A college student looks exasperated sitting on the grass in front of a bench, with an opened book covering her face.
Image credit: Photo by Tony Tran on Unsplash

The backlash was swift. When West Virginia University, the largest public land-grant (extension) university in the state, announced in August it was ending 169 faculty positions and cutting 32 majors—including plans to discontinue the entire world languages program—students, staff, alumni, and others moved into action. 

Hundreds of students showed up to protests, many donning red shirts and bandanas in a nod to the crimson-colored bandanas once worn by West Virginia coal miners in their fight to unionize in the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain. Faculty members penned open letters, published in magazines and journals across the country, including a letter in the Boston Review where three WVU professors wrote that they were “impelled by our responsibility as employees and stewards of this public university to safeguard its integrity and its future.” 

The letter blamed the university’s $45 million budget deficit on mismanagement of finances, including “a decade of real estate boondoggles, administrative bloat, and declining state funding.” 

The proposed faculty layoffs come after 135 layoffs already occurred over the summer at WVU. According to the Boston Review, the university library, dealing with a 30 percent reduction in its operating budget, cannot order any new books. Meanwhile, not a single university senior administrator, who each earn “at least five to ten times what most faculty earn,” is scheduled to take a pay cut.

Devaluing the Arts and Humanities 

A student petition to keep world languages at WVU has received over 25,000 signatures and counting.

According to another open letter, written by WVU alum Rachel Rosolina and published in Belt, these cuts demonstrate “a profound misunderstanding of the importance of programs that don’t bring in research dollars—many of which are in the humanities—and the cultural necessity of creative outlets.”

The university first announced it was discontinuing the entire MFA in Creative Writing program, a highly ranked program in existence for nearly 25 years, whose graduates include award-winning published writers like Sarah Einstein and Heather Frese. 

After intense criticism, WVU backpedaled on cutting creative writing entirely, but several faculty members in the department will still lose their jobs. The university also still plans to end a majority of its language and linguistics programs, citing falling interest in these majors with the rise of language learning apps like Duolingo. 

Lisa Di Bartolomeo, a professor in the Department of World Languages, Literatures and Linguistics and coordinator of the Russian studies program, told the WVU independent student newspaper, The DA, “If we take away language training, we’re not only saying to people from other countries, we’re not really interested in you or your culture or communicating with you. We’re also saying to our own domestic students, that you don’t need to learn any other language than English, you don’t need to be curious and you don’t need to be interested in the world around you.”

“What happens at WVU this fall—whether these catastrophic cuts are frozen or forced through—will serve as a canary in the coal mine for the integrity and future of public education.”

A student petition to keep world languages at WVU has received over 25,000 signatures and counting. Similar petitions have been launched in service of saving math graduate programs (in danger of being replaced by AI) and creative writing. As of late August, the university has revised its plans to completely axe the languages program and is instead just gutting it: “retaining five teaching positions and letting students take some language courses as electives,” as reported by the AP.

A Dangerous Precedent

The Chronicle of Higher Education and other publications have called this devaluing of languages, creativity, and learning in general dangerous—and a move that could set a troubling precedent. Utilizing an image familiar to those from coal country, the WVU professors wrote in the Boston Review of their “concern that what happens at WVU this fall—whether these catastrophic cuts are frozen or forced through—will serve as a canary in the coal mine for the integrity and future of public education throughout the United States.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Jonah Katz, an associate professor of linguistics at WVU—and one tinged with particular concern for students in Appalachia, a region where only a little over 27 percent of adults hold college degrees. That’s about half the national average. Appalachia suffers greatly from “brain drain,” where educated young people tend to leave the region, seeking opportunities elsewhere. The exodus of talented youth is such an issue the nonprofit journalism outlet 100 Days in Appalachia has a long-running series called Struggle to Stay, about Appalachians who want to live and work in their home region, but can’t find enough work, education, or advancement there.

“There’s a rising tide of anti-intellectualism in this country, and it’s really hard to see.”

Such massive cuts to the humanities at WVU “will affect young people’s prospects and their choices in one of the poorest and least-educated states in the country, where huge numbers of our most talented and driven young people are already leaving to seek better educational and professional opportunities,” Katz said. 

Student paper The DA interviewed first-year student Hannah Blakely, whose planned major was cut the day after she arrived on campus. “I’m from West Virginia, and I’ve wanted to go here forever,” she said. “I just always kind of thought I was gonna go here, but now I might have to transfer.”  

West Virginian Anna Schles, who graduated from a WVU graduate program in May, told the AP, “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.” 

A recent NPQ article delved into a report from the American Association of University Professors, which raised concern about the mounting crisis faced by public universities and colleges in Florida thanks to anti-educational legislation by Governor Ron DeSantis. As NPQ wrote, such political ideology, including banning books and restricting curricula, has “implications for the whole country. 

According to Axios, who called the cuts at WVU a potential “blueprint” for nationwide attacks on educational institutions, “Disputes over resources at U.S. universities are likely to escalate as money grows tighter and election-year politics escalate.” Students and faculty at public institutions are caught in the middle, staring down the devaluation of the arts and humanities—the subjects most likely to broaden students’ perspectives—which could have wide-ranging implications both for their futures and for the culture at large.

As Schles said, “It’s going to make people more isolated and live poorer lives and I think the cruelty is some of the point here.”