After program cuts, West Virginia University’s new student body says the fight is not over

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Sophomore Christian Adams expected to study Chinese when he enrolled at West Virginia University, with dreams of working in labor or immigration law.

He did not anticipate switching majors to politics, a change he made after West Virginia’s flagship university in September cut its world languages ​​department and dozens of other programs in subjects such as English, math and music amid a budget deficit of $45 million.

And he certainly didn’t expect to be studying – or teaching fellow students – about community organizing.

But the cuts, labeled “draconian and catastrophic” by the American Federation of Teachers, have catalyzed a different kind of education: Adams co-founded the West Virginia United Students’ Union. The leading opposition force against the cuts, the union, organized protests, circulated petitions and helped save a handful of teaching positions before ultimately cutting 143 faculty positions and 28 majors.

Disappointed, they say that their work is far from finished. Led by many first-generation college students and those receiving financial aid in the state with the fewest college graduates, members say they want to usher in a new era of student involvement in the university’s political life.

“Really, what it is for WVU is a new era of student politics,” Adams said.

The movement is part of a wave of student organizations at U.S. colleges and universities focusing on everything from higher education affordability and representation to who has access to a diverse range of courses and workplace safety concerns.

The university in Morgantown had struggled financially with declining enrollment, loss of revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic and mounting debt for new construction projects. Other U.S. universities and colleges have faced similar decisions, but WVU’s is one of the most extreme examples of a flagship university making such dramatic cuts, especially in the foreign language field.

The union called the move to eliminate 8% of majors and 5% of faculty a failure by university leadership to uphold its mission as a land-grant institution, charged since the 19th century with educating rural students who historically were seen as excluded from higher education. A quarter of all West Virginia children live in poverty, and many public elementary schools do not offer robust language programs at a time when language skills are becoming increasingly important in the global job market.

As the school continues to evaluate its finances, the union plans to keep a close eye on its budget, mobilize against any additional proposed cuts and prepare alternative proposals to keep the curriculum and faculty positions in place.

Another key goal is to monitor and influence the school’s search for a new president after university head E. Gordon Gee retires next year. Gee, the subject of token motions from a faculty group that expressed no confidence in his leadership, said last year that the curriculum cuts came at a time of change in higher education, and that WVU was “leading that change rather than to be a victim of.”

Higher education across the country has become “arrogant” and “isolated”, he said, warning that without change, schools face “a very bleak future”.

President and co-founder of the Union Assembly of Delegates Matthew Kolb, a math major, said his group does not want a new president who believes running the school like a corporation or business entity is the only option to get things done right .

“We know that when push comes to shove, the result is 143 faculty being pushed off a cliff with one vote,” he said.

Adams, a native of north-central West Virginia and the first in his family to attend college immediately after high school, said he was able to transfer to another institution and continue his studies in Chinese. But a big part of the reason he chose WVU was because of his commitment to the state and desire to improve its socio-economic prospects.

“Many West Virginians feel trapped in West Virginia and feel like they have to leave – not many choose to stay here,” Adams said. “I made the conscious decision to attend WVU to stay here to improve my life. stands.”

The cuts represented a reaffirmation of that commitment, “despite my state’s flagship university being essentially told, ‘Your major is not relevant, it doesn’t matter, it’s not worth our time or money to teach.’”

Student unions have existed worldwide for hundreds of years. In the US, the union is often associated with campus hubs where students have access to dining halls, club offices and social events, but in the UK the union also takes the form of a university-independent advocacy organization that lobbies at the institutional and national levels.

Members say they envision a West Virginia United Students’ Union similar to the one in Britain, and it’s a concept they want to help grow.

That meant a lot of work behind the scenes, coming up with strategies to keep students interested and engaged and building relationships with the college campus union, student government and other organizations.

That work with the union helped keep students’ morale high as they watched faculty scramble to find new jobs and rewrite the curriculum, student Felicia Carrara said.

Carrara, a double major in international studies and Russian studies from North Carolina, said she and many of her colleagues chose West Virginia University because it was affordable.

“The fact that we now have to try to find the scholarships and other money to pay for an education somewhere else, or just not get a degree at all or get a degree that is actually very bare bones. It’s just very disheartening,” she said.

“When you get to college, you think things are going to be better than middle school and high school,” she said. “And it’s very sad to find out that that’s not the case.”

Andrew Ross, a German and Political Science major, will be the last graduate majoring in languages.

Ross, a 31-year-old nontraditional student who transferred to WVU in 2022 after earning an associate’s degree, learned about the proposed cuts days after returning home from a summer program in Germany that he attended with the help of a department grant .

Ross, now vice president of the student body, said the cuts “felt like a slap in the face.” The university told him to drop the German major. He is proud of his effort to complete the degree with many twists and turns, but it is bittersweet.

“In some ways, and it makes me sad because I hope there isn’t anyone growing up who can’t have this experience, we all deserve it,” he said. “This university is not only failing me, but also the state.”