BUCKHANNON — At a town hall last week, West Virginia Wesleyan College students questioned recent financial decisions in the wake of the school’s elimination of 27 jobs.
During the three-hour meeting with Wesleyan president Dr. Joel Thierstein, students asked whether the cuts were a last resort, questioned the president’s salary and asked about the school’s recent purchase of a $300,000 home for Thierstein.
Thierstein referred those concerns to the board of trustees, which sets his compensation. The board’s president addressed the student queries in an interview with The Record Delta on Thursday.
Gavin Appleby said the role of the board is to broadly provide oversight, but not to administer every decision made regarding the operation of the college.
That is the president’s job, but Appleby noted that Thierstein has sought input from people on the board as he begins his tenure at Wesleyan.
“He wants input from people on the board who have specializations,” Appleby said. “We have a number of finance people. He has engaged us for help for the purposes of reviewing and analyzing and determining if he is on course or off the course.”
As the board of trustees studied the college’s financial picture at present and glimpsed into the future, some issues needed to be addressed, according to Appleby.
“We graduated our biggest graduating class last year in a long time,” he said. “We had a decent year of recruiting, but a little bit under our goal.”
That meant the college expects less money coming in heading forward.
“When you have that kind of problem, you either start borrowing money or figure out ways you can make adjustments so that our budget can still be a budget that makes sense,” he said.
According to Appleby, the college considered other options in addition to the reductions in force. The goal was to cut expenses where possible, but in a way that would allow the school to continue to operate safely and effectively.
“Some of the cuts we had were really smart,” Appleby said. “They wouldn’t impact the students, but we still saved the money.”
At the town hall, however, students questioned the college’s recent decisions.
Senior Morgan Bruce asked why the brunt of the financial deficit could not have been spread around campus as a whole, rather than asking 27 people to bear the entire burden.
“Since I have been here, tuition has gone up $10,000,” Bruce said. “Why not just continue to raise it? Why is it that we felt the need to change the lives of so many people?”
Thierstein replied that a $3,000 tuition increase had been briefly considered but was put aside.
“I don’t think half the students would be here,” he said. “They just couldn’t afford to come. We just didn’t look at that. We would have lost our student body.”
Bruce, a starter on the Wesleyan softball team, also questioned the expenditure for a new house for the president when the college was in a “financial crisis.”
“The house was not my decision,” Thierstein told the students. “It was a trustee decision. You can take that up with them.”
Although previous presidents have resided on Pocahontas Street, a new home on Phillips Dairy Road was purchased for $307,500 this summer, according to the deed in the Upshur County Clerk’s office.
Thierstein began his tenure July 1.
Appleby confirmed that the purchase was a decision made by the board of trustees. He said that knowing the college’s current financial predicament, in hindsight the board may have acted differently.
“He didn’t ask for a particular home,” Appleby said. “That was done before we knew we had the economic issues. The house [former president] Pam Balch was in needs fixed. It’s not a disaster, but it needed work. We decided to put together a task force of people to evaluate our options, from fixing the Pocahontas Street property up to buying a new home.”
Appleby said he did not serve on the committee but the ultimate decision brought back to the entire board of trustees was to purchase a new home and eventually sell the previous home.
“Should we have done that?” he asked. “Had we known, I might have done something different, but we were not aware of the financial situation.”
When another person questioned whether Thierstein should have taken a pay cut, he said his salary was set by the board of trustees.
While declining to specifically name Thierstein’s salary, Appleby did provide a range.
“Joel’s base salary is well below $300,000 and above $200,000,” he said.
In Thierstein’s first year, he could earn up to a $25,000 bonus, Appleby added.
The board of trustees has a list of indicators to consider in determining if Thierstein would earn that extra money.
“It’s driven by what he actually does in the previous year,” Appleby said.
Because West Virginia Wesleyan College is a private school, many of its financial records are not public information. However, the IRS Form 990 filed for tax year 2015 shows that Balch received $263,822 in reportable compensation, with $55,877 in other compensation.
Barry Pritts, the vice president of finance, received $128,750 in reportable compensation and $19,662 in other compensation, according to the form. Boyd Creasman, vice president for academic affairs, received $127,640 and $20,228 in those categories; John Waltz, vice president for enrollment, $91,468 and $12,155; and Julia Keehner, then vice president of student development, $90,877 and $23,247.
Board of trustees members receive no compensation, according to the form.
Appleby also addressed the notion that Thierstein could take a pay cut.
Since the president and the board had already negotiated and signed a contract, setting that aside would present new issues, according to Appleby.
“That salary is in a formal employment agreement, which is what we are supposed to do for the present,” he said. “That is the expectation of higher learning. He has a contract. His salary is a contractual model, and we would actually have to ask him to eliminate his contract [to take a pay cut].”
Appleby said that in Thierstein’s short time here, he has seen that the college president is trying to be prudent with the finances.
“We’ve been a little sloppy in the past of not having balanced budgets,” he said. “He is more fiscally conservative, I believe, than the past administration. He is very careful that we spend money the right way and we don’t put ourselves at risk.”
Appleby said the reductions in force were needed to help West Virginia Wesleyan College maintain its financial course.
“The college did this to ensure that it wouldn’t go through a period in which it would struggle,” he said. “These actions were taken on more of a preventative nature to ensure that three years from now, there is not a deeper problem. We foresaw a bigger problem ... that we thought we could solve now by taking some reasonable steps.”
Appleby hopes the cuts put Wesleyan on a positive path moving forward.
“We honestly believe this isn’t going to be a long-term negative, but we think it was a way to avoid what could have been a long-term negative,” he said.