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On the Brink

October 13, 2011

West Virginia University Institute of Technology is more than 100 years old -- but its future is uncertain without a huge infusion of state funds.

The state’s legislature passed a bill earlier this year that kick-started an analysis of the faltering institution, whose struggles include flagging enrollment, dire financial issues and a need for major infrastructure upgrades.

The West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission and a team of experts on Tuesday presented a 37-page report to the legislature, which calls for a short-term injection of $35 million into the four-year institution's budget and a long-term investment of about $100 million to save the institution, which many locals simply call “Tech.”

Previously called the West Virginia Institute of Technology, Tech became a regional campus of West Virginia University in 1996 and a full divisional campus in 2007.

Brian Noland, chancellor of the state commission, said that the institution's budget has been in the red for nearly 18 months. Tech receives about $2.3 million annually from the WVU system, according to the report.

“Many of the challenges Tech is facing are similar to other small regional institutions in rural America,” Noland said. “These challenges are not unique to West Virginia.”

Noland said the region’s population loss, coupled with improvements in transportation that make it easier for students in the less-populated central part of the state to travel to other West Virginia colleges, has played a part in the institution’s issues. But these aren't the only damaging factors that some Tech loyalists see; members of an advocacy group, Take Back Tech, blame the campus's money issues on leadership problems.

Whatever the cause, the situation poses a major problem for a state that, like many others, faces severe budget limitations. Is a $100 million infusion realistic in an era when public higher education budgets are being cut drastically across the nation? West Virginia allocated a total of $309.8 million to all of its public colleges in the current fiscal year, and it faces a $200 million budget gap over all in 2013.

Noland concedes the committee's recommended solution is a daunting number, but he said it is still too early to tell what is and is not feasible. A plan of action will probably emerge from the state’s Legislative Oversight Committee on Higher Education Accountability review of the report at its November meeting.
According to the report, in the past 10 years, enrollment at West Virginia Tech has dropped by nearly half. Enrollment was 1,209 in fall 2010; if it is is to have a viable future, the report recommends maintaining an enrollment of at least 1,800.

Some of the report’s other recommendations include:

  • Cutting the football team, which eats up about 11 percent of the institution’s total budget.
  • Creating a co-op and internship program.
  • Establishing a comprehensive freshman orientation program.
  • Updating campus buildings with air conditioning, wireless Internet, etc.
  • Developing a WVU Tech brand, outside of the West Virginia University umbrella.

“From a financial perspective, unless a heady three- to five-year action plan is implemented immediately, there will be no distant future,” the report states.

Adrienne King, WVU Tech’s director of relations and communications, said the institution is holding a community forum of interested students, faculty and administrators today to discuss the report's findings.

She said she could not provide many further details on the institution’s response to the report until the legislative committee examines it and decides the next step. But it is clear that WVU Tech and WVU are going to have to work collaboratively with the state legislature to revitalize the institution, she said.

Jim Clements, president of West Virginia University, released a statement regarding the revitalization report, stating that the university is awaiting the legislative committee's review.

“After that, we will partner with the Tech community, our Board of Governors, the Legislature, the Higher Education Policy Commission and others regarding next steps,” he said in the statement.

Some critics doubt that West Virginia University can be the solution to Tech's problems, given what they believe is its role in creating them.

Take Back Tech has been fighting for the institution’s independence since 2007. Dorothy Phillips, a member of the group, worked at WVU Tech for nearly 25 years as an administrative assistant, and she has been very involved in the fight to keep Tech alive.

How has Tech gotten to this point? Phillips blames inept leadership from both the university and the campus. One example is the 2006 proposal by the governor to move WVU Tech’s engineering school to Charleston, and talk even of WVU absorbing the technology school altogether, she said. The governor said that if WVU absorbed the expensive school, it would free up money for Tech's campus in Montgomery. After a protracted debate and rallying from members of Take Back Tech and other supporters, the governor and institution presidents quashed the idea.

“I think the bad publicity and the doubt of whether the institution was going to be in its present location … harmed it tremendously,” she said.

Phillips said actions like this that demonstrate a lack of communication between the two institutions that has led to the deterioration of WVU Tech. “We felt we could use our own brains, now we have to go through WVU,” Phillips said. “The communication between the community and the personnel on the Montgomery campus and personnel on the WVU campus is very lax.”

Focus on the Future

For now, though, Phillips said she is just happy something is being done to help her beloved institution.

“My immediate reaction [to the report] was that it just revealed what our group has been trying to tell the public and our legislature,” she said. “Conditions on campus have deteriorated; enrollment is down.”

She said she hopes the legislature and institutional leaders do something to fix the situation. Then, and only then, can the campus's potential independence be discussed, she said.

“Whether it’s independent or stays as a divisional campus with WVU, its stability is very, very fragile,” she said. "What’s got to be done is to get the institution stable and then determine what the institution will be.”

Despite the large financial gap ahead, the question of closing the campus entirely -- always difficult -- has not been raised, Noland and King said.

“The focus of the legislation is on revitalization,” Noland said. “It’s not at looking back at what went wrong; we are looking forward at how we can secure a good and vibrant future for the institution.”

 

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