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It is a dream come true to be home, however…

I wish to express my deep appreciation to the editor of the Journal and to everyone for their warm welcome-home wishes and gracious offers to help Shepherd University advance its mission.

While I have only been here three months, I am relieved to be able to leave the state of Illinois, not the wonderful people I met, but a state infrastructure with the highest deficit, the highest debt, the highest unfunded pensions, and among the highest crime rates of any state in the nation. Particularly troubling is the historic impasse on the state budget that Illinois legislators have caused, which has adversely affected the economy, the educational system, and essential programs.

This can’t happen in West Virginia–right?

The West Virginia I remember is a place where people work hard, they help each other, and they move forward together–facing the challenges of a changing energy industry with tough financial implications.

The solution to many of our problems is right before our eyes: The key to economic turnaround for the state of West Virginia is an educated workforce, and the state’s public colleges and universities play a large and important role in preparing West Virginians for the future.

Not only do schools like Shepherd University deliver a solid and cost-effective education to the region they serve, but they are an economic force themselves, helping their local economies both with expenditures made by the institution and those made by employees in their local communities.

As our legislators grapple with the state budget, we at Shepherd respectfully ask that they do not cut higher education yet again.

Since 2013, higher education has had $61 million in cuts, including the 4 percent cutback in Governor Tomblin’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year. At Shepherd, that translates to $1.8 million since 2013, and we are struggling to balance our budget in the face of the unknown.

Shepherd already receives the lowest state appropriation of all the four-year West Virginia state institutions, dead-last at number 10 with $2,875 allocated per student FTE. To move Shepherd to the mid-point in funding would require an increase of $4 million in state appropriations; to just tie with the next-best funded school (West Liberty at number 9), Shepherd’s state appropriation would need to be increased by $2.17 million annually. Our students are certainly worth the investment.

The last three years of budget cuts have been harmful to higher education statewide, but have impacted Shepherd in a much more severe manner, making it increasingly difficult for us to train the next generation of teachers, accountants, information technologists, nurses, scientists, and business owners, as a few examples. Our Shepherd alumni contribute positively to the economy of the region, making the Eastern Panhandle a great place to live and work. Sufficient state funding will allow Shepherd to continue its educational mission and remain an economic engine.

Dr. Mary J.C. Hendrix

This op-ed piece originally ran in the Sunday, June 5, 2016 edition of the Martinsburg Journal.