Slashing its budget, West Virginia University asks, what is essential?

Schools

The state’s flagship school will no longer teach world languages or creative writing — a sign, its president says, of the future at many public universities.

The budget cuts have ignited debate about some of the biggest issues facing higher education. Kristian Thacker for The New York Times

Christian Adams wants to be an immigration or labor lawyer, so he planned to major in Chinese studies at West Virginia University, with an emphasis on the Mandarin language.

But as his sophomore year begins, he has learned that, as part of a plan to close a $45 million budget deficit through faculty layoffs and academic program consolidation, the university has proposed eliminating its world languages department, gutting his major.

He will have to pivot to accounting, he says, and probably spend an extra year in college, taking out more student loans.

“A lot of students are really worried,” said Adams, 18. “Some are considering transferring. But a lot of students are stuck with the hand they’ve been given.”

In a move that shocked the faculty, students and their families, West Virginia University announced last week that it was proposing laying off 169 faculty members, or 7% of the faculty on its main campus in Morgantown.

Thirty-two of the university’s 338 majors would be shut down, and some other programs would be consolidated, like those dealing with the state’s historically important but declining mining industry, which will probably be converted into an “energy” program, officials said. The cuts will affect 147 undergraduates and 287 graduate students, or less than 2% of student enrollment.

The administration is calling the plan a “transformation.” Some professors are calling it a “bloodbath.”

The budget cuts have ignited debate about some of the biggest issues facing higher education. As students flee the humanities — interest in English and world languages is declining nationally — how much money should universities continue to put into them? Is it time to make tough choices about what students really need in order to be educated?

And what should be done about declining public trust in the value of higher education? “We simply have lost the support of the American public,” said E. Gordon Gee, the president of West Virginia University.

Gee contends that his school is a canary in the coal mine, and he is being candid about its financial problems. Other public universities, he said, confront similar challenges. Penn State, for instance, faces a $63 million deficit this year, despite a hiring freeze and other savings. Rutgers University in New Jersey has been slashing budgets and raising tuition to help close a $77 million deficit.

“A lot of higher education institutions in the country have had a deficit in some form or other — ours is sort of in the middle,” Gee said in an interview.

Some faculty members in Morgantown lament that the state’s flagship university, a respected research institution, is turning its back on the liberal arts by closing programs like creative writing. They say that it is a low blow to a state known for Appalachian poverty and lack of opportunity, one that will accelerate the brain drain that drives many of its most talented young people out of the state.

The cuts, they say, will have ripple effects that will give students fewer course options and larger classes. And, they say, students will lose a precious commodity: the ability to try Russian or fiction writing, even if they are not majoring in the subjects.

The university’s problems, they say, stem from fiscal mismanagement. Over the last decade, the university has invested in projects like new buildings for agriculture, engineering, student health, student housing and recreation, conferences and labs, and it has renovated its athletic facilities. Faculty members say that capital spending was imprudent when West Virginia’s population was declining.

“I think there was clearly bad management here,” said Scott Crichlow, a professor of political science, a department unaffected by the cuts.

They argue that the $45 million deficit, equal to less than 3.5% of the university’s $1.3 billion budget, would be manageable if the state Legislature and the governor would step in with a bailout. But Gee said he has not asked for that, because it would amount to “kicking the ball down the road.”

The university has answered critics of the capital spending by saying that it was needed to maintain the campus and to attract students and faculty members, and that the university’s bond rating is good. The athletic department must raise money and “is expected to carry its own weight,” according to April Kaull, a university spokesperson.

Gee said that pandemic aid had provided a false sense of security. “We were given a lot of relief during the pandemic, and some of that free money sometimes doesn’t bring about the best results,” Gee said. “But the real issue is the fact that there’s a post-pandemic world that we’re dealing with, which is dramatically different.”

As it did at many universities, the pandemic accelerated enrollment declines at the Morgantown campus, where the number of students has fallen by 2,101 students, or almost 8%, since August 2020.

One budget analysis said a long-term decline in state support was to blame for much of the university’s financial trouble. Higher education funding in West Virginia has dropped by about 24%, or $146 million, over the past decade, adjusted for inflation, according to the analysis by Kelly Allen, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.

Nationally, public colleges and universities have doubled their reliance on tuition since 1980, but in West Virginia, the figure has nearly tripled, according to the analysis. More than half — 56% — of total revenue for the state’s public colleges and universities now comes from tuition; in 1980, the figure was 19%. If West Virginia lawmakers had maintained education funding at the level of a decade ago, most of the current deficit would be erased, the report said.

WVU’s tuition and fees for in-state undergraduates this academic year is $9,648, which is steep for many families. The state’s median household income was a little more than $50,000 in 2021.

Gee, whose contract was recently renewed for one year, until 2025, is known for his charm, outspokenness and fundraising skills, qualities that have propelled him to lead five universities: Ohio State (twice), Vanderbilt, Brown, West Virginia (twice) and Colorado.

But he has also made unpopular decisions. He said he had been involved in making budget cuts at all three of the public universities where he has served. At Ohio State, he restricted enrollment, merged departments and cut jobs through attrition, while beginning a fundraising campaign. He once joked that he wore his trademark bow tie because “it’s much more difficult to be hung by the faculty with a bow tie than with a long tie.”

At West Virginia University, professors complain that the proposed changes will be more destructive than Gee makes them out to be.

“Other universities have closed particular languages,” said Lisa Di Bartolomeo, a professor of Russian, Slavic and East European Studies. “But nobody has closed an entire department of world languages that we know of. The word that we’re hearing over and over again is ‘unprecedented.’”

But the university says the student body has changed, as it has elsewhere. The number of bachelor’s degrees in world languages, literature and linguistics awarded annually fell by 25% nationally and by 30% in the states where WVU focuses on recruiting students between 2010 and 2021, the university said.

Language requirements for graduation, it says, have been eliminated at Amherst College, the University of Alabama, Johns Hopkins, George Washington University and Duquesne University, among others, as students have shifted to fields like computer science.

For West Virginia students who are still interested in learning French or Mandarin, the university has a possible solution: taking language courses online.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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