Ryan Quinn/Inside Higher Ed
West Virginia University’s tagline is “Mountaineers go first.” In 2016, it became the state’s only "R-I" university—a prestigious label reserved for those with “very high research activity” in the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education.
But WVU may now be achieving less positive firsts.
On Aug. 11, the university announced “preliminary” recommendations to cut nearly one-tenth of the majors and 169 full-time faculty positions from its flagship Morgantown campus. Those recommendations included the proposed laying off of all 24 members of the Department of World Languages, Literatures and Linguistics, the single largest component of the overall position cuts—and only offering online foreign language instruction from an app or another university.
Paula M. Krebs, the Modern Language Association’s executive director, told Inside Higher Ed this month that the plan was “absolutely unprecedented. There is no state flagship university that doesn’t offer language courses.”
Administrators announced a bit of backing off this week, proposing to maintain five faculty members and in-person Chinese and Spanish courses. However, officials say they’re still going to ask their Board of Governors—which is set to vote on the cuts Sept. 15—to sign off on no longer teaching Arabic, French, German, Italian, Japanese and Russian and to stop offering degrees in any foreign language.
West Virginia could also now become, at least for a time, the only R-1 university in the country to not offer any master’s or doctoral degrees in mathematics.
The WVU Provost’s Office wrote in its “preliminary” recommendation for cuts to WVU’s School of Mathematical and Data Sciences that it gave the department “approval to begin the intent to plan process” for a replacement master’s degree, one in “applied mathematics/data sciences.” But the written recommendation doesn’t contain a promise to ultimately approve that program, or a date for its implementation.
An Inside Higher Ed review of the 146 R-1 institutions’ websites shows that each advertises at least one master’s degree or Ph.D. in math. Just dropping down to a master’s degree wouldn’t be unprecedented—the University of Maine, an R-1 in an even lower-population state, only offers a master’s—but not offering a Ph.D. would still make West Virginia just one of a handful of R-1s without one.
April Kaull, a WVU spokeswoman, wrote in an email, “The presence or absence of a math Ph.D. is not a determining factor in the Carnegie R1 classification and M.A. or M.S. degrees are not included in the calculations that Carnegie uses to determine R1 versus R2 status.” In response to other questions—including about whether WVU was promising a replacement math master’s degree, and when—she wrote, “We don’t want to get ahead of the process, the announcement of final recommendations, or consideration and determinations still to be made by our Board of Governors.”
In an Aug. 18 interview with Inside Higher Ed, E. Gordon Gee, West Virginia’s president, said the university is focusing on the fundamentals of math.
“We need to focus very, very intensely on math education and developing math programs that will benefit our students, pre-K through life,” he said. “At the end of the day, West Virginia University will still remain one of the most comprehensive universities in the country because we are both a land-grant university and a major research university.”
“This is really a drastic action,” said Bryna Kra, president of the American Mathematical Society and an endowed math professor at Northwestern University, also an R-1.
Kra further noted that WVU’s Ph.D. is the only one in the state, which lacks any large, private nonprofit institution. “My view is that this is the flagship campus of the state system in West Virginia, and handicapping the teaching of advanced math would leave their students unprepared to address key issues that define their future,” she said.
School of Mathematical and Data Sciences faculty members have pointed out the rarity of the proposed move to administrators.
Ela Celikbas, an untenured assistant professor of math, said she doesn’t know why, “instead of strengthening and making better what we have, they’re trying to terminate everything and kill the mathematics education future in this state.”
Math and foreign language faculty members’ voices are part of a flurry of online posts, in-person protests, association letters and official appeals following the university’s Aug. 11 announcement of its proposed program slashing. The basic facts the university has used to justify the cuts and explain their impact have stirred much of the debate.
The Aug. 11 news release said the preliminary recommendations to eliminate 12 undergraduate majors and 20 graduate-level majors from the Morgantown campus would “affect 147 undergraduate students and 287 graduate students, representing approximately less than 2 percent of total student enrollment.” Mark Gavin, an associate provost, further explained at a Board of Governors meeting last week that “cumulatively, across undergraduate and graduate majors, 1.7 percent of our currently enrolled students are in majors that are being recommended for discontinuation.”
That less–than–2 percent figure doesn’t include the students who will no longer be able to take minors or one-off elective courses if the cuts go through. The precise number of students who will be affected is perhaps unknowable; it would depend on how many future students might have taken the eliminated courses, or how many current students have come to the university for those programs.
WVU’s “less than 2 percent” assertion is one of several university statements that faculty members have taken issue with. Their objections have now made it into a proposed resolution of no confidence in President Gee and another proposed resolution calling for a halt to the cuts.
Both resolutions read, in part, “Many more [than 2 percent] will be affected by reduced course availability, lack of access to a full and meaningful liberal arts education, negative perceptions about the value of a degree from this university, limited access to support as a result of the remaining faculty and staff being overworked and overextended, larger class sizes and a higher student-to-faculty ratio, lack of access to study abroad opportunities, lack of access to printed materials, dejected campus climate, limited access to preparation for post-graduate opportunities, and more.” The faculty is set to vote on the resolutions next week.
While the university says all currently admitted graduate students will be allowed to finish their discontinued degree programs, it isn’t guaranteeing that undergraduates minoring in subjects, or those who are majoring in them but haven’t yet completed 60 credit hours, will be able to finish those minors or degrees at West Virginia.
Speaking Different Languages
The data debate is particularly intense when it comes to administrators’ recommendation to gut the Department of World Languages, Literatures and Linguistics.
WVU’s data tables for its “Academic Transformation” review and recommendation process showed that out of WVU’s 19,060 undergraduates last fall, only one was majoring in German studies, two in Russian studies, three in French, five in Chinese studies and nine in Spanish.
But faculty members have pointed out that those figures didn’t include those who were double majoring in a foreign language but didn’t have the language listed as their primary major out of the two. Counting double majors would’ve more than tripled the fall 2022 undergraduate major count departmentwide, from 20 to 65, as the department noted in its “self-study.” (Academic units that were subject to this program review performed these self-studies.)
The picture is similar this semester. Kaull, the university spokeswoman, said earlier this month that there are 21 undergraduates primary majoring in these foreign languages, but an additional 51 secondary majoring.
On Tuesday, when administrators announced they still planned to recommend dumping all foreign language programs, the university said that “only one first-time undergraduate student enrolled as a primary major in languages this fall.”
The School of Mathematical and Data Sciences also highlighted double majors in its self-study. “The total number of majors (primary and secondary) in the mathematics program in 2022 was 94, and that exceeds the median number of majors in a degree program at WVU of 72 by a wide margin,” the self-study said. “If only primary majors are counted, the median number of majors in the program from 2019 to 2022 was 72, exactly equal to the campus median of 72.”
“We are not an unhealthy department, so we do not understand the rationale,” said Casian Pantea, an associate professor of math. He said he hasn’t heard a concrete plan for a replacement math master’s degree if WVU cuts the current master’s and doctoral programs.
“There is no plan, there is no plan for that,” he said.
This fall, even before the general deadline for changing majors passed, the university wasn’t letting undergraduates switch their secondary majors with their primary majors, or upgrade minors to majors, in the programs that are on the chopping block.
“It’s very suspicious to me, primarily that they didn’t count the second majors or dual degrees or minors in the first round of statistics, but also that they’re not letting us switch,” said Felicia Carrara, a sophomore from Charlotte, N.C. She said she tried to switch her Russian studies secondary major with her international studies primary major after some advisers and professors in the Department of World Languages, Literatures and Linguistics asked whether students were willing to, so that the university might count them.
Carrara said the distinction between a primary and secondary major is “just the order that they were added in.”
Jordan Kosnik, a junior from Clare, Mich., who is double majoring in political science and international studies, said WVU prevented him from upgrading his Russian studies minor into a major and downgrading political science to a minor.
“It’s a bit of a hypocritical move on the administration’s part to actively bar students from switching their majors” to programs WVU says lack enrollment, Kosnik said. Russian studies is vital to him, he said, because he wants to work with the federal government on immigration policy, especially regarding Ukraine.
“It’s very important to me, personally, that I keep the world languages department at WVU, otherwise I would be forced to move,” he said.
In an email to Inside Higher Ed, Kaull suggested that allowing students to switch now wouldn’t make a difference anyway. “The enrollment data being used in the program review is from fall ’22, not the current semester,” she wrote.
“We are holding requests related to programs under review until there is clarity on the future of those programs, so students can make an informed choice with guidance from their academic adviser,” she wrote. She said the Department of World Languages, Literatures and Linguistics has only 12 requests for major changes.
“The primary major is where a student’s primary adviser, graduation and financial aid auditing requirements are calculated,” she wrote. “And regarding [the department], when language recommendations were made, the provost office considered both primary and secondary majors as part of our holistic review, even though it was not an official metric.”
Faculty Members Continue Asking Why
Several media outlets have reported on WVU’s enrollment and related financial woes, with The Chronicle of Higher Education and The Wall Street Journal delving into the university’s past financial decisions. But recent statements by Gee suggest reasons for cuts that aren’t only about costs.
“I get asked this question a lot—if you didn’t have the $45 million structural deficit, would you be doing what you’re doing?” he said to the Faculty Senate Executive Committee last week, commenting on the “Academic Transformation” process. “The answer is yes.”
The university asked consultants nearly a decade ago what it needed to do to “reform itself in order to be a better partner with the state,” he said.
When asked about the program cuts’ possible negative impact on enrollment, Gee told The Daily Athenaeum student newspaper Friday, “I actually hope it helps enrollment. For example, let’s just use world languages. We’ll take $5.8 million, and we put it into forensics.” He added, “We can grow our enrollment by about three or 400 students probably, just because of the fact that we’ll put money into high-growth programs.”
Of 25 academic units at risk of position cuts, program eliminations and other changes, 19 have appealed, the university says.
Lou Slimak, WVU’s associate provost for curriculum and assessment, told faculty members the units would each have 90 minutes for appeals—the combined time for a department chair’s argument, any dissenting or alternative faculty opinions, appeals committee questions, and deliberations. The process will be completed by Friday, and each unit will hear the outcome within three business days of its appeal. Some outcomes, such as for foreign languages, have already been released.
Those outcomes will still be only recommendations to the Board of Governors.
In yet another statement that has raised faculty members’ concerns, Slimak said in an information session last week that appeals could result in more serious cuts to departments.
“When an appeal is held, we revisit all of the recommendations that were made for a program,” he said. “Typically, that means we’re looking to adjust those recommendations and make them less severe. However, given the nature of what we’re looking at in these appeals, it is possible that a unit comes and says, ‘We can’t deliver the program with the number of faculty that have been requested to be reduced’ and we are forced to then make the decision to discontinue that program and increase the number of faculty that would be reduced in that unit.”
Slimak said, “All of the recommendations are on the table, and they can be adjusted in either direction.”