BUCKHANNON — West Virginia Wesleyan College students and others had a chance to voice their concerns about the recent reduction in force directly to the college president at a town hall Monday night.
Dr. Joel Thierstein sat on a stool in front of Wesley Chapel listening to questions and comments that just kept coming — for nearly 3 ½ hours.
Earlier in the day, a peaceful sit-in was held in the lobby of the administration building that involved about 100 people taking part at different times during the day. The events were organized after the college announced Monday that it would immediately terminate 15 employees and cut 12 more next year.
Thierstein thanked the group for their professional decorum during the sit-in.
“I appreciate that,” he said. “On behalf of the custodian, I want to thank you. You cleaned up after yourself.”
Thierstein sought to assure worried students that the overall financial position of the college remains healthy.
“We are not going out of business,” he said.
However, the operating budget is evaluated annually, and the college was running in the red.
“Our operating budget is not sustainable,” he said. “The simple explanation is we are spending more money than we are taking in. Our operating budget is a little out of whack.”
While Thierstein refrained from addressing specifics about what led to Wesleyan’s financial problems, he repeated some of the broader views shared with The Record Delta on Monday regarding the population shifts and demographic changes.
“The population of the United States has flattened out quite a bit,” he said. “It is still going up, but in a very small amount.”
Further, West Virginia is losing population.
“The second thing is we have a shift in the marketplace,” he said referring to the for-profit, online institutions that now compete for students along with brick-and-mortar institutions.
Finally, Thierstein said the economic power of the United States is being spread out more. That means less money for research, and in turn research institutions are recruiting more students to help offset their financial issues.
Thierstein said West Virginia Wesleyan College still offers a great education, but it has to adapt. He began planning for financial changes even before he arrived on campus.
“It starts with me,” he said. “I assessed the situation before I got here and started to involve the board of trustees initially. I said, ‘You have a problem. This is an issue. You have this level of expenses and you have this level of income. That is not sustainable. If you keep doing that, everybody goes home.’”
When Thierstein arrived, he engaged the president’s cabinet in the discussions. Those members are John Waltz, vice president of enrollment management and interim vice president of student affairs; vice president of advancement Bob Skinner; Boyd Creasman, vice president of academic affairs and provost; and Alison Clausen, head of Title III and retention on campus.
Clausen was an addition to the cabinet made by Thierstein when he arrived because he said retention is a critical issue.
“There are not as many students in the pool anymore, so we have to make sure we keep the ones we have,” he said.
Thierstein said he shared his concerns about the school’s financial situation with the faculty senate, which includes directors and leaders among the faculty. But a certain level of secrecy was required, he said.
“I made the decision this is where we are going to stop the transparency,” he said. “If you go beyond that, it starts getting risky in terms of liability.”
So the discussions about the specific reductions in force went back to the cabinet level.
“The final say was mine, but I took input from the cabinet and not too much below that,” he said.
The president told students other options were considered in addition to staff cuts, although he didn’t get into specifics.
“We weighed a whole lot of other options,” he said. “The trustees weighed other decisions, the cabinet weighed other options.”
Ultimately, the school decided to eliminate 27 jobs to balance the budget. Thierstein said it was important that those faculty members remaining have the funding they need to do their jobs.
Senior Will Wasson, president of the Class of 2018, moderated the town hall, which was organized by students.
A recording of the full town hall is available on the Facebook page Our Voice Among the Hills.
Additional coverage of the questions raised at the town hall will appear in future issues, including those which the president deferred to the board of trustees and the West Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.