Chris Schulz Published

WVU Faculty Senate Chair Discusses University’s Transformation Process

A West Virginia University logo, known as the "Flying WV" can be seen on the facade of a building. The letters are lit up by sunlight.
The West Virginia University logo on a building.
Brian Persinger/WVU Photo

On Friday, West Virginia University (WVU) announced the initial recommendations for cuts to academic programs to address an estimated $45 million budget shortfall for fiscal year 2024. The recommended cuts – which include the complete dissolution of the World Languages Department – are part of a larger transformational process the university has been undergoing for several years.

Before the proposed cuts were announced, reporter Chris Schulz sat down with Associate Professor and Chair of the WVU Faculty Senate Frankie Tack to discuss the academic restructuring process.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Schulz: Could you give me kind of the “back of the napkin” of what the Faculty Senate does?

Tack: The Faculty Senate represents faculty in the shared governance at the university. Shared governance is a process in higher education whereby faculty have the opportunity to provide a voice on the academic side of the house, a big focus on curriculum, faculty welfare, policies and procedures related to things like promotion and tenure and evaluation, student evaluations of instruction. We have a big initiative on that and other forms of evaluation. 

We’re a representative body to be the voice of faculty, for the entire faculty body with upper administration. Somebody said to me, “You actually act more like a House than a Senate.” But we elect members from each college based on the number of faculty meeting certain requirements in that college. So not every college has the same number of faculty senators, but it’s equitable, based on the size of the college, and they are elected based on their colleges and not their programs or their schools or departments.

Schulz: I’ve been aware that things are changing at WVU but obviously the process has been, in the university’s own words, accelerated recently. So what can you tell me from your perspective about the WVU Transformation project?

Tack: The process started a few years ago, and it was initially a process that had a longer time focus on it, really primarily focused at what’s called the demographic cliff. We know there’s a big change in demographics across the United States in the college-going age, traditional age population. So it was initially focused on preparing for that. So looking at ways to tighten things up, become more focused on what students are looking for in higher ed, etc. It was more of an incremental process. But, things have become acute now, and COVID accelerated a lot of that and a variety of, you know, sort of perfect storm type events coming together to the point that now we have to act and we have to act in the short term. 

Generally speaking, it was more incremental and sort of, I would say, a softer process. But this phase is faster, deeper, broader, more visible, and ultimately is going to be more impacting. We just no longer have time on our side.

Schulz: It really seems like this acceleration has focused pretty heavily on the academic aspects of the university. Do you have any concept of why that perception is so strong? And is that something that you’ve discussed with other faculty members?

Tack:  With other faculty members, just to start there, and in depth ongoing on almost a daily basis with upper administration. So I think it did, to some degree, it did start there. Faculty salaries are a huge driver of the overall WVU budget, and so to make an impact of the size that has to be made financially, that had to be a big part of the process. And so then to do that, we have to look at what those faculty do. That is driven primarily from a revenue standpoint, a tuition standpoint, by programs, by the degrees, by the majors that we offer our students. So if you’re going to reduce faculty, you have to do that in some cogent way, or else you’re really going to damage the institution. This process is about really taking a hard look at all of our programs and seeing where we may be able to reduce in a way that has a minimal impact on students, but also maybe re-configures what we do to be more focused on what’s needed today and today’s 2023 environment versus, say, the 1993 environment. 

Now, having said that, President Gee has repeatedly said we’re all in this together. This isn’t any one person’s problem. He has said it’s not his problem, it’s our problem and that no area of the university is sacred. So we have been pushing, having heard that, for a deeper view on all areas of the university. We are getting that, area by area, we have one or two more to go. But I tell you, we have pushed for a review of the academic service units within the provost’s office, and there’s about a dozen of these. We have pushed for the provost’s office to review their structure itself, which is the structure of leadership and associate provost and whatnot, the infrastructure in the provost’s office. We most recently have talked to President Gee about looking at his staff, the president’s office. We have been pushing for what’s called the non-academic units, though we do recognize everything supports academics in one way or another, but all of the units under Rob Alsop, which are all the support units, things like environmental services and shared services, contract management, all that. Take a lot, a real hard look at those to make sure that they are right sized to look for opportunities for additional cuts in Rob’s area. 

They’ve recently merged, we had two different IT services, one that served our health sciences and all of our medical related programs, and then another for the rest of university. They’ve recently merged those and reduced seven positions. Those areas have also been taking cuts over those past few years, as they were trying not to touch the academic side, and do those incremental changes. 

So it started on that side and frankly, that’s our biggest opportunity for cuts. It’s just the nature of a university. But we are pushing very hard that everything should be right sized. This is the moment for us to analyze everything.

Schulz: Just like with any other organization, personnel costs are going to be a big chunk of that pay. I know that intellectually, this makes sense, intellectually, it’s necessary. Emotionally, how are you feeling about this process?

Tack: Well, you know, it’s awful. Anytime you talk about people losing jobs, and people have already lost jobs, people that were on annual contracts, and did not have those contracts renewed as of June 30, July 1, and more people are going to lose jobs. And that’s awful. These are our colleagues, they’re friends, and we live in a small college town. They’re also our neighbors. I live on a street that’s WVU from one end to the other. It’s heart wrenching. I think that’s just the worst part of it all. 

The piece that kind of goes with that, that is kind of secondary to the people, our colleagues and their families is our programs. Nobody, I don’t think works in higher ed as a professor in a discipline they don’t care about, have passion about, are invested in. And for many of us we’ve participated in building our programs, not just teaching them and researching them, but actually creating them. That’s its own heartbreak, to see something you’ve invested yourself in be greatly reduced or eliminated.

I think that, that’s another heartbreak. We’re going to have to go through a process. We’ve been saying this to the administration, that once we get past all this stuff that’s going to happen in the fall, and probably through the teach-outs of any programs that are discontinued, we’re going to be in a grieving process. There’s going to be a lot of loss, and we’re going to have to go through that process. And we’re probably going to lose additional people who self-select out because they don’t want to participate in that or they don’t want to participate in the new WVU, if you will. 

But I’ve kind of likened it to a forest fire Chris, in that you have this raging forest fire, and it goes through and everything is just kind of burnt to a crisp, and there may be a thing or two left standing. They’re not gonna burn everything by any means. Then it lays dormant for a little while, but then it starts to grow and bloom and the fire and its remnants end up feeding the growth. And that’s my hope. I personally think that’s going to be more in the four or five year time frame rather than the maybe two year time frame that some of our leaders are talking about. But maybe they’re better at hope than I am.

Schulz: That’s certainly very vivid in the way that you put it. You mentioned that there’s going to be a new WVU, something is going to emerge from this process. And it’s going to look very similar to what was here before, but it will be different. So I do wonder what you’ve been hearing from the other senators, from your constituency, about what’s going to come out on the other side? 

Tack: I think that’s part of why we’ve been pushing and pushing for so much transparency from upper administration, because there’s a lot of theories about how we got here, and then how we’re gonna move forward, based on those theories of how we got here. We have been pushing for documentation on all the things people have been asking about, from our public-private partnerships to our debt structure, our past budgets, our organizational structures, a ton of things.

There’s a feeling about wanting to hold somebody accountable, that’s part of it. I believe the other part is, how can I have trust in the future if I’m one of the ones left standing? How can I believe that we’re well to move forward, we’re strong financially, we’re strong with our leadership, etc.? I think part of how we’re going about that is to get as much information in the hands of faculty as we can. We’ve never had to know about all these intricacies of the university. Now I believe we have a right to know, if you’re going to cut faculty jobs, especially people who are tenure track and tenured. That’s certainly unprecedented at WVU, and it’s practically unprecedented nationwide. So I think we have a right to know how the rest of the place is being operated if we’re going to lose our jobs to fill the gap.

You asked something else about that. Other concerns that we’re hearing? The future certainly is a big concern. I think there are also concerns about pressures on workload, faculty needing to teach more than they have in the past. I think we have, faculty have, concerns about how that’s going to impact their research agendas and their ability to continue to research at the robust level that they have. I think there’s concerns about that for people pursuing tenure. And just our overall mission relative to the university’s research. We’re an R1 university for research at the highest level, it is the upper administration’s goal to remain an R1. We all want to remain an R1. I think right now, it feels a little fuzzy to faculty about how we’re going to do that, relative to the pressures on other parts of the workload. I think we’ll get there, I don’t think our R1 is at risk. And again, we’ve pushed into this a lot, but I do think there’s a reckoning there perhaps yet to happen.

Schulz: It feels like I’m taking a course in university accounting or something.

Tack: That’s how it has felt. The fact that we never needed to know any of this. Nobody ever wanted to see the debt portfolio. Nobody ever needed to know that or wanted to know it.

Schulz: Do you think that this is going to change moving forward the things that the Faculty Senate does focus on? 

Tack: We just never know, semester to semester, what the issues of the day are going to be. I think we have a strong, very strong Faculty Senate model, actually one of the strongest from what we hear from some higher ed researchers. So I feel very confident that we are going to continue to vigorously advocate for faculty moving forward. 

I do think this process is changing us, and I said, it’s kind of like COVID. It changed us. We’re not exactly sure how, in some ways, but it changed us. I think this process is changing us across WVU. And again, I think faculty are becoming more aware of how the university operates from a business standpoint. And I think, or I hope, that the administration is finding that transparency and a more open partnership. They’ve been willing to be partners, we have extraordinary access. But this transparency may not be as scary as they thought it would be. It always has downsides. We want to know, and then we know, and we’re like, oh, we don’t want to know. But we can handle it, I think. Other aspects, other constituencies can handle it. And, it helps us understand it and frankly, I think this was going to, in the long run, help us all do our jobs better, faculty and non-faculty. But right now, it’s extremely painful.

Schulz: Have you heard about or have you been in contact with folks at other universities that are going through similar processes like this or similar? You know, adjustment pains? 

Tack: As a senate, we haven’t that I’m aware of. I haven’t and I know our recent past president, I don’t believe has. Our leadership has, our president has, and our provost has. And what they’re sharing with us is that other universities, not all but many, are going through similar things. We may be, from what I can tell and from what President Gee’s shared with us, being a little more head on with it. I don’t know, even with some really big deficits, some of the other institutions, whether they’re looking at reductions in force or not. 

I do know that there are some who were doing it really all behind the curtain so it’s hard to know. Again, we’ve pushed for this to not be behind the curtain, that we’ve just got to put it all out there. We’ve got to work together. President Gee said we need to move quickly and that will help. I think that’s true. That has its own pains associated with it, especially during the summer, but we’re certainly not the only one. And I will say, I had to prove that to myself. They told us that at the beginning and everything they’ve shared with us, I’ve kind of had to go out there and prove for myself not that I don’t trust them, but I do trust them. But I also know there are different frames and different ways people look at things. So there are many, many universities going through this. It is by far not only at WVU.

Schulz: I do want to give you an opportunity to talk to me about anything that I haven’t prompted you to talk about already. Anything that I’ve missed, that you think is important for me to know about the situation.

Tack: I think WVU is an amazing institution. It is going through probably one of the most difficult times it’s ever been through. Having said that, though, our faculty are amazing. We have a commitment to this state, I think that few flagships probably do or a level of commitment, not trying to minimize any of the others. But you look around WVU and there’s such passion and commitment to the work people do, to try and improve lives for West Virginians, to really fulfill our land grant mission. 

And I tell people who are considering working at WVU, I’ve been at another land grant, and we knew it was a land grant. But it didn’t inform the work, it didn’t inform the teaching. And that’s not the case here. So I think this is a very unique place and it has a heart that a lot of other places may not have, and that our faculty are world class. They’re resilient. We’re gonna land on our feet, I’m highly confident that we are going to land on our feet and dust ourselves off and figure out where we go from here.

I think there are a lot of different perspectives. The one other thing I would say is this process is data driven. We’ve heard a lot of comments, some of which aren’t data driven. And so we’re really trying not to speculate, but instead find out facts. I think that’s not only driving the self-study process and where we’re going with transformation, but it also needs to drive how we as faculty respond to what’s happening.