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WVU: A Teachable Moment on the Road to the Future

Students protesting at West Virginia University board meeting.

Photo Credit: Ron Rittenhouse/The Dominion-Post via AP

Excerpts from a conversation between Tim Gilmour and Colleen Carmean.

Colleen: So, Tim, I’ve been reading the news about West Virginia University (WVU), and I can’t imagine a better person to explain to me, “What the hell is happening there?” You’ve been a university president, had years in leadership of higher education, and you’ve consulted with a number of campuses on strategic planning and outcomes in turbulent times. So first, what exactly happened at WVU in the last few weeks, and then I’ll ask you why.

Tim: Colleen, I am really pleased to have this conversation with you because of the critical perspectives you bring as a faculty member and senior academic leader. I know you would like to limit my thoughts to the events of the last few weeks at WVU, but to be fair to Gordon Gee and his leadership team, I want to take us back to December 18, 2020. Gee issued the following charge to the WVU community: “Post-pandemic, our University must come out stronger and smarter than we were when we were heading into the pandemic. The reality is we need to improve quality while we decrease costs. We need to differentiate ourselves in the marketplace and make WVU a destination institution.”

To address this challenge, the University undertook a multi-year institution-wide transformation process, covering virtually every aspect of the University’s operations. Regular communications about these efforts were provided to the University community through a variety of channels, including formal decision-making and advisory bodies, town halls (with opportunities for questions), and multiple web pages. By historical standards for planning and executing major institutional change in less turbulent times, this effort was well done.

In March 2023, President Gee found it necessary to issue another call for strategic repositioning of the University in response to additional challenges brought about by a $45M structural budget shortfall, mainly due to a 10 percent decline in enrollments. He said in his call, “Make no mistake. Higher education is under attack…it is time to truly transform our university into one of relevancy without losing sight of who we are. We will assess what is most relevant and invest in those initiatives that support our students, our mission, and meet market demand.”

Gee put the Provost Maryanne Reed in charge of this initiative to “rethink academics for the future.” Provost Reed stated that the objective of this effort is “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.” Much of the analysis behind the academic reductions proposed and approved by the WVUV Board of Governors on June 15th was done as part of a program portfolio review completed with assistance from RPK consulting.

Many in the WVU community blamed this enrollment/cost imbalance on Gee’s inability to deliver on his goal to raise University enrollments to 40,000, the costly facility expansions and renovations undertaken to accommodate the anticipated increase, and to a ten percent enrollment decline since 2015.

In April, it was announced that the University needed to address a long-term deficit of $75M (including the $45M structural deficit) to cover the projected shortfall in student enrollments over the next decade. (It should be noted that West Virginia University is not alone in facing deficits–Penn State is projecting $150M, Rutgers $125M, and the University of Kansas actually cut $75M during the pandemic). The faculty responded with an open letter expressing concern about the cuts and the process for determining program value.

In July, Gee sent a letter to the University community entitled “WVU’s Hopeful Future as a Modern Land-Grant University.” He indicated that “We must adapt to be relevant to the students of today and the industry of tomorrow.” He then outlined a distinctive vision for a University focused on those needs and offered assurance that “working together, the community could help make WVU stellar.”

The proposed program and faculty reductions were finalized over the summer to include nine percent of the majors offered and seven percent of the full-time faculty (169), including the entire department of world languages, literature, and linguistics. They were announced on August 11th, and consultation on them was concentrated at the Deans level. There ensued an appeals process running up until the WVU Board meeting on September 15.

Colleen: Wait, the faculty expressed concern regarding how the decisions would be made, but he announced the cuts in summer when most faculty are off contract? Yikes. That’s a blow to faculty governance.

Tim: Fair point. School started on August 16, and on August 21, University students staged a walkout to protest the budget cuts. On September 6, the Faculty Assembly convened and voted 797-100 no confidence in Gee. No small part of this vote stemmed from the faculty’s belief that much of the deficit stemmed from Gee’s overly optimistic plan to raise enrollments to 40,000 and the fact that he had not admitted to the part they perceived him playing in creating the deficit. On the same day, the WVU Board voted a resolution fully backing Gee’s efforts.

On September 15th, the Board voted to eliminate 28 degrees and roughly 140 faculty positions. These cuts represented 8 percent of the University’s academic offerings and largely tracked with the recommendations of the Provost cited earlier, but contained some compromises, including retention of Spanish and Chinese language instruction and a few arts and music faculty.

President Gee has become the focus of intense criticism because of these budget reductions. The faculty, in their vote of no-confidence, indicated that they did not believe that he had “fully and honestly” disclosed how the deficit emerged. They further argued that he had caused the budgetary gap through poor planning and decision-making.

Colleen: I’m confused. Gee is putting forth a plan that cuts traditional faculty and programs to address a $45M deficit, which he says is largely due to a 10 percent enrollment drop?

If you had read the press in the last three or four weeks, it would be hard not to see this as a case of incompetence. Seemingly out of nowhere comes this $45M retrenchment, necessitating unprecedented reductions in programs, faculty, and staff. This is happening after Gee himself set a 40,000 student enrollment goal for 2030 and took the University on a costly journey to build and renovate facilities. How could this predicament not be a case of incompetence?

Tim: As I noted earlier, at least since December 2020, President Gee has been attempting in a very public way to transform the University into an institution that educates its learners to thrive in the world of the future and operates in a much leaner fashion. It appears that this work informed the reduction recommendations just approved by the Board of Governors. And it appears that the $45M reduction covers the ten percent enrollment shortfall and that the longer-term $30M reduction (for a total of $75M) would address additional anticipated enrollment decreases. On the basis of this information, I conclude that President Gee has done a fair job of stewarding the University’s resources.

Colleen: But, but, but… Gee is recommending cutting WVU’s traditional academic departments to what end? What is he keeping? Isn’t this what Bryan Alexander has for ten years now referred to as the “queen’s sacrifice gambit,” where institutions sacrifice their core teaching and research mission to stay afloat without considering a meaningful and necessary change of course?

Tim: Bryan’s idea of queen’s sacrifice in higher education is an important concept, but I don’t think it applies if cuts are strategic. From what I can tell, the cuts he has proposed are strategic. I, too, don’t feel comfortable with the slashing of the languages program, but there is a hint in Gee’s comments that he hopes to provide the languages in innovative ways using the capabilities technology provides these days. And I also have to say that the notion that a flagship has to provide a very wide range of academic programs–everything for everyone–is outdated. The story on languages at WVU is one of sharply declining student demand for these programs. In today’s resource-constrained environment, we cannot afford to continue programs that do not pull their weight.

Colleen: Forgive me if those hints you found in Gee’s comments, especially farming language courses out to online vendors, don’t inspire confidence in his advocacy for new skills. But I agree we face hard choices ahead. Is this queen’s gambit, not just for WVU but for so many institutions, inevitable in the face of so many challenges higher education is now facing?

Tim: I do think higher education institutions must get out of their traditional “everything for everyone” frame and focus on what the learners of all ages that they serve need. They must work hard to meet actual learner demand and to connect what they are doing with the learning/work ecosystem of the future. If they can get into this posture, there will be critical core competencies, but these will wax and wane as societal needs change.

Colleen: Ok, it may be that Gordon Gee has done a good job of setting and achieving important new strategic directions, but we still have the problem of the 797-100 no-confidence vote and the student protests. Could that have been avoided?

Tim: I believe so. As good as Gee’s strategic leadership appears to have been, he used a change management approach that is at least five years out of date. The times require radical changes in mindset, methods, processes, and in the depth, breadth, and intent of institutional engagement. He and his team set good directions for the University and transmitted them faithfully to the institutional community. His communications were clear and spoke to his worry about the impact of this change on members of the WVU community and his desire for them to participate in the change process. But it is hard to tell how much dialogue actually occurred between the administration and members of the community, how deep this engagement was, or whether a shared sense of urgency for transformation at the outset of the transformation process was established. Given the lop-sidedness of the no-confidence vote, one must conclude that this much more demanding level of engagement apparently did not occur.

Colleen: It seems the communication, all along, was not sufficient. A no-confidence vote of 797-100 suggests the faculty was not persuaded that these changes were necessary.

Tim: In times of unprecedented, disruptive, and multi-dimensional change, this one-way communication process will not work. Nor will the current strategic planning or task force/working group approaches that engage small segments of the university community. What is needed is a process model for leading and navigating change, where leadership enters into a broad, deep, and honest dialogue with the entire community. This engagement must involve the careful building of a shared understanding of the need for change, meaningful engagement of that community in defining the initiatives needed to bring about the required change, and a well-supported process that involves extensive community participation in implementing and sustaining that change. With this process, large segments of the community are meaningfully involved in defining and bringing about the change on a continuing basis. This level of engagement breeds their understanding and commitment.

It is this deep and authentic engagement by a large segment of the institutional community from all levels and areas of the organization that leads to understanding and acceptance of the difficult changes that disruption often requires. Our book, Transforming in Turbulent Times, lays out a process that provides the mindset, organizational approach, and planning tools necessary to bring about this deep level of engagement.

Provision of this sort of leadership will require deeply engaged leaders who have the authenticity, humility, and empathy to work actively with their institutional communities to bring about this deep engagement and dialogue.

Colleen: Hmm. I agree leadership models need to change, but Tim, can authenticity, humility, and empathy be taught?

Tim: It can be demanded from those called to leadership in turbulent, transformative times. And certainly, methodologies, tools, and processes can be taught. We are currently in the process of revising the section on leadership requirements in our book based on our latest consulting work. We highlight the need for this new approach to shared leadership and how to go about it. A highly participative approach will be absolutely necessary for successful institutional transformation in the years ahead. Look for a white paper on this topic soon.

Colleen: Thanks, Tim. I knew you’d have a deeper view of how things went amiss, both for WVU and so many campuses now struggling with the changes being demanded of them.

Tim: You’re welcome. Let me close by quickly making three additional points. The first is that the challenges West Virginia University is facing will impact most colleges and universities between now and 2030. Although their circumstances will differ, they all will need to get much better at regularly reviewing and transforming their programs and processes to ensure that they meet the rapidly changing needs of the learners they serve. These efforts must also include the development of new programs for existing and new markets to ensure access to the new sources of revenue they will need to survive.

My second point is that faculty will also have to change their mindset to be successful in this new era. They must move from the traditional shared governance concept–which gives them a de facto veto of administrative actions–to a shared leadership model in which they become meaningful and constructive participants in their institution’s transformation. We’ll be discussing this concept and strategies for its achievement in the leadership white paper.

The third point is that the recent arrival of generative AI on the scene has supercharged awareness of the potentially transformative impact of artificial intelligence tools and practices on every aspect of what our colleges and universities are and will be doing. Our earlier blogs on this topic (see links below) reinforce the need for strategic engagement of all elements of university communities in discovering how to prepare current and future learners for the emerging world of 2030. In this engagement, faculty, staff, and leadership learners must be empowered to chart meaningful roles for themselves in the transforming world of 2030. If generative AI had arrived on the scene in 2020, WVU leadership likely would have included these perspectives and engagement practices as central elements in its transformation process.

Colleen: And I’ll be reading it!

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