In spring 2015, these options grew to 24 percent of all textbook sales, saving students an average of 50 percent or more over new textbooks when choosing to rent or buy used.”

Martinelli presented the annual classified staff report to the board, pointing out that since 2012, the number of classified positions has declined from 3,064 to 2,679, a reduction of 385 positions. She introduced six staffers:

  • Renee Anderson, a program assistant, and Debi Cruse, a writer/editor, both from Potomac State College of WVU in Keyser, who reviewed the classified staff operations there.
  • Barbara Boyd, a senior database administrator from WVU Tech, who noted that while some current Tech staffers are concerned about the shift to Beckley, “the chance to thrive is Beckley. This is what will save us. The opportunities to grow are exponential.”
  • Kent Hastings, an electronic specialist with the Personal Rapid Transit system in Morgantown, who discussed the challenges of maintaining a 40-year-old system, including the need to make replacement parts, as well as finding qualified workers at WVU’s current compensation levels.
  • Bob Driscole, forest manager – the only one in West Virginia higher education – from the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design. He is credited with saving the University $2.6 million over the years through timber sales.
  • Nancy Bremar, a nutrition outreach instructor with the WVU Extension Service in Calhoun, Wirt and Gilmer counties. She noted that the nutrition outreach program, led by classified staff, has received $27 million in grant funding, mostly from federal sources.

Martinelli presented statistics showing that Morgantown, while considered a Top Ten Most Livable City by Kiplinger, presents economic challenges, especially to classified staff, with a 10.2 percent higher cost of living than locations of peer institutions, including 9.2 percent higher that other Big 12 schools. The housing market is also 14.2 percent higher than many major cities, she said.

Noting those economic facts, Martinelli said, “We need to ask what are we doing within our institution to improve salaries, to improve the day-to-day work environment and enrichment at our university.

“We need to make sure our classified staff is given a cost-of-living increase every year,” she said.

Gee praised the classified staff. “We have loyalty, we have passion, and people who are very, very committed,” he said. “I believe that the future of our university is in our hands.”

He encouraged the staff to come forward with suggestions to make the kind of changes they believe can help.

President’s report
During his report, Gee mentioned the University’s work in the Center for Big Ideas, which is working in Charleston, Weirton and Harpers Ferry to help those locations cope with economic challenges.

Gee also promised that as WVU Tech is moved to Beckley, “we are committed to Montgomery as an opportunity to be a force for good in that city and that part of the world.”

Gee updated the board on several recent key personnel hires, including Alumni Association Executive Director and Vice President of Alumni Relations Sean Frisbee, who will run the day-to-day affairs of the association while President Steve Douglas concentrates on fundraising. Gee called Frisbee “a prime example of our ‘Coming Home’ initiative.”

“He graduated from here 26 years ago from our aerospace engineering program,” Gee said. “Since then, he has traveled the world, helping to rebuild the Iraqi Air Force as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom and then led the development and modernization of the F-22 stealth fighter weapon system, which is a $68 billion project, and leading government and private business organizations.

Other recent hires include Roy Baker as an associate dean of students and director of Greek Life, with special emphasis on scholarship, service, leadership, friendship and safety; and Stacy Vander Velde as director of student conduct.

Other business
The Board also:

The next meeting will be Dec. 18 in Morgantown.



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