Friday, September 8, 2023

West Virginia University plans to correct its budget deficit by scaling back liberal arts programs

West Virginia (WVA) is one of the most rural states in the country. Most of the state's 1.8 million residents live in communities of fewer than 2,500 people. Blog posts relating to West Virginia's rurality can be found here

There are only two research universities in the state, one being West Virginia University (WVU). West Virginia University is WVA's largest public land-grant institution

In August, WVU proposed an educational transformation: Almost ten percent of majors (32 out of 338) are expected to be eliminated from the university's curriculum to correct its 45 million dollar budget deficit. With the movement away from coal and mining industries, the university will be consolidating its mining and coal programs into an "energy" program.

The university plans to lay off seven percent of its main campus faculty in Morgantown. WVU's main campus will no longer have world language or creative writing programs

The reduction of these programs will lower intercultural competencies and will create a wider gap between the quality of education among rural and urban areas. University of Ottawa Professor Richard Mark Wood wrote an article in The International Research Journal of Educational Research detailing this phenomena: 

The education gap between urban and rural areas results in a lack of opportunities for rural students, limiting their potential and hindering their ability to compete in a global economy.

While the program cuts will impact only less than two percent of student enrollment, the New York Times report highlighted the university's abandonment of the humanities and liberal arts majors: 

Some faculty members in Morgantown lament that the state's flagship university [...] is turning its back on the liberal arts by closing programs like creative writing. They say that it is a low blow to a state known for Appalachian poverty and lack of opportunity, one that will accelerate the brain drain that drives many of its talented people out of the state.

Some programs, for example, that are safe from WVU's "chopping block" include computer science, accounting, and engineering– subjects seen as more "useful" majors, according to Indeed. You can read the list of programs the university is planning to modify here

Many students, faculty, and community members are outraged by these program changes and cuts. Parkersburg native and WVU alumni Myya Helm expressed her outrage in a Slate article: 

As a first-generation student of color, a federal Pell Grant recipient from West Virginia, and a 2022 WVU graduate with a bachelor's degree in political science and international studies, I am afraid for WVU's future. I am also really hoping that people outside our state realize the degree to which the WVU administration played an active role in the crisis. Their proposal is a result of financial mismanagement, lack of institutional transparency, and an astonishing failure to recognize the power of education in transforming the lives of West Virginians.

Many professors and university staff have criticized the abandonment of WVU's advanced language programs due to the effects the cuts will have on the state's youth. Lisa Di Bartolomeo, WVU professor of Russian studies, admitted that WVA has faced a "brain drain" for generations and that the state has low intercultural competencies.

The lack of educational and career opportunities in WVA has caused individuals who are more educated and highly skilled to seek opportunities outside of WVA. Thus, the ramifications of these curriculum cuts will likely exacerbate the state's brain drain.

The state's flagship university was often seen as one of the only options to study language and liberal arts programs in-state. 

With about two-thirds (64 percent) of West Virginians living in rural areas, it is troublesome that there will no longer be language programs at WVU, especially when many students cannot afford to attend university out of state and can afford only in-state tuition at WVU. 

Without language programs, West Virginian students will no longer be able to apply to jobs that require non-native language competency. 

When I learned about WVU's program cuts and read Myya Helm's article, I immediately texted my mom, who, like Helm, was born and raised in Parkersburg, the state's fourth largest city. Much of our extended family still resides there. Several of my cousins attended WVU, and several are likely to do so given it is the best university in the state. 

Another long-term effect of these program cuts will be bitterness toward those who have access to the liberal arts education that remains available at elite universities like Cornell. The result will be what the scholar Lisa Corrigan calls a "two-tiered educational system."

The outcome is also likely to fortify many Republican voting strongholds. Ben Shapiro has risen to conservative fame for his stance against elite liberal arts universities that "indoctrinate America's youth," despite attending UCLA and Harvard Law School himself.

For some, it is hard to understand the value of a liberal arts education, but for me, it's easy. I am grateful to have been able to experience one. I graduated from Cornell University in 2021, an Ivy League university with a motto of "any person ... any study."

During my time at Cornell, professors, my parents, and even President Martha Pollock encouraged me to take classes that had little to do with my major. From a Beyonce poetry class to a science of cooking class–– I had the privilege to take courses that had nothing to do with my career path. 

I was fortunate enough to be able to attend a private university that offered more than 50 different language courses. However, some rural students, like Myya Helm, do not have that option, given that WVA is one of the poorest states in the country. The 2020 Census found that 16.8 percent of West Virginians were living below the federal poverty threshold, meaning many residents cannot afford to attend private colleges or out-of-state universities. 

These program cuts will have long-lasting effects on rural youth. Without the opportunity to study languages or the liberal arts, young WVU residents will lose opportunities that many urban students take advantage of when entering the employment market. 

I have five cousins under 13 who live in Parkersburg. I worry about their education if they follow their parents' footsteps and attend WVU. However, one thing is certain: they will still be able to study business and accounting. 

You can read more about higher education issues in rural places herehere, and here

1 comment:

Isha Sharma said...

It’s sad to see that liberal arts and arts funding is usually the first to be cut when there are budget cuts being made. The same is true here. I agree that this will limit intercultural exploration and exposure, something that is already limited in rural settings. It is also unfortunate to see the overwhelming support for STEM majors at the cost of liberal arts studies. And while these are of course “useful,” liberal arts is also useful in ways STEM majors aren’t. This also excludes and limits students who are not interested in pursuing STEM related careers.