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With a state board vote to decide its fate scheduled for Friday morning, Alderson Broaddus University faced a likely closure. But on Thursday afternoon, the Baptist university in West Virginia got a reprieve when the governor stepped in.
Governor Jim Justice called on the board—the Higher Education Policy Commission, whose members he appoints—to cancel an emergency meeting to consider a vote to strip the university of its ability to grant degrees, which likely would have led to closure. Acquiescing to the governor’s request, the HEPC canceled the meeting, leaving the fate of Alderson Broaddus University uncertain as it struggles to pay its bills amid severe financial pressures.
Now Justice is promising to work with college administrators and state lawmakers to keep the private university open, even as he acknowledges that closure may be inevitable.
A Gubernatorial Pardon
The future of Alderson Broaddus has been a question mark for months.
In June the HEPC delayed a decision to grant reauthorization to the university to operate and award degrees, citing financial concerns. In mid-July, the HEPC voted to grant the university provisional authorization to continue its mission on the condition that it demonstrate fiscal stability over the next academic year. But even as the HEPC demanded proof of financial stability, news reports noted that Alderson Broaddus was unable to pay its utility bills. With $773,000 due, the university faced the loss of utilities and a looming HEPC vote at an emergency meeting scheduled to determine its fate.
At the last minute, Justice stepped in.
The governor—elected as a Democrat in 2016 before defecting to the Republican party at a rally with then president Donald Trump in 2017—said in a statement Thursday that “no one wants to see this university close if there’s a way to avoid it.” Justice acknowledged Alderson Broaddus’s demise “may very well be inevitable, but we’re going to try really hard to find a pathway.”
Justice also pledged to meet with the commission, university leaders and state lawmakers “to make sure we exhaust every single avenue we can before drastic action is taken.”
An HEPC spokesperson said by email that the commission is “working with all the parties involved” and pointed to Justice’s statement as the latest information on the situation.
(Alderson Broaddus officials did not respond to a request for comment from Inside Higher Ed.)
In the same week that Justice provided a reprieve for Alderson Broaddus, the university also reached a payment plan with the city of Philippi, where it is located, striking an agreement to pay off its outstanding balance and avoiding having its utilities cut off, according to local news reports.
With its utility problem solved and a stay from the governor, Alderson Broaddus suddenly has new life. But exactly how the state may step in to help the university remains unclear. Justice’s press team did not respond to questions from Inside Higher Ed about how the governor plans to stave off the closure.
Long-Standing Financial Struggles
The story of how Alderson Broaddus ended up in financial difficulty is a familiar one in higher education, particularly for small, private institutions outside of a major metro area. Like many other universities, Alderson Broaddus has struggled to sustain enrollment of late.
Recent enrollment estimates put Alderson Broaddus at around 500 undergraduates and 170 graduate students. That number has been on a steady decline for years. Alderson Broaddus enrolled 828 total students in fall 2021, according to the most recent data available from the Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. But in the fall of 2019, the last semester before the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. and led to widespread enrollment declines, Alderson Broaddus enrolled 913 students, according to IPEDS data.
Going back a decade to fall 2013, the data show that Alderson Broaddus enrolled 1,117 students.
The university has operated at a deficit for nine of the last 10 years, according to a review of publicly available financial documents. During that time, Alderson Broaddus defaulted on a $37 million bond in 2015 and was placed on probation by its accreditor in 2019 due to its financial instability; that sanction was lifted in 2021. Amid its ongoing struggles, the university secured a much-needed $27.7 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in late 2018.
In addition to financial woes, the university has seen leadership turmoil in recent months. Tim Barry, who had served as president since 2015, retired this summer. The university appointed Andrea Bucklew as interim president in April; the board then announced it would replace her with an interim president focused on fundraising before reversing course and leaving her in place.
At the end of June, Rebecca A. Hooman, chair of the Alderson Broaddus Board of Trustees and Governors, announced her resignation. The move came roughly a month after Hooman wrote a letter, published on the university website, describing years of financial issues at Alderson Broaddus, which she partly blamed on “inadequacy in the business office.” The letter was later removed from the university’s website but remains accessible online via the Internet Archive.
An Unclear Path Forward
When Justice called on the HEPC to cancel the emergency meeting on Alderson Broaddus’s fate, he offered scant details on what avenues his office, state officials and university leaders plan to explore.
But this isn’t the first time Justice has stepped in when a college in his state faced possible closure. In 2019, when Wheeling University was struggling to keep its doors open, Justice urged the HEPC to work with university officials to avoid closure. Like Alderson Broaddus, Wheeling was struggling with slumping enrollment and financial issues that posed an existential threat.
“I know this: this school’s not closing on my watch,” Justice said in August 2019.
Under political pressure from the governor, HEPC reauthorized Wheeling that month, though the commission denied that the decision was made due to his appeal. Wheeling made deep programmatic cuts and currently remains operational.
While the governor’s support for Alderson Broaddus is apparent, his plan isn’t.
A direct financial lifeline from the state seems unlikely given the private status of Alderson Broaddus and the struggles of the state flagship, West Virginia University, which is enacting deep cuts to trim $75 million from its budget as it prepares for heightened enrollment challenges.
There are ways that states can financially support struggling private institutions, however. In June, Alabama lawmakers crafted a loan program that would allow struggling private colleges to borrow from the state, depending on whether they met certain criteria, including whether they’d operated in the state for more than 50 years, were at risk of closure due to financial issues and had assets available to use as collateral. The loan program ultimately spared Birmingham-Southern College from a likely closure, with the legislation—written by a BSC graduate—creating a fund for the amount college officials said they needed to remain open.
Whether West Virginia’s Legislature will take up the cause of Alderson Broaddus remains to be seen. In the meantime the university will look to avoid the fate of numerous others that have shut down this year, including Medaille University, Cardinal Stritch University, Presentation College, Holy Names University, Iowa Wesleyan University, Finlandia University, Cabrini University, Alliance University and various for-profit institutions, with predictions of more closures ahead.