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Layoffs at West Virginia University Expose Right-Wing Trends Sweeping Higher Ed

Unspoken right-wing ideological motivations operate beneath the language of brute financial calculus.

Woodburn Hall at West Virginia University is pictured at sunset.

Part of the Series

The current crisis at West Virginia University (WVU) is a case study demonstrating not only the telltale signs of manufactured neoliberal austerity, but also the underlying acceptance of right-wing extremist trends in higher education masquerading as “necessary” budget cuts for the financial survival of the university.

The Case of West Virginia University

On August 11, 2023, the board of governors at WVU released a long-anticipated budget plan outlining its proposed actions for mitigating the university’s apparent financial straits, citing a $45 million annual deficit projected to grow to nearly $75 million over five years. The proposal included cutting 32 majors, firing 169 full-time faculty and gutting the entire Department of World Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics, which means ceasing the delivery of language instruction altogether while discontinuing the foreign language requirement for students. According to university President E. Gordon Gee, as a “modern land-grant university,” WVU ought to provide “modern ways of delivering content,” which included an informal proposal for “alternative methods of delivery” for students still interested in language learning. The university says that might mean pivoting to a corporate partnership model with an “online language app” (such as Duolingo).

Following a massive student and faculty walkout, WVU responded by modestly scaling back the proposed cuts — though the revisions were immediately ridiculed by astute and unwavering student and faculty activists. Beyond revealing a naiveté on the part of the board of governors and Gee, these revisions displayed their willingness to apply cold, economic rationalization to conceal the ideological and political motivations underpinning the privatization of the modern university.

On September 15, 2023, the board voted in favor of discontinuing world languages, slashing 28 majors, cutting programs such as art history, education, architecture and even some STEM fields, and firing 140 faculty members.

According to Lisa M. Corrigan, WVU’s justifications for these cuts are based on fabrications: “These cuts were recommended by the consulting firm rpk GROUP,” writes Corrigan, who argues that what is happening now at “WVU is a harbinger for what awaits much of U.S. higher education” through manufactured crises and similarly draconian financial remedies. Corrigan also asserts that WVU “has been plagued by gross financial mismanagement by administrators and consultants who have funneled money into massive administrative bloat and capital projects at the expense of faculty hires and support for faculty and graduate students.”

It is not surprising that Gee’s calls for modernization have failed to gain traction among the students and the rank and file. Most recently, WVU faculty proposed their own path toward modernization with a vote of no confidence in Gee, who makes $800,000 a year. The vote passed overwhelmingly 797 to 100. Faculty also passed a resolution fully condemning the university’s sweeping proposal.

Manufactured Austerity

WVU was the recent subject of an episode of “The American Vandal” podcast entitled “Ponzi Austerity and the Monolingual University.” The show’s host, Matt Seybold, associate professor of American literature & Mark Twain studies at Elmira College and resident scholar at the Center for Mark Twain Studies, interviews critics and academics who have written on these twin crises.

In episode three, Seybold draws upon former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis’s concept of “Ponzi austerity,” borrowing the term to describe what we’re seeing happen in higher education nationwide, and at WVU in particular. Ponzi austerity refers to the “redirection of public funds to private capital through an intermediary,” according to Seybold, who also observed that higher education in the United States has become a “preferred vehicle” for this process. Private consulting firms like rpk GROUP play a role in the transformation of public funds into private capital in the case of WVU.

While the political economy of this transfer of capital through manufactured austerity is front and center in the series, it also indicts what are described as the “monolingual” tendencies of U.S. higher education and American culture more broadly. Seybold interviews Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado, the Jarvis Thurston and Mona van Duyn Professor in the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis, who critiqued the provincialism of the U.S. university system, and English studies in particular. For Prado, who wrote recently about the crisis of humanities, English studies and the U.S. university reproduce the “imperial logic of the Anglophone,” which is to say, they position the English language and English literature as the hegemonic, standard or otherwise natural mode of instruction in higher education.

We are seeing this variety of provincialism and cultural hegemony unabashedly exercised by the WVU board of governors and Gee. The near-total elimination of the Department of World Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics clearly echoes the kind of “provincialism [as] an imperial trait” discussed by Prado and Seybold. WVU attempted to rationalize this unprecedented elimination of language instruction by citing the unpopularity of language majors among students as well as the lack of financial power that language instruction offers for WVU, despite the university’s own internal survey data revealing otherwise. As Lisa DiBartolomeo, teaching professor of Russian, Slavic and Eastern European studies at WVU, recently observed, “we see that our department generates more revenue than it costs to operate,” and, as she told the Chronicle of Higher Education, “we actually make the university money,” calling into question the reasoning for gutting the department. Such a mismatch clearly points to unspoken ideological motivations operating beneath the language of brute financial calculus.

Right-Wing Ideologies to Deny Access

What’s happening at WVU is also symptomatic of a deeper imperialist and supremacist logic running not only through college boards, but state and federal legislatures alike. Consider the well-known case of Florida under Ron DeSantis’s fascistic reign, his “STOP Woke” campaign and vicious attacks on critical race theory (CRT), African American history and trans rights. Likewise, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s executive order barring the instruction of anything it deems as “CRT” in public schools, and the recent partnership between PragerU and the Oklahoma Department of Education to use propaganda videos in public schools exemplify the latest spate of successful state-level maneuvers allowing right-wing revisionism into classrooms across the United States. Compounded with the most recent decisions coming from the extremist “originalism” of the United States Supreme Court justices, their legal attack on LGTBQ+ rights, the overturning of decades of legal precedent regarding reproductive rights and decades of precedent regarding affirmative action in U.S. colleges, it is easy to see the explicit emergence of a fascist front forming at the legal and ideological levels of U.S. society.

These often-unspoken factors should not be considered in isolation from what we are witnessing at WVU, as similar efforts are happening at the University of Colorado, Denver, and, most recently, SUNY Potsdam. WVU is a particularly potent example of the “settler colonial logic” that Jeffrey Herlihy-Mera, director of the Humanities Department at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez, discusses with regard to Ponzi austerity. The wholesale elimination of language instruction echoes a wider trend in the United States, tied not only to provincialism and white and national supremacist anxieties, but also in the rising geopolitical tensions with regard to Russia, China and the emergent multipolar economic order with BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) in the passing lane. Consider Rep. Eric Swalwell’s (D-California) proposal to kick Russian students out of the U.S. in the wake of Russia’s war on Ukraine; and the closure of multiple Confucius Institutes by the National Defense Authorization Act, citing the conflict between Department of Defense funding and funding from the Chinese government. We have also seen the recent elimination of the Russian language program at Johns Hopkins in 2017.

As Caroline Tracey recently wrote, “The problem is symptomatic of an increasing narrowness in the U.S.’s approach to the world, visible in declining support for the humanities, social sciences, and education at large, and in blinkered ‘America First’ politics. And while the most immediate consequences of this solipsism will show up in diplomacy between Washington and Moscow, its impact extends far beyond those cities — and beyond politics.” The ideological and political ramifications are all too apparent in the United States, as the recent bipartisan stunt to “condemn the horrors of socialism” and Sen. Rick Scott’s (R-Florida) advisory for socialists traveling to Florida clearly demonstrate.

The attack on so-called wokeness and identity politics dovetails with the generalized anxiety surrounding the teaching of the humanities, with higher education, as Seybold put it in episode six, often considered as an “incubator for political radicalism,” and with graduate student and adjunct faculty unions considered almost a priori to be communist fronts across the nation. As Prado asserts, “The war on the humanities and the war on DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] are the same project. Those openly or implicitly committed to reinstating white supremacy as the law of the land, including nostalgic academics who are angered to see their precious ivory tower filled with minority students, would want to see the destruction of many newer disciplines and practices within the humanities.” What we are seeing at WVU is just such a drive.

The recent ouster of Hakim Adi demonstrates that the slow erosion of the humanities in higher education is not confined to the borders of the United States, but is indeed a global phenomenon. Adi, who is the first Briton of African heritage to become a professor of history in the U.K. (and recently shortlisted for the prestigious Wolfson history prize), was cut from his position at the University of Chichester and recruitment was suspended to the Master of Research in the History of Africa and the African Diaspora program that he headed. Tionne Parris, a Ph.D. student in history at the University of Hertfordshire, described Adi as “the canary in the coal mine for Black British historians. If an esteemed professor who’s released numerous books in the last few years alone can be deemed surplus to requirements — what hope do the rest of us have?” It’s not insignificant that Adi’s ouster was contemporaneous with massive anti-colonial movements in western and central Africa. And just like the Cold War-style standoff between the U.S., its North Atlantic allies and the BRICS nations, we should pay careful attention to the broader geopolitical implications of these seemingly isolated austerity measures undertaken by universities like Chichester.

The cross-pollination of right-wing extremism and “protectionist economic policies” in higher education is cause for concern. “How do we become less complicit,” Seybold asks in episode four, in the face of these compounding crises?

For starters, we must understand language, literature, culture and the humanities as political and social sites ripe with transformative possibilities. Instead of asking administrators for permission to study the humanities or trying to persuade private investors about the values of culture and literature, we need to treat the objects of study as sites of labor organizing — locally and internationally.

The humanities, and English studies in particular, desperately need to deprovincialize in concert with organizing efforts at an international scale. The humanities are uniquely suited for such maneuvers. Language and culture are ready-made sites for internationalism through which we can begin to unbalkanize the disciplines. Language instruction and cultural analyses in the humanities offer innumerable opportunities to organize shared political, social and economic interests to fight against the rising tide of right-wing extremism domestically and abroad.

As Ryan Napoli recently argued, “The Left needs to stop letting the U.S. decide who its friends and enemies are and instead engage in a rigorous assessment of global currents in order to pave a [way] forward.” These words should resonate with academic and para-academic laborers who face the structural conditions of manufactured austerity and its handmaiden right-wing, fascist ideology on a daily basis.

What’s happening at WVU reminds one of how James White, the former interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder, justified plans to replace tenured faculty with adjunct workers at the height of COVID-19, emphatically insisting “never waste a good pandemic.” Gee seems to be following the same opportunistic playbook: Never waste a good rise of right-wing extremism and xenophobia.

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