Capture the Flagship
Earlier this month, West Virginia University announced recommendations for faculty layoffs and program reductions that would dramatically reshape the university. The administration, led by President E. Gordon Gee, proposed the elimination of hundreds of faculty positions and dozens of program and degree closures: thirty-two majors and 16 percent of its faculty in total. Recommendations include closure of the PhD program in Math and both doctoral programs in Higher Education; the elimination of the MFA program in the English department; and the wholesale shuttering of the Department of World Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics, along with the layoff of all its personnel. The largest and most prestigious school in West Virginia, WVU is both the state’s major land-grant institution as well as its public flagship. While closures, cutbacks, and hiring freezes have become routine, the spectacle of a state giving up on its flagship university—for that is what these cuts amount to—is something new. It has rightfully garnered national attention.
No doubt, the current higher education environment is adverse, particularly in a state like West Virginia, which struggles with both poverty and lower educational attainment relative to the rest of the country. What has happened at WVU is, however, largely self-inflicted. It is a case of financial mismanagement, a betrayal of the administration’s duty to its students, personnel, and the population it serves, and ultimately, a stalking horse for a plan to reshape educational offerings for the worse. Under the cover of positioning the university to compete in a national and global market, Gee has tied up the school’s finances in real estate boondoggles that have now left WVU deeply indebted. Ostensibly in order to rectify the financial distress his administration has caused, Gee now seeks nickel-and-dime savings that will make education cheaper by making it worse, firing instructors, packing more students into classrooms, and proposing instruction delivered via apps.
Under the guise of leaving a legacy of innovation, Gee declares war on the idea that students at WVU deserve a liberal arts education at all, delivering them instead into the hands of industry-backed job training programs, paid for with their own tuition dollars. He proposes a contemporary education for a new era of plutocratic control.
When Gordon Gee took office as the president of WVU in 2014, he promised enrollment would soon reach forty thousand students. It was Gee’s second tenure in the job; he began his career as a university president there in 1981 and returned thirty-three years later, after stints at the University of Colorado, Ohio State, Brown, and Vanderbilt. In the interim, circumstances had changed dramatically, a reality that Gee acknowledges in his 2021 book, What’s Public about Public Higher Ed?, coauthored with OSU professor Stephen M. Gavazzi:
When he took his first university president position in 1981, Gee believed that higher education could do no wrong in the eyes of the public, including those lawmakers elected to represent the viewpoints and interests of their constituents. Universities were on a pedestal, highly revered angels of enlightenment. Fast forward four decades later, and we bear witness to a very different landscape. The angels have fallen quite far from their revered perches of yesteryear.
The central problem, argue Gee and Gavazzi, is that the trust, connection, and esteem between public universities and the constituencies they serve has broken down, in part because universities have failed to account for community needs in their planning, operation, and communications. In short, they argue, if universities are facing a particularly challenging political climate, it is one of their own making.
Given that Gee argues that the public university no longer serves the community, it is surprising that he set out in 2014 to make the university less, not more, West Virginian. The number of high school graduates in West Virginia was declining, meaning that the overall pool of in-state student enrollees would be smaller. But Gee wasn’t focused on attracting more in-state students: the entire forty thousand-student plan hinged on recruiting out-of-state and international students, who would pay out-of-state tuition.
If a college is going to attract more students, it also has to find somewhere to put them. To that end, Gee embarked on a debt-financed building spree designed to grow WVU’s campus, update its buildings, and demonstrate that it would be able to compete against bigger and wealthier state flagships. Between 2010 and 2020, WVU took on hundreds of millions of dollars in new debt, joining a large number of colleges and universities who took advantage of low interest rates to fund construction and real-estate acquisition. It renovated facilities, acquired a new satellite campus, and put up new buildings. By June 2020, WVU’s debt obligations had reached $810 million from $380 million a decade earlier.
The promised students failed to materialize. In fact, enrollment declined: WVU’s highest enrollment, in 2014, was about thirty-one thousand students across three campuses, far less than the forty thousand Gee had promised. With the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, enrollments fell further still, and in the years since they have recovered only incompletely.
As administrators added debt and enrollments decreased, tuition revenues fell, and state funding continued to fall off. During Gee’s first presidential tenure, state appropriations funded between 60 and 70 percent of the University’s budget. Now, after decades of decline, they fund scarcely 13 percent of the budget. Between 2013 and 2022, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports, state appropriations to WVU declined 36 percent (adjusted for inflation), while the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy reports that if lawmakers had held funding steady over those years, WVU’s deficit would be a much more manageable $7.4 million instead of $45 million.
Predictably, Gee and his administration have recast the cuts as an opportunity to remake the educational offerings for a new era. “Today’s students are open to different methods of instruction and learning,” Gee said, in response to concerns about the university proposal to deliver language education without a language faculty. “To be a modern land-grant university, we must provide modern ways of delivering content that they find meaningful and relevant.” The university communications office suggested that this would come in the form of old-fashioned outsourcing, either to a language-learning application or to “an online partnership with a fellow Big 12 university,” presumably one that has retained its language faculty. Never mind 12 percent of WVU students—2,800 this semester alone, according to World Languages professor Nicole Tracy-Ventura—find the school’s existing language offerings relevant enough to enroll in classes offered by the Modern Languages Department.
Like bond-financed real estate ventures, technology-driven outsourcing strategies such as those suggested by Gee are on the rise, not just at WVU but across the entire sector. Too often, now, when university leaders talk about updating a school’s academic offerings, what they mean is selling off student instruction to the lowest bidder, or else forcing students to pay not only tuition and fees, but also the technology company on whose proprietary platforms the course content is delivered.
Why would WVU inflict this harm on itself? Surely, some aspect of this disaster was avoidable. While Gee’s promise to grow enrollment goes back to 2014, the fixation on restructuring, or, to use Gee’s own words, undergoing a process of “Academic Transformation,” dates to the challenges imposed on the university by the pandemic. In late 2020, Gee announced a plan to review all academic programs and set in motion the process that led to the announcements of cuts this August. Discussing the Academic Transformation plan before the University’s Board of Governors that December, Gee said, “The reality is we need to improve quality while we decrease costs. We need to differentiate ourselves in the marketplace and make WVU a destination institution.” The plan for spending reductions and cost efficiencies came after years of cost-cutting, undertaken primarily by faculty and staff eager to avoid layoffs or other more drastic reductions. Dispensing with the obvious incongruity of asking staff and faculty to continue to spend less even as the university itself spends hundreds of millions in borrowed money on construction, it is worth asking how much you can ask people who have already been trimming budgets for years to trim further. In some academic departments, even printing is forbidden.
As the Academic Transformation review continued (itself coming on the heels of a 2019 “Strategic Transformation Process,” which resulted in the elimination or consolidation of fifteen degree programs), the situation worsened. People who work in universities are used to rumors of change, cuts, reorganization, and renewal. There is always some new rumor about a plan threatening to upend the sacred way things have always been done. And administrators are used to dispelling fears and quieting rumors, as WVU College of Creative Arts Dean Keith Jackson did in a 2021 public letter about the transformation process. “So have no fear,” he wrote, “the arts at the College of Creative Arts are still alive—and will continue to thrive in the years ahead!”
By 2022, however, WVU’s finances were looking more precarious. The school had not been able to reverse enrollment declines, the projected budget shortfall had grown to $14.5 million, and the administration proposed responding with more spending cuts and possible delays in hiring. The projections grew still more dire throughout the spring; by the time Gee delivered his “State of the University” address in March, the school was estimating a $35 million shortfall. Still, Gee was not yet alarmist, remarking, “Keep in mind the University operates on a budget of $1.3 billion. A $35 million deficit equals about 3 percent of our total budget. From a short-term financial perspective, that number is manageable.”
That same month, the West Virginia legislature increased health care costs for the two hundred thousand public employees and dependents covered by PEIA, the state’s public employee health insurance plan. The higher premiums resulted in additional costs to the university that added $10 million to the deficit. Gee announced that he planned to accelerate his so-called Academic Transformation. To help administer the review, WVU administration also engaged the consulting firm rpk GROUP, which had helped formulate a plan to cut dozens of programs and up to thirty faculty jobs amid a debt-driven financial emergency at New Jersey City University in 2022 (rpk GROUP principal, Rick Staisloff, has advocated for more colleges and universities to make major expenditure cuts, calling them “unfortunately very rare”). It was looking less like a routine program review and more like an extinction event for more than just a handful of degree programs.
Throughout the process, dissenting voices have been minimized or silenced while petty proceduralism has run rampant. This year, administrators added new language to faculty appointment that subjected faculty to discipline for speaking out against university policy, specifically prohibiting them from publicly opposing “change that is for the greater good.” In May, the Board of Governors announced that it was reviewing Section 4.7 of the Board of Governors rules, which deals with Program Reviews and Reductions in Force—in other words, layoffs. A spokesperson for WVU, April Kaull, confirmed that these changes—which included changing the criteria by which the order of layoffs would be determined, abolishing the right of first refusal for possible subsequent employment for laid-off faculty, and reducing severance payments—were made with the goal of carrying out the Academic Transformation plan. Though the public comment period yielded hundreds of comments in opposition, the changes were approved by the Board on July 31 and went into effect on August 21.
WVU, confirms Kaull, has not declared financial exigency (the academic equivalent to bankruptcy), nor, based on its own reading of its rules, does it need to in order to lay off tenured faculty. This is consistent with a growing trend of using the avoidance of financial exigency as a motive for reducing the tenured workforce, a practice that violates the American Association of University Professor’s guidelines for tenure protections. (The AAUP, an advocacy group for college faculty that issues reports and recommendations on best practices, maintains that tenured faculty may only be dismissed for cause, or as a result of financial exigency or program discontinuation.) At WVU, some programs are slated for discontinuation, but many other departments have been asked to simply reduce their workforces. It is difficult to say whether tenure now exists in any meaningful way at WVU if the Board can write rules allowing themselves to dismiss tenured faculty and implement them to avoid unwanted financial outcomes.
Yet when a university begins firing tenured faculty it usually means that they have already taken as much as they can from those further down the academic hierarchy. This June, administrators announced 135 cuts to non-tenure-track faculty and administrative positions. Meanwhile, the university depends substantially on graduate student teaching assistants, who make as little as $15,000 a year in some departments and regularly serve as teaching assistants or even, in some departments, as sole instructors. It is only by exploiting their teaching labor that WVU is able to provide enough courses for students to meet the credit hour requirements of their degrees. Whether the university will continue to do so after the layoffs is uncertain.
You might get a good sense of the kind of university Gordon Gee wants to build by taking a university-run publicity tour of Reynolds Hall, as state lawmakers did in May 2022. The construction of the building cost $100 million, $10 million of which was donated by Robert Reynolds, an alumnus with a seat on the Board of Governors. To obtain the rest of the capital for construction and other facilities repairs, WVU issued two series of bonds. Together, the outstanding balance on those bonds totals $127,940,000 at an interest rate of just over 3 percent.
Reynolds houses the Business and Economics school, but, to hear Gee tell it, it’s much more than just a staid schoolhouse: “This facility is a laboratory for creative thinking . . . It’s not a building, we do not build buildings at our university, we build ideas and turn them into reality.” The WV Metro News described the scene: “Some highlights of the building design are the Hayhurst Ideation Hub, a room supported by a single pillar with a capacity of sixty-six where students can brainstorm or make a formal business plan presentation. The Holyman Social Stairwell transforms getting from one floor to another by adding collaborative spaces similar to Googleplex’s social stairs. The Roll Capital Markets Center is equipped with stock tickers, Bloomberg terminals that expose students to real-time financial data.” Presumably the mere exposure to the phenomenon of stock prices ticking past will make students into financial geniuses. WVU leaders also hope that the building will host regular meetings between students and industry professionals that lead to job and internship opportunities.
At every public institution where Gordon Gee has presided, budget cuts, layoffs, and program restructurings have taken place. At WVU, Gee placed a big bet, pledging the credit of the university as well as that of the people of the state of West Virginia to build buildings for no one, hoping that students, tenants, and investors would materialize. He grew the school’s debt by hundreds of millions of dollars without developing new revenue streams. When demographic trends and the pandemic’s effects on enrollment caught up with him, he changed tack: now, instead of growing to grow, WVU would shrink to grow.
Even if the cuts go through, with all the harm they’ll do to individual students and faculty members, it is by no means assured that they will solve the school’s financial woes. Professor Christopher Newfield, research director at the Independent Social Research Foundation and past president of the Modern Language Association expressed skepticism, writing: “None of the public financial information justifies the cuts. Languages, for example, make $800k a year. WVU is implementing a tired STEM ‘strategy’ that was baked into their review process.” For Newfield, WVU’s decision to reward departments that chase external research funding instead of rewarding those that focus on core instructional areas betrays a misunderstanding of their position in the market: by declining to review departments with more than $2 million in external research funding, WVU are “rewarding money-losing departments”, since “37 cents of every research dollar was their own money—mostly from student tuition and public funds. That’s twice as much as a lot of more established public R1s.”
Gee has refused to ask for additional support from the legislature despite the fact that appropriations have declined, and, even more to the point, despite the fact that state lawmakers are projecting a record $1.8 billion budget surplus this year. Meanwhile, West Virginia is far from hitting its debt capacity, and the office of economic development continues to issue seven- and eight-figure bonds to support expanding private enterprise in the state. It is a shame for politicians to sit on their hands while their state’s premier institution of higher education crumbles. It is a far greater shame that the institution’s president has not taken a more forceful approach to save it.
If Gee refuses to try to preserve the school’s academic offerings, it is because he does not want to. He believes, for better or worse, that the days of the land-grant liberal arts are over. On the one hand, it may be pollyannaish to expect that public university funding will ever return to 1980s levels, that tuition will return to affordability, or that the humanities will become the most popular college majors again. On the other hand, is it not equally naive to believe that any given large university will become the next major tech hub? As Newfield puts it, “WVU hasn’t factored in their competition: Silicon Valley and Route 128 were the first ones, built with prime military funding, not the 28th carbon copy.” WVU has none of these advantages. The promised distinctive university of the future always seems to look a lot like an expensive cut-and-paste job.
The students, at least those who’ve spoken out since the cuts were announced, seem less enamored of the new WVU. On August 21, hundreds of students marched through the WVU campuses in Morgantown expressing anger and disbelief at the cuts. Protesters wore red in a nod to the “Red for Ed” teacher’s strike that swept West Virginia in 2018–19, itself a response to insufficient state funding for education. WVU history professor Jessica Wilkerson notes that the students are more committed to the project of an engaged, thriving, and relevant university than their university leaders, writing: “One after another students argued that they deserve a robust liberal arts education. Not because West Virginia is a poor state full of victims, because it will lead directly to a job, or because they need to escape a region—but because everyone deserves one.” Theirs is a positive vision for a public university that goes beyond plans and platitudes and gets to the heart of what such a school is for in the first place.
Judging by the condemnation that the cuts have provoked, from students and faculty to local publications and even national outlets like The Nation, Slate, the New York Times, and Forbes, Gee may have overplayed his hand. In fact, on August 29—as this article was being fact-checked—the WVU administration walked back some of its most extreme cuts. According to the new plan, five of the twenty-three World Languages faculty would continue at the school and move “into another unit yet to be determined.”[*] The remaining language faculty would offer in-person instruction in Spanish and Chinese. Undergraduate language majors and the department’s two graduate programs would still be eliminated. WVU provost Maryanne Reed pointed to “students’ feedback” as the reason for the change. She may as well have cited “student protest.” West Virginians seem to think they have the same right to an education as anyone else, and to a university where they can study languages, or creative writing, or advanced mathematics. When the Board of Governors next meets in September to make final determinations, we’ll see whether they concur.
[*] Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that under the new proposed plan, WVU’s World Languages department would not be totally closed. The phrasing on WVU’s website is not entirely clear on whether the department will continue to exist in some form.