West Virginia University and the surrounding area is seen from across the Monongahela River over the summer. (WVU Photo/David Malecki)

When West Virginia University President Gordon Gee virtually addressed the school’s faculty during a Faculty Senate meeting earlier this week, he defended the university’s plan to implement program and faculty cuts in response to a $45 million budget shortfall, saying the university must invest in programs “that meet future student and societal needs.” 

But according to professors in departments anticipated to undergo some of the most significant faculty reductions, the elimination of faculty expertise in more specialized subject areas — versus general major requirements — will mean fewer opportunities for students to develop niche expertise and make broader contributions to society.

Gee told faculty that the university will still offer 300 majors. Administrators have also said that the cuts will directly affect just 2% of students and about 6% of faculty.

“The notion these recommended changes will bar our students from intellectual exploration is nonsense, or from a well-rounded liberal arts education is also false,” Gee said. “West Virginia has been — and always will be — a university that offers a variety of majors and experiences that prepare our students for the future.”

Professors said students won’t be able to take courses in less-popular areas that may pique newfound interest.

“Everyone in our department is a subject area expert,” said Lisa Weihman, an English professor focused on 20th century British and Irish literature. “And so losing anyone means that we no longer get to offer whatever that subject area would be.”

Lisa Weihman, the WVU English department’s Associate Professor of 20th Century British and Irish Literature, is worried budget cuts will lead to an exodus of professors with specialized expertise. Courtesy photo

Following an appeals process, university administrators reversed course and agreed to save certain faculty members and majors, such as the Master of Fine Arts in Acting, as well as some Spanish and Chinese courses.

But a Mountain State Spotlight analysis still found a serious hollowing out of some departments — a 33% cut in the School of Education, a 31% reduction in Communications Studies faculty, and within the School of Medicine, a 43% cut in the School of Public Health — though those numbers are based on the most recent recommendations, and could still change. The Board of Governors plans to vote on recommendations Friday.

While the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, originally up for elimination, appears saved for now, English professors continue to have concerns about the long-term competitiveness of their department. Professors said faculty cuts will lead to higher course loads, less time for research, larger classes, and less time for student feedback.

The English department is expected to go from 36 full-time professors to 28, according to the university’s most recent plan — a 22% reduction. In an effort to save jobs, the faculty offered to have tenure-track and tenured professors teach an additional course each semester. Administrators agreed to more teaching, but moved forward with job cuts.

Weihman said some professors have already been retiring, while others feel demoralized. She’s entering her 23rd year at WVU, and said she still loves the university.

“I hope to retire from here,” she said. “I love what I do here. I love my students. I need less distraction and fewer administrative shenanigans.”

While the English department will continue to offer bachelor’s and graduate level degrees, Tim Sweet, a distinguished English professor who specializes in American literature, said cutting professors will leave less time for those remaining to do research, making it harder to get promoted.

“Or, if faculty maintain their research commitments, they will assign less reading and writing,” he said. “This will diminish student learning — but it’s clear that student learning is not the administration’s first priority.”

And with fewer faculty members focused on specialized areas of study, he said the university will be less likely to attract graduate students whose interests align with those professors, and who can help reduce class sizes by teaching introductory English classes.

Through conversations with other faculty, Sweet has learned that nearly every professor is looking for other work, although some with local ties want to stay.

“Everybody would leave if they could,” he said.

Students may lose the opportunity to study esoteric subjects. Sweet, who has been at WVU for 33 years and teaches an undergraduate course on Henry David Thoreau, among other topics, doubts he would have been able to develop his own areas of expertise in the school’s current climate. He also said the English Department has seen budget cuts on a smaller scale for a few years now, and through attrition, they are down to one professor who specializes in the English Renaissance. 

“If she gets cut or leaves, students will be SOL (Shakespeare out of luck),” he said.

Administrators are planning to reduce the faculty in WVU’s math department by 33%, to 32 full-time faculty members instead of 48. The school also plans to end doctoral and master’s level math instruction, although the department is anticipated to develop, on an uncertain timeline, a combined applied mathematics/data sciences doctoral program. 

During Monday’s Faculty Senate meeting, math professor Ela Celikbas addressed Gee and told him that the proposed faculty reduction would lead to the “nuclear” annihilation of her department.

“Personnel cuts will likely increase class sizes to 60 to 80 and the ensuing exodus may destroy all academic math programs within one to two years,” she said, adding that losing the faculty would make it nearly impossible to cover all math courses, and compound the state’s ongoing teacher shortage.

Gee responded that while he loved her passion and views the field as a critical component of the university, he doesn’t believe every aspect of math is essential.

Marisa Porco, a second-year graduate student in the mathematics program, noted that the loss of graduate students will mean fewer teaching assistants, like herself, to teach small courses. She is a TA for two calculus courses.

“I’ve seen working in groups in smaller classes, and I’ve seen lecturing in lecture halls. And students really do respond better to the smaller class sizes and more interaction with their professor,” she said.  

In smaller classes, they ask her more questions.

“They’re all talking to each other, kind of bouncing ideas off of each other,” she said. “And I can tell that they’re learning a lot.”

In larger classes Porco served as TA for, she said students were on their phones.

The WVU Department of World Languages, Literatures and Linguistics was originally slated to be cut completely – all 24 faculty positions would be eliminated. Following widespread criticism, the current plan is for five professors to remain to teach some Spanish and Chinese language courses.

Jonah Katz, an associate professor of linguistics in WVU’s world language department, is losing his position. He referred to WVU as a “disaster area.”

“The school has failed, essentially,” he said.

WVU researchers Breann Tennyson, an undergraduate in communication sciences and disorders, Jonah Katz, associate professor of linguistics, and Taya Sullivan, a dual major in neuroscience and Spanish, test recording setups and room acoustics by inspecting waveforms and spectrograms of voices. Katz is one of the professors losing his position as WVU makes budget cuts. (WVU Photo/Brian Persinger)

Katz said that while some students may still take Spanish or Chinese courses, there won’t be enough classes remaining to let them achieve the proficiency that employers looking for bilingual employees require. He noted that bilingual employees are especially valuable in medical professions.

He said students will also lose out on upper-level language courses that broaden students’ perspectives by delving more into other countries’ customs and culture — the sort of learning experience that might not necessarily result in a job offer or a pay bump. That, Katz said, is a blind spot in administrators’ approach. 

“I think they’re focusing on professional tasks in West Virginia that they find valuable,” he said. 

Erin Beck is Mountain State Spotlight's Community Watchdog Reporter.