West Virginia University makes wide-ranging cuts to academic programs and faculty

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Despite shouts of “stop the cuts” from students, West Virginia University’s board voted Friday to make wide-ranging reductions to academic programs and faculty positions as it grapples with a $45 million budget shortfall.

The state's largest university will drop 28 of its majors, or about 8%, and cut 143 of the faculty positions, or around 5%. Among the cuts are one-third of education department faculty and the entire world language department, although there will still be seven language teaching positions and students can take some language courses as electives.

The university in Morgantown has been weighed down financially by a 10% drop in enrollment since 2015, revenue lost during the pandemic and an increasing debt load for new building projects.

Students chanting slogans and holding signs, including one that read, “This isn’t the WVU that I fell in love with,” briefly interrupted Friday’s meeting just prior to the board’s vote. Dozens of speakers, including students and faculty, also vehemently opposed the cuts at a board hearing Thursday. No one spoke in support.

The cuts are on top of those made in June, when the board approved $7 million in staff reductions, or around 132 positions, slashed 12 graduate and doctorate programs and approved a 3% tuition increase. In addition, board chair Taunja Willis Miller said 509 staff positions have been eliminated since 2016 and various units combined to improve efficiencies.

Maryanne Reed, the provost and vice president for academic affairs, acknowledged the dissenting voices but assured the board Friday that “even with the accelerated timeline, this was a thoughtful, professional and data-informed process.”

A faculty group recently took symbolic motions expressing no confidence in school President E. Gordon Gee and calling for a freeze in the ongoing cuts, which the American Federation of Teachers called “draconian and catastrophic.”

Faculty members will find out if they're losing their jobs by Oct. 16, but they can remain at the school through early May, said Stephanie Taylor, university vice president and general counsel.

The vast majority of undergrad students whose majors were cut already have 60 credits and can graduate with WVU degrees, administrators say. The rest will get help finding alternatives. All graduate students losing their programs will be able to complete their degrees.

WVU has labeled the cuts an “academic transformation” amid an “existential crisis” in higher education.

Speaking with reporters Friday, Gee said administrators aren't concerned about the school's public image and were focused on having a great university.

"This is a time of great change in higher education, and we are leading that change rather than being its victim,” he said.

The university president told faculty earlier this year that higher education nationwide has become arrogant and isolated, warning that without change, schools face “a very bleak future.”

Critics see a different a set of circumstances, accusing the administration of financial mismanagement, poor strategic planning and lack of transparency in a state with the lowest rate of college graduates and highest rate of population exodus. West Virginia is the only state that now has fewer residents than it did in 1950.

The university’s budget shortfall is projected to grow as high as $75 million in five years.

WVU spent millions of dollars on construction projects in recent years, including a $100 million new home for the university’s business school, a $35 million renovation of a 70-year-old classroom building, and $41 million for two phases of upgrades to the football team’s building.

Gov. Jim Justice rejected suggestions this week that state money should be used to help WVU, in light of the West Virginia's $1.8 billion surplus in the 2023 fiscal year that ended in June.

“What we really need to do is let WVU have the time to get their house in order,” Justice said.

The Republican governor reiterated his confidence in Gee, who got a one-year contract extension from the board this summer and will stay on until June 2025.

Regarding the cuts, Justice pointed to “some level of bloating in programs and things that maybe, just maybe, we ought not to be teaching at WVU.”

The governor signed a bill last month giving $45 million for Marshall University to open a new cybersecurity center.

WVU physics and astronomy Professor Sean McWilliams told board members Thursday that all other “R1” research institutions offer a graduate degree in math.

He fears the cuts will damage the school’s reputation and that losing world language programs will make West Virginia appear insular and unwelcoming.

Assistant English department chair Christine Hoffmann said many faculty will be driven to seek other employment, even if their positions aren’t eliminated.

“As long as I’m here, my priority is the students I serve,” she said. “I’m also going to need to prioritize my escape from a place where the people in charge will spit in your face and tell you it’s raining.”