Protestors attend the Board of Governors meeting Friday where a final vote was held on budget cuts. Photo courtesy Ela Celikbas.

After a contentious two-hour meeting on Friday, the board of West Virginia University approved cuts to academic programs that will result in the closure or merger of dozens of degree programs and layoffs of 143 faculty members.

“To those who participated in the process, we know that it was hard and we know that it’s not been easy, but we believe it was necessary,” said Taunja Willis-Miller, chair of the WVU Board of Governors, after the vote. 

School administrators have said the cuts are needed to correct a $45 million budget shortfall that could balloon to $75 million in coming years. The shortfall is primarily caused by declining enrollment, which was exacerbated by the pandemic.

Over the past several months, hundreds of students and faculty have decried the process for determining which programs will be cut. They held rallies, wrote letters and spoke passionately at a public hearing on Thursday before the vote, denouncing the reductions as undermining WVU’s ability to provide education. 

Moments before the vote, some students who had been sitting on the floor with signs stood up and started loudly chanting. University police removed them from the room, and then the building, according to videos posted online.

In a rare assembly last week, faculty voted 797 to 100 to pass a no-confidence resolution in the leadership of President Gordon Gee and passed by a similar margin a resolution calling for the budget cut process — dubbed “Academic Transformation” by administrators — to be frozen.

Some programs have been able to successfully appeal proposed cuts to degree programs or faculty layoffs over the last month, but many cuts first proposed in early August remain unchanged. During Friday’s board meeting, members decided to keep two faculty positions in the Creative Arts College and two in the World Languages department.

Why does WVU have a $45 million budget shortfall?

West Virginia University’s downtown campus in Morgantown. Photo courtesy WVU.

Over the last decade, the university has become increasingly reliant on tuition dollars to meet its budget as state funding has declined. 

But, enrollment has also gone down — by about 5,000 students — over the past decade. Administrators tried to maintain enrollment by recruiting more out-of-state students and offering more discounts to attract students to the university.

Then the pandemic made it all worse. In West Virginia and across the nation, fewer high school seniors are going to college and the university saw its freshmen classes shrink. 

As higher education prepares for a sharp decline in the number of high school seniors, WVU administrators said enrollment could go down by another 5,000 students over the next decade. 

State lawmakers have reduced funding for WVU over the last decade. Last year, they created a new funding formula that incentivizes schools to have degree programs in workforce priorities and help students who are low-income or unprepared coming out of high school. Lawmakers said they won’t come to WVU’s rescue and have vocally supported the cuts.

Which WVU degree programs and faculty were cut?

Faculty and program cuts are planned in departments and programs that administrators view as less preparatory for in-demand careers.  

Majors set to be eliminated include bachelor’s degrees in:

  • biometric systems engineering
  • art history
  • technical art history
  • music performance: jazz studies
  • environmental and community planning
  • recreation, parks and tourism resources
  • Russian, Chinese, Spanish, French, German studies

Master’s degrees set for discontinuance include: 

Doctoral degrees set for elimination include:

  • higher education
  • higher education administration
  • music composition
  • collaborative piano
  • mathematics 
  • management
  • occupational and environmental health sciences
  • resource management

Gee has said to keep the university focused on the future and a changing job market, WVU must invest in technology and health care programs. Faculty layoff notices will be sent out in early October. Administrators have said seniors and juniors who are currently enrolled will be able to finish their degrees.

Through the appeals process, administrators reversed course and decided to recommend to the Board of Governors the continuation of the master’s of fine arts in acting, the master of fine arts in creative writing, change the master’s of landscape architecture to a bachelor’s degree with fewer faculty, and save some Spanish and Chinese language courses. 

Additionally, the Appalachian Studies minor is up for elimination, and the Center for Women’s and Gender studies is slated to move to the Department of Sociology and Anthropology.

What have WVU students and faculty said? 

In interviews with dozens of faculty members, professors said the university will lose faculty members with the specialized subject-matter expertise students need to explore niche topics they may discover new interest in, and that students will lose the opportunity to study fields they choose, versus fields administrators find more valuable. 

In interviews at the Mountainlair and around the downtown campus last month, many students seemed unfazed. But there is a large group of students that participated in protests, who say they’ve lost faith in their institution and worry about its reputation. Students in education and English classes, arts and music courses, and agricultural and natural resources classes on the Evansdale campus were disillusioned. Some students have also been faced with tough decisions due to the loss of their chosen major.

Andrew Fried, a junior from New York and a sports and adventure media major, was attracted to WVU’s reputation as a fun school and Big 12 sports. He said the downtown Book Exchange, where he works, is usually still bustling with customers, and he still thinks activities like nature walks and attending games will make the college experience “a big part of me after college.” But while his major isn’t up for elimination, the concern is still in the back of his mind.

“There are the people here for academics, there are the people here for sports, there are people here for fun, parties and fraternities and Greek life,” he said, “but the one thing that we have in common is that we’re all worried.”

Andrew Fried, a junior from New York and a sports and adventure media major, said while he's still enjoying the college experience, budget cuts are in the back of his mind. Photo by Erin Beck.

Meanwhile, other students were more directly affected and even more concerned for their futures.

Abigail DeKam, a freshman music performance major and flutist, said while her program isn’t being cut, she had planned to double major in Spanish. That major will no longer be an option. She came to the university from South Dakota for the quality of the creative arts program, including its orchestral program, as well as the financial aid, even though she was accepted at other universities. 

“I kind of stuck my neck out coming here,” she said.

She said since getting a soloist position might be difficult, she may start out in orchestral management.

“By having a Spanish major, I would be able to help be a translator for an orchestra or be a translator for a soloist or even just for side jobs,” she said.

What have university administrators said? 

President E. Gordon Gee delivers his State of the University address earlier this year. (WVU Photo/Matt Sunday)

Administrators have said these cuts are necessary for WVU to attract students and adapt to the changing landscape of higher education.

They’ve said the cuts will only directly affect a small percentage of students and that WVU will still offer over 300 degrees at a competitive price.

“West Virginia University is NOT eviscerating, gutting or decimating the University or higher education,” stated an open letter sent earlier this week from the current board chair, five previous board chairs and several top administrators. “Such hyperbole is irresponsible and harmful.” 

In a statement after the faculty votes of no-confidence in Gee’s leadership and calling to freeze academic transformation, the board said it “unequivocally supports the leadership of President Gee and the strategic repositioning of WVU and rejects the multiple examples of misinformation that informed these resolutions.” 

Students and faculty have questioned why senior administrators have not offered to take pay cuts to help meet the budget problem. They have responded by saying that salary reductions would be bad for morale and pointing to cuts made to non-academic units.

What’s next?

Faculty members predicted an exodus of faculty members, even those who teach classes that aren’t cut, citing widespread low morale on campus. Some professors have already left or plan to, and others are applying for new positions. 

Students have said the loss of programs, especially world languages, will make the university less attractive to prospective students, although they’ve also pointed out that the school is the best financial option for some students with lower incomes and from lower income families.

Faculty members who are being laid off will be notified in early October. Now and in the coming months, students whose degrees have been cut will decide whether to stay at WVU or go elsewhere. 

Correction 9/21: An earlier version of the chart in this story misstated the number of jobs remaining within the School of Public Health, according to WVU data. It is 29. This has been corrected

Duncan Slade is Mountain State Spotlight's Deputy Managing Editor

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