West Virginia University administrators have spent a lot of the past few months talking about numbers.
They’re facing a $45 million budget shortfall, and have decided to lay off nearly 150 faculty and staff members to save money.
But behind the numbers, the losses include those who have prepared students for the future in many incalculable ways.
They’ve helped young people access higher education, understand cultural differences and connections, find professional success and pursue their passions.
Administrators say the cuts will allow the university to be forward-thinking by focusing on careers in fields like medicine, forensics and cybersecurity.
But the university’s stated mission remains to provide “access and opportunity” and lead “transformation in West Virginia and the world through local, state and global engagement.” And the faculty members leaving through retirements, resignations and lay-offs have directly contributed to that mission.
Emily Perdue broke down barriers to higher education
A program that encourages rural Boone County students to consider college education may end because Emily Perdue, professor of agriculture and extension education, is losing her position.
Perdue, who grew up in Cross Lanes, went to WVU for bachelor’s and master’s degrees, but earned her doctorate in agricultural leadership, education and communications from Texas A&M University.
Advisors there asked her what she’d do if she had unlimited resources.
“I said I would go back to West Virginia to help increase access to higher education in rural areas,” Perdue remembered.
Perdue worked on creating an early college program in Boone County. Now, students at Van Junior/Senior High School can earn WVU college credits online or through hybrid learning. Classes are $25 per credit hour, so students who go on to college can graduate with less debt. They also have the chance to work with WVU faculty on year-long research projects.
After working with a wildlife biologist from WVU, Perdue said one student now wants to study it at the university. Before, they had no idea the major was even available.
“They all hunt,” she said of the Boone County students she works with. “They all like being outdoors. And so for them to see that there are majors that allow them to do that that lead to good jobs I think is exciting for them.”
Perdue said programs like hers help West Virginians who want to stay closer to home and also pursue higher education. She’s also found it affected her in a similar way; her own return to the state has meant her kids have spent more time with family.
“I’m honestly just sort of heartbroken that I have to potentially leave West Virginia and my family,” Perdue said. “I’m sorry. I’m going to get emotional.”
We’re telling the stories of WVU professors. Help us report.
Did you have a professor at WVU who affected your life in a big way? Did they lose their job to budget cuts? We want to hear from you.
Ann Pancake inspired students to envision justice in Appalachia
When renowned Appalachian author Ann Pancake came to WVU as writer-in-residence in 2018, she said she saw that students were “basically socialized to leave” because they’d been told there were no opportunities here. She also noticed that students from the region often felt ashamed of where they came from.
Pancake said she didn’t ask students to romanticize the state, but instead brought attention to the realities of the state’s history, “warts and all.” And as her classes equipped students with a new understanding of the historic pattern of environmental degradation for industry profits, they became better able to envision a promising future for West Virginia instead of repeating the past.
“I have everyone do a project on why there’s hope for the natural world in West Virginia, which most of them really haven’t thought about before,” she said.
She said WVU’s budget cuts are “another form of extraction taken from the people here in order to enrich some people.”
Pancake’s position wasn’t cut; she resigned due to what she called the “gutting” of the university.
And along with Pancake, the school will also lose the Appalachian studies minor, of which her courses were a part. The minor is no longer accepting new admissions due to course cuts and faculty departures.
This means the loss of opportunities to learn about subjects like Appalachian labor organizing, poetry, music and medicinal traditions. Students could also participate in the West Virginia Dialect Project, a research program in which they found that Appalachian dialects aren’t uniform, and “how difference is something to be recognized and celebrated,” according to Kirk Hazen, project director and professor of linguistics.
Professor Travis Stimeling, who created the minor, remembers attending a conference as a graduate student and seeing a display of books about musicians he personally knew.
“I cried because I didn’t know that anything I cared about was valuable to the rest of the world,” he said.
But while WVU’s program is over, the subject may live on in community courses. Now, Pancake is thinking about teaching Appalachian studies “without the limits or censorship of institutions.”
Lisa Di Bartolomeo taught students to approach cultures with curiosity
In Lisa Di Bartolomeo’s courses, students learned to reject stereotypes, too. As a Russian studies professor, her work went beyond just teaching students how to conjugate verbs; it also taught students how to relate to people from other cultures.
Di Bartolomeo said students found their way into her Russian Studies major in a variety of ways. Some students enter the university knowing they want to study Russian. Others may learn about the possibility from an advisor.
Others may take a fun course like the one she teaches about vampires, become intrigued, and want to immerse themselves further.
WVU administrators have said they want to focus on bolstering programs that translate directly to the workforce like health care fields. But immigrants may not speak the same language as their health care providers, and deeper cultural understanding isn’t something university administrators can calculate when they talk about budget shortfalls and declining enrollment, Di Bartolomeo said.
With Di Bartolomeo’s exit, the Holocaust class she taught, the only one at the school, will also be wiped out. She takes students to the Holocaust memorial, many for the first time. She noticed fewer students have studied the genocide in high school.
She said while the Holocaust course is emotionally difficult to teach, it’s also the most rewarding to support students through it.
Di Bartolomeo said in Russian literature classes, texts help students see universal commonalities of the human experience, like love and fear.
“The things that we wonder about today are pretty much the same as things that people have wondered about for millenia,” she said.
This semester, students studied Russian folklore and myths, then interviewed relatives or neighbors about the folklore of their own communities.
“The connection that you make ultimately leads you to realize that we’re all the same,” she said.
Elizabeth Tomlinson trained entrepreneurs for success
Some West Virginia business owners could see fewer applicants with real-life experience due to the loss of Elizabeth Tomlinson, a business communications professor.
Tomlinson, a professor in the John Chambers College of Business and Economics, helped students select businesses and nonprofits that needed assistance developing communications materials. She said business owners who worked with her students have told her they’d be thrilled to see applicants bring portfolios based on projects they completed in her courses.
Writing skills come in handy in a multitude of ways in the professional world. If an employee can write well, they can better present their own ideas and accomplishments to peers and superiors, market professional services, form cohesive social media strategy, and convey internal communications to colleagues. Tomlinson said she saw students’ confidence in their professional writing skills grow while taking her courses.
“I don’t want them just to obtain a job, but I want them to know how to succeed once they’re in that job,” she said.
Tomlinson’s position was eliminated as part of budget cuts. She was also the founding director of the Business Communications Center, which provided tutoring in business communications skills and was eliminated as a cost–cutting measure.
The Wadsworth, Ohio native came to Morgantown because she was attracted to the strength of the business school and said she isn’t sure what she’ll do next. Her husband, whose job wasn’t cut, is a professor in the business school’s Management Department.
The dissolution of Jared Sims’ jazz studies also means losses for reggae, rock and hip hop
One morning last week, Jared Sims received two emails from band directors asking whether he’d be holding the spring jazz festival next year. Along with entertaining the crowd, the festival serves as a recruiting tool for WVU’s School of Music, and Sims’ Jazz Studies department.
But there will be no spring jazz festival in 2024. The university is eliminating jazz studies, as well as Sims’ position. This, he says, means fewer opportunities for students to perform live and learn the foundation of modern music.
Sims said if students can master the basic principles of jazz, they’re better prepared to play other musical styles. He noted that rock, funk, reggae and hip hop have roots in jazz music.
“It’s like you do not write a modern day novel if you don’t have the skills to get through Shakespeare or classic literature,” he said. “It’s the foundation of anything people would listen to on the radio or stream on their phones.”
Now, Sims says the school is focusing on more traditional forms of music groups, like orchestra and choir.
“It looks like the past and not the future,” he said.
Students also won’t be able to learn from Sims, a renowned musician who has toured internationally with a number of high-profile artists like The Temptations and the Four Tops.
But Sims, who is from Staunton, Virginia, said it felt like a deep, meaningful investment to return to the university where he studied.
His own musical roots are more traditional — he learned piano from his minister’s wife. He learned to play jazz at WVU.