BUCKHANNON — West Virginia Wesleyan College announced the elimination of more than two dozen positions on Monday as the school tries to improve its finances.
Fifteen staff positions were eliminated immediately, while 12 contract employees – encompassing both faculty and staff – will not have their contracts renewed, according to Dr. Joel Thierstein, WVWC’s president.
“It was a pretty significant reduction in force,” Thierstein acknowledged.
The Wesleyan president, who began his tenure at the liberal arts college July 1, met with The Record Delta late Monday afternoon to discuss the school’s cost-cutting measures.
“We are working on making sure our budget is balanced going forward,” Thierstein said. “We would like the college to be here for generations to come, so we are balancing the budget.”
News of the firings sent shockwaves through the tight-knit campus Monday, with many people contacting The Record Delta about the purge. Meanwhile, students and alumni alike flocked to social media to express their disappointment with the school’s decision.
No employees lost their jobs due to performance issues, Thierstein stressed.
“The people who were laid off today were valued members of the Wesleyan community, every one of them,” he said. “They were good workers and hard workers. They were loved and respected members of the community, and that’s tough. That makes today really hard.”
Education and economic factors played a role in the decision to trim Wesleyan’s staff.
“There are broader issues going on in the world these days,” Thierstein said. “It’s been going on for the past 20 years. We’ve been experiencing changes in the educational environment.”
Thierstein said for-profit online schools mean more competition for traditional institutions like WVWC.
“I think we offer a significantly better educational value than those places,” he said. “Most people would agree that the face-to-face, brick-and-mortar environment is still the best, but a lot of people go that direction now.”
Population shifts and demographic changes — fewer people being born and more people leaving the Mountain State — mean less students, according to Thierstein. And while enrollment is one problem, the amount students actually pay to attend Wesleyan is another.
West Virginia Wesleyan College’s tuition and on-campus costs add up to $39,188 for the current year, but Thierstein said WVWC’s ‘discount rate’ is more than 68 percent, meaning the average student is paying less than one-third the sticker price.
“That (discount rate) is way too high,” he said. “When there is so much expense to carry each student, the net tuition revenue, and also the net student revenue, are things we need to right-size.”
The student discount rate has been over 68 percent for the past two years and well over 60 percent for a quite a while, according to Thierstein. That’s far higher than the national average; the National Association of College and University Business Officers reports the average undergraduate discount rate was 34 percent in 2004-05, rising to 42.5 percent in 2015-16 — although the price to attend college has also increased.
When the cost to educate a student approaches or exceeds what they are actually paying, increasing enrollment can actually hurt a school’s finances, rather than help.
“At some point you can’t eat those costs anymore,” Thierstein said. “You have to start making that money back or cut your expenses. Those are your two choices.”
Thierstein said the economy is not like it used to be in the 1970s and 80s.
“We are in an international economic environment now where the U.S. is fighting for its piece of it,” he said.
The reduction in force firings come even as Wesleyan has celebrated several financial and facilities milestones.
The college recently announced the conclusion of a successful capital campaign that raised more than $34 million and is in the third year of a $10 million Title III grant. Recent improvements to campus include a new welcome center, new dorm, new science center, two fountains and revamped athletic facilities, including a turf football field.
While Thierstein said those contributions are valued, they are often designated for specific projects or scholarships and cannot be used for day-to-day operations.
“Today’s reductions in force are about the operating side of things and not the capital side of things,” he said.
Those faculty and staff members who are on a contract were told the news now so they have a chance to apply for new positions in the academic field, which typically start July 1.
“In order to be as civil and as humane as possible to all faculty involved, you give faculty a notice that’s as early in that cycle as possible,” Thierstein said.
The president also said the affected employees are being offered “significant” severance packages and that tuition benefits will continue for employees’ children who are currently enrolled or are in high school and planning to attend WVWC.
“We want to be as respectful as we can of their situation,” he said. “We have wonderful employees.”
Thierstein also said that while the cuts were significant and impacted every unit on campus, he did not see any additional reductions in force in the immediate future. However, he cautioned that the school would continually reevaluate its financial position.
The college did not release the names of those affected by the reductions in force.
In a message to students, Thierstein directly addressed many of the rumors swirling around campus.
“No academic programs have been cut,” the president wrote. “No athletic programs have been cut. Wesleyan will remain Division II. No classes will be cancelled. No scholarships will be cancelled. No student development programs have been cut.”
The goal of the group who worked on the personnel reductions was to minimize the impact on students, Thierstein said.
“When you lose personnel of any kind, academic or otherwise, it hurts the institution,” Thierstein acknowledged. “What we tried to do is by position – and not by personnel – try to figure out which positions could we eliminate so we could maintain the structure of the college and the integrity of the college as best as we could.”
“Wesleyan is an incredibly strong institution,” he added. “In order to adapt to the world around you, we have to change. The world around us is shifting all over the place, so we have to be mindful of those shifts and be ready to deal with it.
“If we are, and I think we will, we will go forward very strongly in the future and carry on the wonderful legacy of Wesleyan’s academic excellence and participation in the community as well.”