Financially beleaguered West Virginia University is proposing eliminating 9 percent of the majors and 7 percent of the full-time faculty members at the flagship Morgantown campus, including the entirety of the department of world languages, literatures and linguistics, the university announced Friday.
“The university is reviewing plans to eliminate the language requirement for all majors [and] is exploring alternative methods of delivery such as a partnership with an online language app or online partnership with a fellow Big 12 university,” WVU said in its news release. It said student interest in the department’s programs “is very low and declining.”
“It’s hard to imagine any university, anywhere in the world, not teaching world languages, let alone the state flagship, land-grant, R1 university in a state like West Virginia,” said Lisa Di Bartolomeo, a teaching professor of Russian studies at West Virginia, noting that the state has faced a brain drain for generations and has low “intercultural competencies.”
Paula M. Krebs, executive director of the Modern Language Association, wrote to the university Friday that “no other state flagship university has forsaken language education for its students or made the kinds of cuts to the humanities that WVU is undertaking.”
The WVU Board of Governors is set to vote a month from now on whether to enact these program cuts and eliminations, following a faculty appeals process. Amid all this, fall classes start Wednesday.
“This is, admittedly, a condensed process,” said Mark Gavin, associate provost for academic budget, facilities and strategic initiatives.
“From my perspective it is an aggressive timeline, no doubt, but I think the process has been solid,” Gavin said.
He said provost office administrators proposed these cuts after consulting with university leadership and the relevant dean’s offices, but not the department levels, except in cases where the college and academic unit are synonymous. He said the departments did submit “self-studies” that WVU administrators reviewed in developing the recommendations, and that those self-studies allowed faculty input.
“I don’t want to give the impression that the deans were always in full agreement with the recommendations that we forwarded, but it is true that we consulted them on everything,” he said.
Di Bartolomeo, who’s also a former Faculty Senate chair, former member of the university's Board of Governors and a former adviser to WVU President Gordon Gee, said “I think institutions everywhere are facing cuts, particularly in humanities disciplines, but these cuts go beyond what’s reasonable and straight into territory of absurdity.”
The proposed faculty cuts also affect multiple nonhumanities sections, including the College of Law, the College of Business and Economics, the College of Engineering and Mineral Resources the schools of medicine, pharmacy and public health.
“Within the preliminary recommendations, 32 of the 338 majors offered on the Morgantown campus have been recommended for discontinuation; 12 of those are undergraduate majors and 20 are graduate-level majors,” WVU said in its announcement. “According to Fall 2023 enrollment numbers, this will affect 147 undergraduate students and 287 graduate students, representing approximately less than 2 percent of total student enrollment. The preliminary recommendations also included 169 potential faculty line reductions.”
You can see the full list of proposed changes, by college and school, here.
According to a spreadsheet WVU provided Saturday, the proposed axing of all 24 faculty members in the department of world languages, literatures and linguistics is the biggest single proposed reduction. Di Bartolomeo said there are only 18.5 faculty members there now, but her number excludes positions or portions of positions dedicated to administrative roles.
The proposals include cuts to programs serving both West Virginia’s historically prominent coal mining industry and its natural gas industry, which state politicians have hoped will ameliorate coal’s decline. The departments of mining engineering and petroleum and natural gas engineering are recommended to merge.
The provost’s office said the mining engineering department is producing an “average net loss of more than one million dollars per year.”
WVU has also proposed axing, among other degree offerings, its Ed.D. in higher education administration; Ph.D. in higher education; master of public administration; Ph.D. and master in math; bachelor in environmental and community planning; bachelor in recreation, parks and tourism resources; doctor of musical arts in composition; master of music in composition; master in jazz pedagogy; master in acting; and master in creative writing.
“Our MFA [in creative writing] students help teach the required composition classes, and it’s not clear how those are supposed to get taught without the graduate students,” said Gwen Bergner, a professor of English. “They also said that we should shift the focus of our Ph.D. program [from literary studies] to composition and rhetoric, but we’re supposed to simultaneously cut the composition and rhetoric faculty, and that’s not the specialty of the majority of the faculty and the graduate students who apply.”
“It’s not clear how many people they’re counting as part of our department, and we think we have fewer people already than they say,” Bergner said.
In response to Bergner’s concerns about one English program’s elimination affecting other department services, Gavin said that “more generally speaking, that is what is intended to come out through the appeal process that will follow.” He said the department will still have Ph.D. students to help teach.
This is the first reduction in force in the university’s history to include faculty. The university is among a few state flagships that have faced significant recent financial issues, including Pennsylvania State University and the University of Kansas.
WVU’s enrollment has declined 10 percent since 2015, far worse than the national average. In April, WVU leaders, projecting a further 5,000-student plunge over the next decade, said they needed to slash $75 million from the budget.
Throughout the end of the academic year and the summer, the scope of the proposed cuts came more into view. But the big reveal didn’t arrive until Friday, days before the start of classes.
The afternoon announcement came after X, formally known as Twitter, lit up throughout the day with tweets from faculty members and others as news of the cuts trickled out. WVU had planned to notify the “campus community” of the recommendations on Monday, Aug. 14, according to a published schedule.
In the news release, Gee said that “While we view these preliminary recommendations for reductions and discontinuations as necessary, we are keenly aware of the people they will affect. We do not take that lightly. These faculty are our colleagues, our neighbors and our friends. These decisions are difficult to make.”
The schedule says there’s one month left for these “preliminary” recommendations to either pass or be defeated.
Chairs or faculty members must appeal the proposals by Aug. 18, and appeal hearings will occur Aug. 21-Sept. 5. The provost office’s “final” recommendations will then go to the Board of Governors.
Faculty members can speak to the board on Sept. 14—if they sign up from Aug. 22–Sept. 8. They can also submit written comments from Aug. 22–Sept. 8.
The board votes Sept. 15. Faculty members may lose their jobs as soon as May 2024.
“The reduction of faculty will not occur all at once,” a WVU spokeswoman said. “The university will have personnel needs to support teach-outs [of students in programs being eliminated].”
Di Bartolomeo said “a lot of us feel that we’ve already used all the arguments at our disposal … If they’re not already obvious to people, how are we supposed to make our case at this point?”
She said she doesn’t see a strategy for where the university sees itself in two, five or 10 years after these cuts. She said she understands people can’t have nice things all the time, but, “if you’re going to take away everybody’s nice things, you need to tell them why, and you need to tell them what it’s going to look like when those nice things are gone.”