Is West Virginia University’s gutting of liberal arts a sign of more to come?

West Virginia University officials recently proposed sweeping cuts at its flagship Morgantown campus, startling faculty members and students alike. The “financially beleaguered” state-funded public university proposed eliminating 169 faculty positions and dropping nearly three dozen undergraduate and graduate programs, per Inside Higher Ed. This includes “the entirety of the department of world languages, literatures and linguistics,” as well as the mathematics graduate program. The proposal came after WVU reviewed about half of its academic programs as part of an attempt to correct an estimated $45 million budget deficit. 

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“We are going through an existential crisis in higher education,” E. Gordon Gee, WVU’s president, told The Washington Post in an interview, “and we happen to be on the point of the spear.” Gee said the cuts were necessary to free up resources for higher-demand programs, such as forensics, engineering and neuroscience. As public confidence in higher education wanes, universities must regain that trust, he claimed. “The people of the state are telling us what they want,” he added. “And for once, we’re listening to them.”

But while the university has cited budget concerns and declining enrollment as the push for the proposal, critics are not convinced these are the only reasons. Could the proposed cuts at WVU be a Trojan horse for something more alarming?

Part of a larger scheme of ‘educational gerrymandering’

In proposing the elimination of mainly liberal arts programs, West Virginia, “is engaging in a kind of educational gerrymandering,” Leif Weatherby, associate professor of German at New York University, opined in The New York Times. West Virginia has the fourth-highest poverty rate in the country. “The university is deciding, in effect, that certain citizens don’t get access to a liberal arts education.” Unfortunately, the decision is part of a more significant trend wherein politicians and state officials work with management consultants to make “liberal arts education scarce in some of the poorest states in the union,” Weatherby added. The trend is “typically led by Republican-controlled legislatures.” And while it’s framed as a budgetary necessity, it actually “threatens to have dire long-term effects on our already polarized and divided nation.” 

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Finances aren’t the point. The humanities are under threat across the nation “because of the perceived left-wing ideology of the liberal arts,” Weatherby continued. He noted that book bans and remodeled school curriculums about Black history are also part of this “coordinated assault,” a campaign that is “politically motivated, through and through.” The goal is “to divide the electorate, and higher education is the tool.” Ultimately, the “outcome is likely to fortify many Republican voting strongholds.”

In a letter to Gee, Paula M. Krebs, executive director of the Modern Language Association, pointed out that “no other state flagship university has forsaken language education for its students or made the kinds of cuts to the humanities that WVU is undertaking.” Access to these programs is crucial for those whose only chance at a degree is at a public university. “The humanities should not be reserved for students who can afford private higher education,” she wrote. 

If you care about higher education, you ‘should be alarmed’

There is reason to believe that the WVU cuts recommended by consulting firm rpk GROUP are a “trial balloon for doing this elsewhere,” Lisa Corrigan wrote in The Nation. “Anyone who cares about higher education should be alarmed about what this portends for public universities.” The proposed changes “are the functional equivalent of an atomic bomb at WVU.”

As it goes up against “state austerity and a culture war on public goods,” public funding for higher education is declining, forcing public universities to “rely more on private donors, who impart new controls on higher education professionals,” Corrigan continued. The targeting of public universities, censorship, and the purging of certain academic programs “are all calculated to decrease the public’s confidence in public education so that it can be dismantled and replaced with private corporations, which lack regulation and oversight.”

Ultimately, proposals to restructure universities will create policies that “funnel public funds to private entities,” a plot “intentionally designed to produce two tiers of education,” she wrote. One “for the elite at small, private, endowed universities,” and another “for state students who are poor, first-generation, disabled — or are interested in the liberal arts, fine arts or programs that question the current political arrangement.”

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