Ryan Quinn/Inside Higher Ed
mORGANTOWN, W.Va.—West Virginia University’s proposal to eliminate nearly a 10th of its majors and 169 full-time faculty positions from its flagship campus led hundreds of students to protest Monday, as a student union’s organizing power added volume to the online employee protestations and national media coverage that’s been buffeting the institution for more than a week.
Pressure on the administration to reverse its recommended cuts is growing as the WVU Board of Governors’ Sept. 15 vote on the proposals nears. The suggested cuts—not the first in recent years at West Virginia—were discussed around the end of the spring and through the summer, but WVU’s big reveal of how extensive the proposed layoffs and degree reductions would be didn’t come until Aug. 11.
“Stop the Cuts!” was students’ first chant outside the Mountainlair student union Monday, followed by “Hey hey, ho ho, Gordon Gee has got to go!”
Multiple chants, signs and a flame-bedecked “Fire Gee” banner that students held in front of the entrance to the Stewart Hall administration building all targeted Gee, the university’s two-time president whose current run has lasted nearly a decade. Chants and signs said, “Stop the Gee-llotine!” while other signs said, “Gee can take home 800K but we can’t take Spanish?” and “Cut Gee’s pay not our programs.”
Gee has said he’s planning to retire in 2025 and remain a faculty member at WVU law school. His retirement announcement came a month before the university revealed how many degree offerings and faculty positions it was planning to slash.
“President Gee was responding to a question during a Faculty Senate meeting about his future plans,” April Kaull, a university spokeswoman, said of that retirement announcement. “While he’s focused on the work at hand now, he answered that he plans to retire after his extended contract expires in 2025.”
The main campus protest—there was another Monday at the Evansdale campus, also in Morgantown—grew to the point that organizers, who were struggling with audio issues, had to corral people off University Avenue, a main thoroughfare, where they were blocking traffic.
Many demonstrators wore red, and some donned red bandanas, a symbol of the “redneck” strikers of the West Virginia Mine Wars of the 1910s and early 1920s. Mai-lyn Sadler, a senior philosophy and political science dual major from southern West Virginia, stepped into the flower bed outside the student union wearing that garb and grasping a megaphone. “I’m fucking pissed, dude,” Sadler said, to cheers.
She called out another administrator: Corey Farris, dean of students. In an internet-panned interview with MetroNews last week, Farris said he had received “one question, and that’s it” about WVU’s “Academic Transformation.”
“They’ve already said we don’t give a shit,” Sadler said. “What is this crowd, what is this, Corey Farris?”
West Virginia United Students’ Union organized Monday’s protest. Matthew Kolb, a fourth-year math major who said he was planning to move into the master’s degree math program that’s now on the chopping block, said the organization had grown from fewer than a dozen people a few weeks ago to roughly 250 now.
The student walkout began around noon and continued into the afternoon, with students moving from in front of the student union to out front of Stewart Hall. Some yelled, “fuck you” up into an open window there, and an “Eat shit, Gee” chant echoed the “Eat shit, Pitt” often leveled at WVU’s old rival, the University of Pittsburgh.
Some faculty members joined the demonstration, along with a current and former state officeholder in the West Virginia Democratic Party, which holds vanishingly few seats in the state Legislature.
Kaull, the university spokeswoman, said in an email Monday that “While we encourage students to be in class, we also support those who chose to engage in respectful debate on our campus, which is their First Amendment right. We have been listening to students who have been telling us what they want through the majors and programs they are enrolling in, and importantly those they are not, and we are responding.”
Neither she nor the organizers had numbers on how many students skipped classes for the protests.
WVU has 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’s in math; bachelor’s in environmental and community planning; bachelor degree in recreation, parks and tourism resources; doctor of musical arts in composition; master of music in composition; and master’s in jazz pedagogy, acting and creative writing.
The university’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.
The university has pointed to low enrollments in certain programs to justify cuts, including a lightning rod proposal to eliminate the entirety of the department of world languages, literatures and linguistics. But Lisa Di Bartolomeo, a teaching professor of Russian studies at West Virginia, has retorted that WVU isn’t counting all students who are double majoring in languages.
“Cost-to-deliver is one of the metrics considered in the preliminary recommendations,” Kaull wrote in an email. “The data reflect students’ primary majors as they are the best reflection of the cost-to-deliver. Dual majors and minors don’t generate revenue like primary majors. Further, the cost and effort of supporting students (e.g., advising) is typically carried by the primary major.”
WVU’s Aug. 11 news release announcing the proposed cuts said it was “exploring alternative methods of delivery” for languages, “such as a partnership with an online language app.” A sign on Monday called the university “Duolingo U,” complete with the green bird mascot of that phone app.
“We’re pissed,” Sadler said. “We’re losing languages; we’re losing departments; we’re losing faculty and friends.”
Gee told Inside Higher Ed Friday, “What we’re doing is that we’re really looking at the numbers and we realize that our students have spoken to us. And our students have said that offering languages the way that we are is just not something that they want.”
Asked about the calls to reduce his salary, which were happening online before Monday’s protest, Gee said he contributes about 15 percent of his salary every year to student scholarships.
John Fox, who just started his master’s degree in creative writing, one of the programs to be cut under the proposal, carried water bottles for the protesters. He’s from Morgantown.
“We’re losing out on the culture of West Virginia,” he said, “like a voice to the culture of West Virginia.”