During a speech Nov. 15, Bluefield State College’s new president juxtaposed two graphs. Both showed decline, but not in equal measure.
The left graph on the PowerPoint slide showed the college’s number of full-time students had dropped 40 percent since 2012, down to 950 this semester.
The right graph? It showed that, while the number of staff had dropped over 30 percent since 2012, full-time faculty had stayed roughly level, at 60-80, the entire time.
“On its face, this looks disproportionate, especially in regard to the dramatic decline in full-time students we’ve experienced in recent years,” President Robin Capehart said in the speech, which the school posted online.
“I’ve asked our provost, Dr. Ted Lewis, to look at this situation, and I trust the leadership and members of the faculty will work with him and his leadership team to make responsible recommendations in that area,” Capehart said.
Capehart, who became president in September after being named interim president in January, then sought to reassure listeners that Bluefield State leaders understand that high-quality faculty are of the “utmost importance.” An emergency siren — perhaps someone’s cellphone ringtone — briefly sounded in the background as he said this.
He said “reprioritized” spending could go toward retaining “high-quality faculty in priority areas.”
“However, our office would be violating its administrative duty to the Board [of Governors], and the Board would be violating its fiduciary responsibility to the institution, the state, our students and our parents if we chose to ignore such a reality,” he said.
Capehart said in an interview last week that he wasn’t saying layoffs are inevitable.
“[Lewis] may come back and say we’re really about as far down as we can get and we don’t want to go below providing that core of educators that are necessary to provide the programs we do,” Capehart said.
“I’m not sure where it will lead,” he said.
Bluefield State Faculty Senate leaders didn’t return requests for comment.
During his speech, Capehart said, “We’re currently in a state of severe financial exigency.”
In March, Wheeling Jesuit University — which has since changed its name to Wheeling University — declared financial exigency before laying off 20 of its 52 full-time faculty. Unlike Bluefield State, Wheeling University is private.
Capehart said this week that, by “financial exigency,” he wasn’t meaning to say the college had entered the official emergency state described in the policies of the college’s Board of Governors and the state Higher Education Policy Commission.
He said he didn’t know whether the college would enter that.
One Bluefield State policy says “a faculty member’s appointment may be terminated because of a financial exigency, as defined and determined by the board.”
“Institutional plans for meeting a financial exigency shall be developed through a collaborative assessment by representatives of administration and faculty, approved by the Board, and reported to the [Higher Education] Policy Commission prior to implementation,” the policy continues.
A policy from the Higher Education Policy Commission, which can set certain rules regulating public four-year colleges, allows college boards to skip the public comment period to enact emergency rules when needed “to deal with financial exigency.”
Republican Gov. Jim Justice’s administration announced last month that it had asked state agencies to prepare for a possible $100 million mid-fiscal-year budget cut and get ready for budget cuts for next fiscal year. But it’s unclear what areas would be cut.
“We’re at a critical place and time at Bluefield State College, where we can no longer pretend that we have 1,200 or even 1,000 students,” Capehart said in his speech. “Because, if we do, we’re merely fooling ourselves.”
The latest available figure from the Higher Education Policy Commission, for Fall 2018, shows the school had 1,266 students, but only 976 if you just count full-timers.
According to Capehart’s figures, that has further declined to 950 for this semester.
Capehart blamed several factors, including that the school has no dormitories and is in an area with declining population. He also blamed competition from online courses.
He noted the college is currently trying to raise money to build dorms and is planning new academic programs and an honors program.
Caperhart said in his speech that “we have no intention of closing.”
“And while we seek ways to cooperate with other colleges for the benefit of both institutions, we also have no intention of merging with any other institution,” he said. “And, finally, let me say that we have all the intentions in the world of one day putting our own football team back on the field and not being bought or becoming a branch of an institution that already has a football team that plays in the Big 12.”
That was a reference to West Virginia University, which, around 2017, moved its WVU Institute of Technology campus from Montgomery to Beckley. That move made that branch 40 miles closer to Bluefield.
Another West Virginia public college, Concord University, which has dorms, is 19 miles away from Bluefield.