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Will WVU’s Draconian Cuts Become a Blueprint for Austerity Across Higher Ed?

West Virginia University is following the neoliberal creed that people should only be educated to the point of utility.

Students tabling a "Save Our U" music event at 123 Pleasant Street, Morgantown, West Virginia.

Hundreds of West Virginia University (WVU) students staged a class walkout outside the school’s student union in Morgantown, West Virginia, on August 21 to protest an administration proposal to cut 32 academic programs and 169 faculty positions. The students, wearing red T-shirts and bandanas as a nod to the West Virginia coal miners who famously went on strike a century ago, chanted “Stop! The! Cuts!” and held up signs that said, “save World Languages,” “protect the arts” and “fire [WVU President E. Gordon] Gee.” The WVU Board of Governors is expected to vote on the recommended cuts on September 15.

“The students of this university are not protesting because we hate this place — we’re protesting because we love it so damn much and we are sick of it bleeding us dry,” Shan Cawley, a Ph.D. student at WVU, told Truthout.

Weeks before the start of the fall semester, the university announced its proposal to eliminate nearly a tenth of its majors, including the entire department of world languages, literatures and linguistics. Sixteen percent of WVU’s faculty, or 169 faculty members, may have their positions eliminated. This includes all 32 faculty in the world languages department.

“It’s been stressful, I think, since we got the news because the news came right before the semester started,” Nicole Tracy-Ventura, associate professor of applied linguistics at WVU’s Department of World Language told Truthout. “So, we were all prepping our classes, already having meetings, and then, since then, it’s been trying to still teach but also fight the fight.”

If the proposed cuts move forward, WVU students would no longer be able to study Spanish, French, German, Russian or Chinese, despite the university previously celebrating students who received Truman, Marshall, Fulbright and Rhodes scholarships, which rely on language study.

“On top of the uncertainty of our jobs, there’s also the frustration of where we see the university going and what it’s leaving behind and the type of students that it won’t be serving anymore, the students that we interact with all the time,” Tracy-Ventura said. “It’s been really an emotional rollercoaster.”

Instead of offering a foreign language program, WVU is exploring “alternative methods of delivery” for foreign-language instruction, such as partnering with other universities or online language apps like Duolingo. However, Duolingo told The Chronicle that it had no plans to enter into an agreement with the university.

Faculty and staff say that this budget crisis is driven by years of financial mismanagement, reckless borrowing and spending decisions related to a failed growth strategy.

“To be extra clear, we have never had any conversations with any university about replacing their foreign-language program,” Sam Dalsimer, a spokesperson for the company, said in an email to The Chronicle. “This is a sad continuation of a trend of disinvestment in foreign-language education that has been occurring across the United States for over a decade.”

According to the university, the budget cuts would affect at least 434 students, or 2 percent of total students currently enrolled at the public university. In fact, the number of affected students is most likely much higher, because the university’s estimate only included students whose first major would be affected by the cuts, but not students with second majors, minors, or general course loads in programs outside of their majors.

“It’s incredible that those in power continue to say ‘only 2%’ will be affected when (a) why is it okay to abandon ANY of our students? and (b) countless WV kids will be affected in the future by these changes,” Jessie Wilkerson, an associate professor in WVU’s history department said in a post.

WVU is not only the largest university in West Virginia, with more than 24,000 students enrolled, but also the state’s only R1 university. According to the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, R1 universities are leading research institutions that produce accomplished researchers and graduate doctoral students. However, if the cuts are implemented, the university’s R1 status may be endangered. Currently, five other states don’t have a R1-level university: Alaska, Idaho, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming.

“These cuts are draconian and catastrophic and … jeopardize the institution’s continued standing as an R1 university,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a letter to the WVU Board of Governors.

If language programs are eliminated at the university, WVU could also cease to have a Phi Beta Kappa honors society chapter. “The Phi Beta Kappa Society is gravely concerned about the recent proposal by West Virginia University to eliminate its entire department of world languages, literatures, and linguistics,” the organization said in a statement.

Despite WVU being a public land-grant university, the state has cut its financial support of the institution by 36 percent, or nearly $100 million, over the past decade. According to an analysis by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, if the state had continued to finance the university the same as it had a decade ago, WVU would only be facing a $7.6-million deficit, instead of the alleged $45 million deficit.

West Virginia’s state government ended the recent fiscal year with $458 million in unappropriated surplus. In fact, during a recent legislative special session, lawmakers attempted to add $45 million in surplus funds, the same amount as WVU’s projected deficit, to a bill appropriating millions to Marshall University for a cybersecurity program.

However, the state is unlikely to rescue the university from its financial issues. Earlier this month, state Senators Mike Oliverio (R) and Mike Caputo (D) who represent the district surrounding WVU’s Morgantown campus, issued a joint statement. “We know some of the decisions the University administration is making are not popular and have real costs associated with them. However, we also understand that the University needs to make some serious changes in order to remain the community stalwart it has been in the past,” they said.

WVU’s President E. Gordon Gee has refused to seek further funding from the state, despite the university’s dire budget crisis. Faculty say that this shows the university is capitalizing on the crisis in order to implement planned austerity measures.

“Gee’s whole selling point as to what makes him a good university president is his supposed skill at fundraising and making connections with legislators and that sort of thing, so straight up announcing you’re not even going to try a very obvious solution to the problem suggests it’s more of a shock doctrine-style ‘never let a crisis go to waste’ kind of situation,” Jesse Wozniak, associate professor at WVU’s department of sociology and anthropology, told Truthout.

While departments affected by the recommended cuts are appealing the decision, the committee that will rule on the appeal is made up “almost entirely of career administrators, some of whom were involved in issuing the original recommendations,” Jonah Katz, associate professor of linguistics at WVU, told Truthout. “My department is mounting an appeal case, but we don’t believe that the appeal process or the BOG [Board of Governors] decision will be fair or credible.”

During a Campus Conversation, a virtual town-hall-style event series, WVU administration stated that departments that appeal earlier recommendations may actually face harsher actions, such as discontinuation of programs and more eliminated faculty positions. “It is not the intention of the appeals process to subject further reductions or introduce new program recommendations. But is it possible? Yes,” a note issued by the administration after the Campus Conversation warned.

“Not only does this show a blatant abuse of power that retaliates any show of opposition, but they also made the recording of today’s conversation private so that nobody may access it,” Julia Condie, a WVU senior with a double major in history and women and gender studies, told Truthout.

WVU originally made the Campus Conversation recording private, but later changed the recording to ‘unlisted’ on YouTube.

WVU’s Budget Issues and President E. Gordon Gee

Since 2015, the university’s enrollment has declined 10 percent, which is far worse than the national average. The proposed cuts are part of an effort to manage a $45 million deficit for the 2024 fiscal year, which could balloon to $75 million by 2028, the university says. WVU faculty told Truthout that it is not clear where the university has gotten these numbers and that WVU’s administration has not been transparent throughout this process.

“What’s happening at WVU right now is unprecedented, and if the administration is laying the blueprint for future institutions to follow, then the entire higher education system is in jeopardy.”

“WVU is facing an apparent $45 million deficit. I say ‘apparently’ because the number has changed quite a bit over the last few months,” Wozniak told Truthout. “Initially, it was somewhere around $15 million, and then it became $35 million, and now it’s $45 million, though I’ve also seen them throw around a $75 million figure.”

Faculty and staff say that this budget crisis is driven by years of financial mismanagement, reckless borrowing and spending decisions related to a failed growth strategy, and overshooting enrollment predictions.

“The WVU administration played an active role in this crisis,” Myya Helm, a 2022 graduate of West Virginia University, told Truthout. “Their proposal is a result of financial mismanagement, lack of institutional transparency, and an astonishing failure to recognize the power of education in transforming the lives of West Virginians.”

Specifically, many critics of the proposed cuts believe the blame lies with WVU’s president, E. Gordon Gee.

“One of the central reasons WVU is facing a deficit is that Gee and his cronies ran up a massive debt buying up land and facilities they were going to use to profit off of the increased enrollment Gee kept promising he would deliver,” Wozniak said. “A Chronicle of Higher Education analysis found the debt load at WVU tripled between 2008 and 2021 to $969 million. And rather than take any sort of blame for the mess he has personally caused, Gee is instead blaming faculty and students for his mistakes and making them pay the costs to account for his mistakes.”

From 2013 to 2022, state appropriations to WVU declined 36 percent, or $99.3 million, the Chronicle of Higher Education analysis showed. In 2010, WVU’s administration implemented a growth strategy which was predicated on increased enrollments. However, the university struggled to reach their goal of 10 percent growth over 10 years. Despite this, after Gee was named president of WVU in 2014, he ambitiously promised to achieve even greater enrollment growth.

These enrollment goals were never close to being met. In fact, despite WVU’s student population falling 10 percent since 2015, the institution continued to expand and spent millions of dollars to acquire property for future construction. From 2010 to 2023, the university also constructed multiple facilities, including a basketball practice facility, a research center and student recreation fields, and undertook dozens of renovation and maintenance projects.

“The administration has reacted to this by proposing extensive and radical cuts to academic programs and personnel, rather than addressing any of the expenses that have skyrocketed over the past 10 years,” Katz told Truthout, “or utilizing more funds from the $2.5 billion endowment to cushion the blow and spread out cuts over time, or attempting to reverse the state funding decline.”

However, in a recent interview with The Daily Athenaeum, WVU’s student newspaper, Gee said that the anticipated $5.8 million the university would save by cutting the World Languages department is not even planned to go to the university budget deficit. “For example, let’s just use World Languages. We’ll take $5.8 million, and we put it into forensics,” Gee said.

Additionally, in a comment to Truthout, a university spokesperson said that the cuts have been planned for nearly a decade, despite the university’s recent current budget crisis.

“In his 2014 State of the University address, President Gee talked about the need to be more efficient and streamlined and we began that work in earnest on the nonacademic side of the house,” the spokesperson said in an email. “In 2016, President Gee again stated we would need to overhaul everything — including academics. … Today, make no mistake, WVU would be undertaking Academic Transformation regardless of the budget challenge.”

This isn’t the first time that Gee has been criticized for mismanagement of funds. When he was president of Ohio State University, the university spent $7.7 million on his expenses, including $64,000 on bow ties. During his tenure at Brown University, the university picked up the $3 million bill for his home renovation, and while he was chancellor at Vanderbilt university, the university spent $6 million on renovating his mansion and $700,000 on his social events.

“Bloated executive administrators and the costs that come with them need to be looked at, audited, and cut down to size,” Cawley told Truthout. “Gee has very extraneous spending habits — whether it be on bow ties or private jet rides — he is using our tuition dollars to ensure that he gets to sit pretty at that house on top of the hill. Why a college president is allotted $60,000 to spend on bow ties — more than many of his staff and even faculty — in a year is beyond me.”

In 2018, the Gazette-Mail reported that Gee spent more than $2.2 million of WVU student tuition dollars on private air travel between May 2014 and June 2017. Despite Gee’s exorbitant expenses, in July, WVU’s Board of Governors extended Gee’s $800,000 a year contract, in the fact of the budget crisis. Gee is planning on stepping down as the university’s president in 2025. He intends to serve as a faculty member in the law school, where the university’s proposed cuts plan to eliminate two current faculty.

“Bloated executive administrators and the costs that come with them need to be looked at, audited, and cut down to size.”

“This will presumably create an opening for a certain university president to fill in 2025,” a self-described anonymous WVU faculty member posted.

Student organizers have demanded that Gee resign immediately.

“Gee’s opinions on higher education are dangerous to the people in this state, the majority of whom are from working-class backgrounds with limited mobility,” Condie told Truthout. “He isn’t putting in any effort to seek help from the state, [which] has already slashed funding to the university, and whose surplus could easily remedy this situation. WV Gazette notes that he is a ‘wealthy academic in a state with a poverty rate near 17% and the lowest percentage of population with a bachelor’s degree in the United States.’ Why are we trusting him to lead the school when he has such a lack of care for the material conditions of the citizens of WV?”

The Neoliberalization of the Academy

West Virginia is the country’s fourth-poorest and least-educated state in the country. The state also suffers from a brain drain problem and has been steadily losing population since 1950 in part because of the state’s history of extractive industries. This extractive history has led some scholars to call the state a “sacrifice zone” for outside state capitalist interests at the expense of its own environment and community.

“Appalachia has an extraction problem. From coal to timber to clean water — and now our brightest minds — the natural resources of this mountainous region have been snatched from beneath us, profits pooling instead in faraway cities,” Rachel Rosolina, WVU alum and the communications director for Appalshop, wrote for Belt Magazine.

Aparajita De, a graduate of WVU’s English Department and current associate professor at the University of the District of Columbia, says that the proposed WVU cuts build on this history of extraction and will continue to disenfranchise West Virginia students.

WVU administrators have a “predetermined mindset that seeks to create a technical school without liberal education and the humanities,” De explained. “Mimicking the classic white supremacist ideology (know less, ask less, obey more), the corporate scissors sustaining the neoliberal university model show that WVU is a symptom of a larger malaise.”

Conservative state legislators have refused to support struggling public universities while, in tandem, undermining their academic freedom.

While some WVU faculty told Truthout that this crisis is specific to WVU, as other public universities in neighboring states and peer universities in the same athletic division at WVU are not facing budget crises as severe as WVU’s. WVU’s current predicament, they say, seems to be caused by administrative bloat and financial mismanagement, but others see what is happening at WVU as a larger issue higher education across the U.S. is facing.

“For West Virginia specifically, we feel the biggest brunt of our country’s issues at all times and in all ways because of the lack of resources we have, and the exploitation we face from politicians as well greedy businessmen,” Cawley told Truthout. “What happens on the perimeters of this state and beyond are recalled with 10 times more force when it finally makes it over these mountains — and higher education is no exception.”

Many universities across the country have eliminated humanities departments over the past few years, while freezing, or even cutting, teaching faculty wages and exploiting precarious adjunct labor. Academic workers have blamed these austerity measures, which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, on the “neoliberalization” of the university.

Under this neoliberal model, universities have increased the power of university administrators while undermining faculty self-governance. “This kind of move [at WVU] seems to just be finishing the job to make sure no academics have job security,” Wozniak told Truthout.

At the same time, university administrators and state legislators are fighting a war on humanities and academic freedom, as well as diversity, equity and inclusion curricula. “Those openly or implicitly committed to reinstate 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,” Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado wrote in the Los Angeles Review of Books. “The gutting of the humanities results from a parallel but equally troubling process of democratic backsliding in the university, which in turn feeds a persistent anti-intellectualism.”

What makes WVU different, however, is that WVU’s proposed cuts go further and enact more harm to faculty and students in the state than other austerity measures have. For example, it has been claimed that George Washington University (GWU) had similarly eliminated language requirements for graduation. In response to this, GWU language faculty responded that this claim “not only propagates false information, it also deceptively mobilizes the reputation of a major research institution to justify dangerous policies that will harm the students of West Virginia.”

“What’s happening at WVU right now is unprecedented, and if the administration is laying the blueprint for future institutions to follow, then the entire higher education system is in jeopardy,” Condie told Truthout. “We have reached a point where higher educational institutions are treated as businesses, and that’s exactly what the WVU administration and President Gee are doing here.”

If these cuts at WVU are implemented, the other universities that have followed this neoliberal model may be encouraged to implement similar austerity measures and eliminate tenured faculty. Therefore, this “evisceration” of the public university, as described by Lisa M. Corrigan, a professor of communication and director of gender studies at the University of Arkansas, in The Nation, may be “a preview for what’s in store for higher education” across the country over the next few years.

“Higher education has changed and will continue to change,” a university spokesperson told Truthout. “We recognize this is difficult and intensely personal, but higher education is at an inflection point. We must change and adapt. And West Virginia University is simply doing what it’s done for decades, adopting our ‘Go First’ motto to be relevant to the students of today and the industries of tomorrow.”

This has a very real, class-based rationale for conservative state legislators who have refused to support struggling public universities while, in tandem, undermining their academic freedom.

“The future of higher education looks bleak,” Corrigan wrote. “Money will flow to elites in private schools, who will benefit from comprehensive language instruction, liberal arts, inclusive critical thinking skills, and a global curriculum, and thus have access to global careers in the arts, finance, diplomacy, national security, international business, international law, AI, and other fields. Students at state schools will receive the education that the oligarchs want them to, based on their largesse.”

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a cosmologist and particle physicist at the University of New Hampshire, echoed this sentiment. “What’s happening at West Virginia University is happening in part because of people who believe that people should only be educated to the point of utility and they believe formal math and languages is not useful (for West Virginians),” she wrote on social media.

However, WVU students are challenging the belief that they do not need or deserve to study foreign languages and other humanities. The West Virginia United Students’ Union, which has nearly 300 members, is calling on students to continue the fight.

“WVU Students, do not stand down. You have not lost. You are nowhere near the finish line. Stand together closer than ever because our fight has only just begun,” West Virginia United said in a social media post.

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