The Shepherd University Student Government Association held their first ever town hall event on Wednesday, Nov. 11 in the Erma Ora Byrd Hall to discuss ongoing student concerns with the university administration, focusing on the $6 million structural deficit, academic prioritization, and the West Virginia Senate Bill 10, known as the Campus Self-Defense Act.
The $6 million structural deficit, identified in May, left the Shepherd administration scrambling for any money they can retain for the university by identifying expenses not required to continue running the university, according to Vice President of Finance and Administration Scott Barton.
The deficit is not a unique issue for Shepherd, as there is currently a trend in higher education institutions operating with structural deficits.
“It is very normal for an institution to be operating with a structural deficit in 2023,” said Barton. “In a structural deficit environment, your expenses are running higher than you revenue, and these things became exponentially highlighted during the pandemic. That’s why the federal government had to step in and start funding institutions with what they called the CARES Act,” he said.
The CARES Act was a $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill passed by the 116 Congress in 2020 for Covid relief money to those affected by the Covid pandemic, such as families, businesses, healthcare, and institutions such as higher education.
“Now that the CARES Act funding has gone away, as we operate in 2023, that leaves institutions with structural deficits who went into the pandemic with structural deficits going out of the pandemic,” said Barton.
Inflation has also contributed to the deficit, according to Barton.
The University is required to reduce expenses by $3 million in 2024, and another $3 million by 2025, according to Barton.
“Here we sit on November 1 of 2023, and we have identified five of the six million dollars and we have all the way until June of 25 to finish, and we’re not going to rest on our laurels,” said Barton.
The university is taking drastic measures to make that a reality, and the most impactful way it is being done is through academic prioritization, where the university sees which programs have the least majors and drafts a plan to reduce expenses by narrowing down the concentrations and faculty teaching them, documented in a 70-page report.
“Academic prioritization takes all 42 programs, lays them out on the table, looks at specific criteria and says how do they measure up against each other against the limited target of resources that we have available at the university,” said Interim Provost Robert Tudor.
Programs will not be cut in the way that students think they will be, according to Tudor. One way the report lays out cutting programs identifies similar courses being offered by a program with a very low number of students, and merges courses together to take out courses deemed unnecessary based on the recommendations of the Dean of that specific department or school, according to Tudor.
An example is Mathematics, where classes are small and spread out.
“What we have learned from feedback from students in a 10 year analysis is that it’s almost never does a student in that major get all the required courses in that major because there’s just never a large cohort of students,” he said. “So they’re just constantly subbing in other classes from other disciplines like computer science or engineering.”
As a result, a new Mathematics and Statistics degree is being proposed to replace the original Mathematics degree in the Fall.
Scenarios such as the Mathematics program’ are how the university is planning on conducting their academic prioritization in all programs with small cohorts and class sizes, meaning some faculty members may be laid off at the end of the academic year if the draft in the report is implemented, upsetting some students and faculty.
The Shepherd University Board of Governors will be voting on implementing the academic prioritization report on Wednesday, Nov. 9.
Another topic discussed at the Town Hall was the Campus Self-Defense Act, which is a State law set to go into effect on July 1, 2024 allowing anyone with a concealed carry permit to walk on campus with a concealed firearm, according to Vice President of Student Affairs Holly Frye.
A concealed permit is not required in the state of West Virginia to carry a concealed firearm, but a permit will be required on college campuses in the state as a result of the law.
Till the law goes into effect, the Shepherd University Police Department is able to implement campus policy by asking someone carrying a concealed firearm to put the firearm in the vehicle or confiscate it, according to Frye.
“It would be different if we were a private institution, but we are a state institution. We are funded by the state and follow West Virginia state legislature bills passed,” explained Frye.
Other issues discussed at the town hall were IT services, how the University will be changing from a one-gig internet system to a ten-gig internet system according to Barton, and student opinions on dining services, which were discussed with Associate VP for Campus Services Jack Shaw, and General Manager for Aramark Jeff Solloway.
The town hall is not the only way students may give their opinions or concerns about the university. SGA holds student body senate meetings every Tuesday at 5 p.m. in the Student Center, open to the student body.