WVSU Underfunded by $852 Million

By Quenton King and Joe Severino, for Black By God: The West Virginian

State government has underfunded WVSU over the last three decades, according to federal government calculations. The HBCU, originally a land-grant institution, looks toward a future of agriculture.

During his eighth and final State of the State address on Jan. 10, Gov. Jim Justice proposed a $50 million investment to create a “state-of-the-art” agriculture laboratory on the campus of West Virginia State University.

Of the more than 100 land-grant universities across the United States, West Virginia State is the only one that doesn’t have a college of agriculture. WVSU President Ericke Cage drew attention to this fact this past summer, calling on decision makers in Charleston to help State establish a School of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.

WVSU President Ericke Cage, right, speaks to attendees at a lecture at the school’s new Capitol Street location.

Justice’s recent announcement comes on the heels of a letter from federal government officials, who calculated that West Virginia’s state government has underfunded WVSU by at least $852 million over the last three decades. The governor has not directly referenced this massive underfunding, which was addressed to Justice on Sept. 18.

His recent funding proposal is a start toward correcting this long, grave injustice, said the Rev. Matthew Watts, a longtime community advocate and pastor of Grace Bible Church on Charleston’s West Side. Further, Watts said, WVSU now has a special opportunity to be an economic driver in distressed communities in central and southern West Virginia, and create a future of self-sustainability.

“This could be an excellent first step to allow West Virginia State University to fully establish its land-grant and extension presence in these communities,” he said. “State has been tremendously handcuffed and restricted from fulfilling their land-grant mission because they don’t have the resources.”

This $50 million funding, however, is no certainty. Justice’s proposal will need to be approved by lawmakers this legislative session through the general budget bill. Recent history has shown West Virginia legislators to be apathetic, and sometimes hostile, to both the issues of higher education and minorities.

West Virginians could clearly benefit from the enhanced investment in agriculture. According to federal data, West Virginia ranks 47th out of 50 U.S. states in total agricultural exports. West Virginians also consume over $8 billion worth of food annually, but only produce about $800 million worth of food each year, according to the state’s agriculture office.

How did a land-great university lose its agriculture school?

Congress established the land-grant system in 1862 via the Morrill Act, recognizing the importance of educating all American citizens. Higher education was typically accessible to only the elite up until the law’s passage. Congress gave each state large tracts of land often stolen from indigenous tribes. Most states sold this land to raise funds to start schools.

The goal of the land-grant was to teach practical and technical instruction, provide a “free” education to citizens, as well as support the inclusion of liberal arts. West Virginia University was established as a land-grant school under the first Morrill Act after West Virginia became a state.

Nearly 30 years later, federal lawmakers passed the Second Morrill Act of 1890 to ensure people of color could access land-grant education, as the 1862 institutions were largely admitting only white students. Congress also enacted this legislation to address and improve tensions in former Confederate states, where slaves had been freed for less than three decades.

West Virginia Colored Institute, now known as West Virginia State University, was founded in 1891. Until then, Black students were not allowed to be taught in the same school as whites, according to the state’s constitution.  

Certain benefits come with being a land-grant institution. The federal government provides competitive grants, research grants and funding for an extension’s community outreach and education. States are required to match some federal funding at a specified level. The land-grants are expected to provide a strong agriculture and vocational education.

West Virginia State University operated as the state’s second and only other land-grant institution for nearly 70 years before the state board of education voted to terminate West Virginia State University’s land-grant status in 1956.

A 1995 academic article in the Journal of Negro Education states the reason for West Virginia removing State’s land-grant designation was, ironically, integration.

The racial makeup of WVSU quickly changed following Brown v. Board in 1954. As the school’s white student population grew, policymakers decided that the 1890 land-grant designation didn’t meet the need. 

In 1957, the legislature and governor accepted the state board of education’s recommendation and transferred many of State’s resources, including its land-grant responsibilities, to the predominantly white West Virginia University in Morgantown. State’s agriculture school was disbanded.

It wasn’t until 1991 that the state legislature voted to restore State’s land-grant status. It took another ten years before the federal government officially recognized State as a land-grant school and provided the benefits that come along with that designation. However, the agriculture program did not return, leading to its status of the only land-grant institution in the country that does not have an agriculture school.

Cage, who was appointed as WVSU’s president in 2022, said it’s his goal to honor the school’s heritage and bring a school of agriculture back to West Virginia State.

“‘Right now we’re looking not in the rear view mirror, but we’re looking out the windshield at the world ahead,” said Cage. “It very much speaks to our founding our mission and founding charter, which was to teach agriculture and mechanical sciences, and to go out into communities and to help farmers and others advance their crops and other things to support the overall economy of the state.”

Black agriculture

In some ways, that heritage is difficult to see today unless you know where to look. In 1919, an estimated 14% of farmers in the United States were Black. Recent estimates show that number is now 1%. The total amount of land owned by farmers has diminished by staggering numbers as well; just 2% of farmland in the country is Black-owned. At the same time, Black communities face tremendous food insecurity.

Jason Tartt, a Black farmer in McDowell County, is working to change the narrative of Black people in agriculture.  

“We didn’t have these food desert type issues going on in our communities when we were producing our own food, when we were on the land, working the land and in nature, ”he said.

Jason Tartt surveys an orchard on his 335-acre property in Vallscreek, West Virginia. Tartt co-founded the McDowell County Farms cooperative in 2014, modeling shared prosperity through sustainable farming practices and community education and proving central Appalachia’ s potential for fruit tree production. Photo by Linsey Blankenship for Yes! Media.

Tartt sees the data that indicates counties in southern West Virginia — McDowell in particular — have persistently low health outcomes coupled with high poverty rates. So he believes the region is ripe for an agricultural renaissance.

“People don’t have work around here,” he said. “If we train people on how to farm, that’s creating small businesses, which would turn around and create other small job opportunities and other ancillary opportunities.”

“It all is connected,” Tartt continued. “It all can help. We can build the economy around the problems that are existing in the community.”

Tartt has worked with WVSU previously on projects, and said he looks forward to the school having a school of agriculture.

“I think if we would provide the resources to HBCUs to build the education, build the awareness, do the outreach, get out into the community  —especially the Black community— and let people know not only is agriculture a possibility, it can create wealth in this region,” Tartt said. “I believe that State needs to be at the center of all that.”

The proposed $50 million is a step toward establishing an agriculture school, said Cage. The funding will be earmarked toward construction of a new agriculture facility. Cage said the existing space at WVSU is limited, so the future agriculture school will need to be housed in a brand-new facility.

The many facets of 21st century agriculture

Agricultural experts and farmers have ideas about what programs a future agriculture school at WVSU could offer students, and how the school can help grow the next generation.

It’s important to remember that agriculture is more than farming, said Vanessa Garc­ía Polanco, co-director of policy campaigns at National Young Farmers Coalition and others interviewed for this story, especially as the resource-intensive sector tries to address climate change.

In addition to fields like soil and water sciences, agricology, and even social sciences, Garc­ía Polanco said there’s a growing need for people with agriculture backgrounds to enter other fields, particularly in roles at the USDA.  

“We’re seeing a focus on food system education for climate mitigation; we need more agricultural professionals in natural resource services,” Garc­ía Polanco said.

People attend an agritourism event at Sistermoon Farm.

Farming itself doesn’t always pay the bills, said Maria Russo, who started Sistermoon Farm in Jefferson County with her sister in 2020. Finding themselves in their hometown during the COVID-19 pandemic, they felt the disconnection that many others experienced.

“In a lot of ways, the kind of traditional forms of agriculture, and especially the regenerative small-scale farming that we do, it does not make enough money,” said Russo.

Russo said she and her sister have turned toward “agritourism.” This work encourages people to visit their farm for experiences, which helps generate a different stream of income for their farm. She said this is something that more family-owned farms are going to have to do to survive in the years to come.

“I think the key here is getting creative about ways that young people can make viable futures in agriculture,” said Russo. This approach has been successful in the past, and there is an opportunity now to repeat and grow these different avenues for agriculture.

The National Young Farmers Coalition conducts a survey of young and BIPOC farmers every five years. Garc­ía Polanco says the top challenges identified in the most recent survey were land affordability and access.

Addressing that goes beyond WVSU. But reclaiming land, and making it easier for people to purchase land, is a vital part of repairing the damage that’s been done in West Virginia.

“People need access back to the land because the land is a part of our healing, whether you’re in a Black community or just West Virginia as a whole, or Central Appalachia has a whole I should say, because the whole place has just been left for dead, you know?” said Tartt. “And I think when the community realizes the possibilities — that we can not only make money, but build a foundation for our young people. It’s a heck of an opportunity.”

Investing in people, and the land

To get an agriculture school over the finish line, it mostly comes down to resources and infrastructure. Cage said beyond the need for a physical space, the school will need funding for teachers and specialized equipment. They’ll also need to go through the procedural hoops of getting approval from the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission.

But beyond this layer of government procedure lies real, dying communities that desperately need an infusion of resources, said Rev. Watts. While Justice and the Legislature shower private corporations with hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to open operations in border counties, Southern and Central West Virginia hasn’t received this same attention.

In the Southern West Virginia coalfields especially, a successful opening of a Fortune 500 company like Nucor or Berkshire Hathaway will never be possible due to the current infrastructure, where drinking water and sewage systems struggle to function.

Watts points to the realities of the workforce in West Virginia. A WVU official recently stated that 98% of the businesses in West Virginia are small or new start-ups, with 50% of the state’s workforce employed by a small business He said the state’s leadership should have been investing these hundreds of millions into growing small businesses, including agricultural operations in the coalfields like Tartt’s.

Referencing the $852 million of underfunding, Watts said it’s clear how distressed communities in Southern and Central West Virginia have been harmed by the state’s abandoning of WVSU’s land-grant mission.

“The real injured parties are the people that live on the land,” said Watts. “Their communities are trapped in a cycle of poverty, dependency and dysfunction. They’re not getting the investment, technical assistance, youth development, family development, economic development-type initiatives and services that they should have been getting.”

Watts said that the intentions of the Morrill Acts were to find solutions to the challenges facing the people who live on the land. They are to be heard and listened to. What’s occurred in the past is done, but Watts said that the events of the past few years have created a significant opportunity to transform the economy of the region and “recalibrate” the land-grant.

He’s called for the state to commit resources beyond the $50 million investment, ensuring the new agriculture school can continue to grow into future decades.

Despite the odds, “West Virginia State University has a 132-year track record of graduating students who replenish the labor force and are a part of the economic fabric of the greater Kanawha Valley and Southern West Virginia,” said Watts.

At the end of the day, these are resources that WVSU and the people of Southern and Central West Virginia are owed.

“So the track record is proven, right?” said Watts. “And if you pay them the money that they’re owed, then that money would be reinvested back in the university, back in the community, and back in the people.”

Read more stories like this at Black By God: The West Virginian.

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