The state’s largest public university also is moving toward elimination of a master’s degree program in creative writing and a doctoral program in mathematics, among other proposed cuts, in response to declining enrollment and what university officials call a “structural” budget deficit of $45 million. In all, 32 of the university’s 338 majors on its Morgantown campus would be discontinued and 7 percent of its faculty eliminated under a plan made public last week.
“We are going through an existential crisis in higher education,” E. Gordon Gee, WVU’s president since 2014, told The Washington Post in an interview Wednesday, “and we happen to be on the point of the spear.” Gee said cuts are essential to free up resources for programs in higher demand such as forensics, engineering and neuroscience. Amid declining public confidence in higher education, Gee said, universities must earn back trust. “The people of the state are telling us what they want,” he said. “And for once, we’re listening to them.”
But the recommendations have angered and scared professors and left students disillusioned. “It’s come as a major shock and a major blow to the morale of many of my peers,” said Christian Adams, 18, a sophomore from Clarksburg, W.Va., who wants to major in Chinese studies. “It’s heartbreaking.”
Glenn Taylor, a novelist and associate professor of English, said he is outraged at threatened cuts in programs including jazz studies, world languages, linguistics and creative writing. “It’s an old, old playbook,” he said. “They’re taking away arts and humanities.” But faculty would also shrink in education, landscape architecture, public health and various other professional and scientific fields.
Modern flagship universities occupy a special place in the market, serving many regional and national needs. They are simultaneously a rallying point for pride in academics and athletics; a source of comprehensive degree offerings in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, engineering and professional fields; and a center of high-level research that advances knowledge and applies it to pressing global problems. They must do all that while offering heavily discounted rates to in-state students, responding to volatile political environments, and recruiting aggressively elsewhere in the country and internationally.
The upheaval at WVU, as it is known in the Mountain State, raises questions about what the minimum academic offerings should be at a prominent public research university and how to deal with ebbing financial support from the state government while the head count of students — and the tuition revenue they represent — is also decreasing.
College is remade as tech majors surge and humanities dwindle
Budget troubles have also flared recently at public Rutgers University in New Jersey, Pennsylvania State University and the University of Kansas, among other places. Options in such cases typically boil down to more state funding, tuition increases, program cuts, or some mix of those. But the solutions that Gee’s top lieutenants have advanced at WVU strike some observers as radical.
“I can tell you 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,” Paula M. Krebs, executive director of the Modern Language Association, wrote in an Aug. 11 letter to Gee. Krebs said study of language, literature and culture is essential to the mission of a major university. “Access to these courses is especially important in public higher education, which is often the only route to a degree for many state residents,” she wrote. “The humanities should not be reserved for students who can afford private higher education.”
The proposed cuts are preliminary, and some academic units are appealing the recommendations. But university officials aim to have WVU’s Board of Governors act on a package of cuts as early as Sept. 15. “We’re going to do it with speed,” said Gee, who plans to step down in 2025. “Our board will look at it, and then the threat will be behind us. We will have moved into an investment strategy again.” Any cuts would not affect fall semester classes. Faculty cuts would take effect in May, officials said, with contingency plans to help students in discontinued programs finish their degrees.
For several years before the coronavirus pandemic struck in 2020, the university was thinking big. When Gee arrived in 2014, WVU had 29,175 students in Morgantown and nearly 3,000 more at two sister campuses. Gee predicted system enrollment would reach 40,000 by 2020 — a massive increase for a state where the annual flow of high school graduates has stagnated in recent years and is projected to decline significantly. The university, which is northwest of Washington and south of Pittsburgh, counted on drawing students from other states and overseas. It expanded student housing and built and renovated other facilities.
But enrollment has slid nearly every year for the past decade, with the pandemic exacerbating the problem. In fall 2022, the system head count was little more than 27,000, with 24,741 on the flagship campus. About 42 percent of undergraduates in Morgantown are from West Virginia. The in-state charge this year for tuition and fees is about $9,600. Those from out of state pay about $27,000. Those figures don’t count housing and food.
College enrollment declines for third straight year since pandemic
A Chronicle of Higher Education analysis found WVU’s debt has risen more than 50 percent since 2014, to $962 million in 2022. Meanwhile, the Chronicle found, state appropriations for WVU fell nearly 36 percent from 2013 to 2022. Republicans have controlled the state legislature since 2015.
Representatives of Gov. Jim Justice (R), who has been in office since 2017, did not respond to requests for comment.
The situation has led to a funding crunch. WVU said its $45 million shortfall represents less than 3.5 percent of its $1.3 billion annual budget.
Gee said he has not asked legislative leaders to bail out the university. “If I had gone down and asked for $45 million from the state legislature, they would have thrown me out,” he said. Instead, Gee said, his strategy is to make tough decisions now and then ask lawmakers for support.
State Sen. Eric Tarr (R), chair of the finance committee, said Gee is building credibility with the legislature. “I wholeheartedly believe he’s doing the right thing,” Tarr said. “You can’t just keep propping up programs that don’t attract students.” Tarr said declining enrollment forces necessary conversations about making changes. But he said lawmakers want the flagship to thrive. “We have never not supported WVU,” he said.
Del. Evan Hansen (D) said Republican leaders recently blocked his proposal for a House vote on providing WVU with funding to cover the budget shortfall. “Higher education needs to be part of the solution to retaining the people we have and attracting new people to move here,” he said.
University officials declined to specify how much money the academic cutbacks would save because, they said, the proposals are still not finalized. But they provided one example: Expenses for the Department of World Languages, Literatures and Linguistics, which is slated for elimination, totaled $5.8 million last year. All 24 faculty positions would be cut. There would be no more bachelor’s degrees in Chinese, French, German, Russian or Spanish, and no more master’s degrees in linguistics or teaching English to speakers of other languages.
Faculty said the proposal would not just kill off the department but damage WVU as a whole. “A university is built around certain core values,” said Lisa M. Di Bartolomeo, a teaching professor of Russian studies and Slavic and East European studies. “One of those core values is intercultural competency.” Students in West Virginia need access to foreign language education to compete in a global economy, she said. “They’re not even going to know what they’re missing. Which is absolutely tragic.”
Colleges scramble to recruit students as nationwide enrollment plunges
By the university’s count, 21 students have declared primary majors in the world languages department. Di Bartolomeo denied that the department is a financial drain on the university. She said it is teaching more than 2,700 students this semester, with 87 students listed as majoring in a foreign language (counting those who declare multiple majors) and about 250 seeking to minor in the field.
But university officials say interest in department programs is “very low and declining,” and they plan to eliminate a general education requirement for foreign language. In a news release, they said they are exploring “alternative methods of delivery such as a partnership with an online language app or online partnership with a fellow Big 12 university.” WVU belongs to the Big 12 athletic conference.
Faculty scoffed at the idea of replacing in-person teaching with an app. “It’s not remotely comparable,” said Jonah Katz, an associate professor of linguistics. “These are extraordinarily unusual and, frankly, crazy recommendations.”
Other proposals are drawing fear and disbelief. One graduate student in mathematics, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid being drawn into public scrutiny, said the recommendation to reduce advanced scholarship in his field was distressing. “What if you live in West Virginia and you want to do a PhD in math?” he said. “They’re just saying they don’t care about that.”
Gee said the university must make choices about what kinds of expertise it wants to pursue, citing a “world-class” WVU program in neuroscience. “Someone else is going to have a great PhD program in mathematics,” he said. “And you know what? God bless them.”
Frankie Tack, chair of the Faculty Senate, said professors are “extremely concerned” about the proposed cuts. She pointed to the proposal on foreign languages as “extreme.” But she said she is mindful that the university has been trimming its nonacademic expenses significantly in recent years and that academics must undergo the same scrutiny. “It’s kind of our turn,” she said.
But as a member of the WVU governing board, Tack said she is wrestling with how she will vote on the recommendations. “I don’t want to give the impression that I’m comfortable with all this,” Tack said. “It’s awful.”