Hundreds of West Virginia University students participated in a walk on on the Downtown Campus on Monday, Aug. 21, 2023 to protest the university’s proposal to cut 32 majors. (Aidan Cornue | West Virginia Watch)
MORGANTOWN — Mai-lyn Sadler, red bandana tied around her neck, faced the crowd of her fellow West Virginia University students. She yelled into the megaphone, “Stop! The! Cuts!”
Hundreds of students chanted back during the student-organized walkout Monday afternoon on the downtown campus. They’re pushing back on proposed cuts to 32 academic programs and more than 100 faculty jobs as university leaders try to make up for a $45 million budget shortfall.
The West Virginia United Students’ Union, which began organizing in the spring as the budget shortfall went public, organized the walk out. Student members called for an independent audit of the university’s finances and better transparency about pending changes, which could force some students to change majors or leave the university to finish their studies if their programs are discontinued.
Many students were upset by recent comments from Dean of Students Dr. Corey Farris, who told reporters there had been “minimal concerns” from students about the pending changes.
“I hope that the administration, that the community and the entire nation see that the students care,” said Matthew Kolb, 21, a math major who helped organize the event. He added that the preliminary recommendations, which include cutting math graduate programs, would force him to leave the state to become a math teacher.
Twelve of the programs facing possible elimination are undergraduate majors and 20 are graduate-level majors. The Department of World Languages, Literatures and Linguistics, which includes Spanish, Russian and Chinese studies, was marked to be completely dissolved. The proposed cuts would affect less than 2% of university students, university leaders said.
“I’m feeling very hurt, especially because of how much money I’ve spent to come to school here,” said Wheeling-native Wyatt Andrew, 19, who is studying International Studies with a minor in Arabic. He’s concerned he may not have enough credits to be included in the university’s future “teach out” plans for students in impacted departments.
“It just sucks that I might have to pack up and go to another school,” he said.
Many students donned red shirts and attire as a nod to the red bandanas worn by coal miners who famously went on strike in the 1920s around Southern West Virginia on behalf of miners’ rights.
Sadler, 21, a double major in international relations and philosophy, wore a T-shirt depicting the mine workers. Originally from Lincoln County, she came to WVU for its Chinese department, which she said gave her access for the first time to others in her culture. She serves as president of the university’s Asian Association.
“They’re not just destroying education, they’re destroying a community. That should be known,” she said.
Students gathered in two locations — the Downtown Campus in front of the Mountainlair student center and on the Evansdale Campus — before relocating in front Stewart Hall, which houses the office of Gee, to continue their peaceful protest.
April Kaull, WVU executive director of communications, said the preliminary recommendations relied heavily on program enrollment data.
“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,” Kaull said in an email.
Department leaders were encouraged to reach out to students who could be impacted by the program changes, and students have been asked to meet with their advisors. A Campus Conversation is planned for Sept. 20.
Many students also called for the resignation of President E. Gordon Gee, citing his recent contract extension through June 30, 2025, with a base salary of $800,000. Gee announced earlier this month that he does not plan to extend his contract past 2025.
Political Science professor Erik Herron attended the walk out in support of faculty members and students. His department wasn’t facing cuts at this time, but he said the program changes would have ripple effects in his own program as political science students regularly need foreign language skills for jobs.
The cuts will have other long-term effects, too, he said.
“[The cuts] will deter students, faculty and financial contributions,” he said.
Faculty appeal process underway
Faculty can appeal the university’s program recommendations and, during a Faculty Senate meeting on Monday, Associate Provost for Curriculum and Assessment Louis Slimk said that 19 of 25 department units under review submitted an intent to appeal.
He added that department chairs and faculty members will have a chance to speak during 90 minute appeals meetings, which will begin Thursday.
The process is expected to wrap up early next month before the Board of Governors makes its final vote Sept. 15.
Some campus employees, including faculty and student workers, have organized under the name West Virginia Campus Workers in an effort to have a collective voice in the “Academic Transformation” process.
Maryanne Reed, provost and vice president for academic affairs, told faculty senate members that she knew this had been an “incredibly stressful time” on campus.
“Besides the protest that I heard — very peaceably — we’ve received many emails from all types of people both internally and externally concerned about our program portfolio review process, and specifically our preliminary recommendations,” she said.
Reed added that her department received death threats following the recommendations.
“Emotions are very high right now, and these are serious things that we are considering,” she continued. “I am not trying to say, ‘Woe is me.’ I do want to say that we feel very strong that his work must continue. Our board of governors gave us a directive to do this work and do this in an accelerated time frame so we can meet our budget challenges.”
The university is also currently reviewing non-academic expenses, including food services and campus police, for possible financial changes to help bring down expenses.
Gee reiterated Monday to faculty senate members that the university will not receive additional financial help from the Legislature to help make up for the shortfall. “We do anticipate that because of the good decisions we’re making … that we’ll have very specific asks for the 2024 [Legislative session] for infrastructure support and certain projects.”
Monongalia County Dels. Evan Hansen and Anitra Hamilton, both Democrats, attended the student walk out. The pair, along with Del. John Williams, D-Monongalia, unsuccessfully tried to introduce a bill amendment during the special session earlier this month that would have allocated $45 million to WVU.
“We are going to keep fighting on your behalf,” Hansen told the crowd.
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