Hundreds of West Virginia University students wearing red T-shirts and bandanas to symbolize their connection to striking coal miners a century ago staged protests Monday against an administration proposal to cut 9% of majors amid a $45 million budget shortfall.
Yelling “stop the cuts” with the crowd outside the school’s student union in Morgantown, second-year creative writing masters student Kelly Ward called the plan to eliminate the world languages and dozens of other programs at the state’s flagship university “absurd” and “asinine.”
“For me, the elimination of these programs simply means that they are trying to continue with the erasure of Appalachian voices and Appalachian stories,” she said, holding a sign reading “Writers Don’t Forget.”
Ward said the school’s administration is just proving to West Virginia natives and Appalachian people that “money is worth more than their stories.”
“That is what has been the rhetoric for many, many, many years now, so it’s very, very frustrating to see this,” she said. ”I don’t think I can even fully put it into words.”
Earlier this month, the university recommended eliminating 32 majors and 7% of the total faculty in Morgantown, the latter part of $7 million in proposed staffing cuts. The university said the proposed program cuts would represent a total of 434 students, or 2% of total enrollment. Critics have said that figure should be higher because it only counted students whose first major is in one of the affected programs.
“I know this has been an incredibly stressful time for our campus,” Maryanne Reed, university provost and vice president of academic affairs, said during a Faculty Senate Executive Committee meeting later Monday. “I just think that emotions are very high right now. These are serious decisions that we are considering.”
President E. Gordon Gee and other top university officials have said the budget shortfall is largely the result of enrollment declines. The student population at West Virginia University has dropped 10% since 2015.
Gee, who has said he will step down when his contract expires in 2025, told the Faculty Senate that changes to the university were coming regardless of the deficit.
“In 2020 I said that we needed to make these in order to be a competitive university on the national stage,” Gee said.
The move comes after West Virginia saw the greatest population drop of any state in the U.S. from 2010 to 2020. It’s the only state that now has fewer residents than it did in 1950.
The West Virginia United Students’ Union organized separate rallies on campus. Organizers said they want to halt the university’s planned reductions, seek an independent audit of its finances and reduce WVU’s administrative spending. They also called for increased spending by the state in higher education, among other things.
Students were encouraged to wear red in honor of the red bandanas West Virginia coal miners fighting to unionize wore during their march on Blair Mountain, the largest armed uprising in the United States since the Civil War.
Wearing a bandana around her neck, Mai-lyn Sadler of Lincoln County said young people need leaders providing more opportunities in the state instead of “actively canceling them.”
“I think it’s just devaluing, and committing to the brain drain we’re already seeing — it’s ridiculous,” said Sadler, a dual major in political science and philosophy with a minor in women and gender studies. “Kids are stuck in these rural communities as it is and a lot of us are looking at either the military or college to get us out of here and let us learn something new.”
Jennifer Lawrence, a local dance studio owner who graduated with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in French from WVU, said she’s deeply concerned about West Virginia students losing access to liberal arts in publicly-funded education — something already “hard to come by” in the state.
“For me, it’s really that this is going to happen on the national level, and we’re just the frontline of it,” she said.
The university cited low interest in targeting the Department of World Languages, Literature and Linguistics for elimination. That includes bachelor’s degrees in French and Spanish along with Chinese, German and Russian studies, and master’s programs in linguistics and teaching English to speakers of other languages.
Professor Lisa Di Bartolomeo, who coordinates the Russian studies and Slavic and East European studies programs, has urged others to pepper the university with pleas to continue all of the language programs. The long-term implications for students from the state of West Virginia could be drastic, she said.
“I don’t see how it avoids pushing people out of state, and I think the impact on West Virginia students happens from top to bottom,” she said Monday. “I think what’s going to happen is going to exacerbate the already existing brain-drain that West Virginia has experienced for decades. Young people see fewer and fewer options for their futures in the state of West Virginia.”
The WVU Board of Governors is scheduled to make final recommendations Sept. 15. Staff and faculty reduction letters will be sent in mid-October.
Anna Schles, who grew up in Charleston and graduated from the university’s creative writing masters program in May, said the cuts are a “devaluing of a liberal arts education.”
“I think there’s a rising tide of anti-intellectualism in this country, and it’s really hard to see because there’s nothing wrong with being educated and learning things,” she said. “It’s going to make people more isolated and live poorer lives and I think the cruelty is some of the point here.”
Raby reported from Charleston, West Virginia.