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Opinion: West Virginia University’s cuts are a travesty

Opinion by Paula M. Krebs

(CNN) — Friday’s vote by West Virginia University (WVU)’s Board of Governors to approve massive cuts to the university’s offerings came as no surprise. The big surprise, at least to WVU President Gordon Gee, seemed to be the huge negative national attention his proposal garnered.

After years of overspending complicated by the fact that huge enrollment gains he predicted never materialized, Gee proposed the elimination of the university’s language and linguistics department, graduate degrees in mathematics, huge percentages of faculty positions in English, education, the arts and more, dropping a total of 28 majors, and 147 faculty positions, in addition to the 12 graduate programs and 132 positions cut in June.

Pushback from WVU students was swift and loud, with protests, press interviews and petitions. The university’s Faculty Senate voted no confidence in Gee’s leadership, and op-eds by faculty members and WVU graduates appeared in major national publications.

The outcry about the loss of languages, particularly from the students, was so strong that it produced some backtracking on the “Academic Transformation” plan: WVU will retain some teaching of Spanish and Chinese, with no majors and no language department.

The WVU restructuring was meant to set a precedent for academic restructuring all over the country, according to Gee. He billed it as a model for other major universities to follow, a template for the university of the future.

“Universities need to transform themselves,” he told NPR. “This is an existential moment for higher education,” he said. “We have to reform ourselves in order to be relevant to what is needed in higher education at this point.” What is needed, according to the university’s recommendations, is “to create a more focused academic program portfolio aligned with student demand, career opportunities and market trends.”

When the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point planned to cut liberal arts programs a few years ago, the national backlash was strong, and the university reversed the planned cuts. The many op-eds and protests over WVU managed to produce only a small revision to the cuts, but it remains to be seen whether the blowback was severe enough to spook other universities that might have been planning to follow Gee’s lead.

Let’s leave aside whether a state’s public university has any obligations beyond creating career preparation and serving the fluctuating trends in the market. Let’s not consider whether a state flagship university might want to, for example, educate citizens to become well-informed community members, voters, parents or participants in the life of the world around them.

Instead, let’s focus on careers. Nationally, secondary school language teachers are in short supply. A survey conducted by the American Council of Teachers of Foreign Languages shows that 9 out of 10 companies rely on employees who can speak a language other than English, and 56% expect their demand for language skills in employees to increase. If you were selecting programs to keep based on employment trends, you’d surely want to hold onto languages.

Most employers rely on on-the-job training to onboard new employees, whatever their degree. When I visited Cisco Systems, the network engineering firm, a couple years ago and asked if their new cadre of trainee engineers all came with engineering degrees, the recruiter chuckled. “They have all kinds of different degrees,” he said. “We have English majors, history majors. We teach them what we need them to know.” What was most important, he said, was that they were enthusiastic, knew how to listen and ask questions and were willing to try different solutions until they found one that worked.

The disconnect between what campuses think employers want and what employers actually need can be stark. Yet many colleges continue to eliminate the programs that produce the very skills, in communication, cultural awareness, research and synthesis, that employers need and want.

Students who major in languages, creative writing and other programs that university administrators target in sweeping cuts like WVU’s are not doomed to the life of a barista. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences Humanities Indicators project demonstrates that such students are employed in all sectors of the workforce, including in STEM fields.

More than half of humanities graduates go on to get advanced degrees and certificates, which increases their earning potential, and proficiency in another language confers a premium in earnings on top of that, according to Why, then, are such programs easy targets for belt-tightening universities?

Part of the reason is that liberal arts programs have been reluctant to brag about the professional success of their alumni or even to point their current students toward the successes their former students have achieved. Believing in the intrinsic value of the study of everything from Shakespeare to math to philosophy, faculty members have relied on career offices to help students with those next steps — but they have not necessarily helped those offices understand the skills, values and perspectives students are getting from the study of the fields that don’t name jobs (a computer science major becomes a computer scientist; what’s a French major—a Frenchist?).

Instead of investing in the future by developing connections between careers offices, employers and, say, language departments, helping to prepare students who will bring their skills into jobs that have not even been created yet, universities, including WVU, pay consultants to get shortsighted plans that direct universities to spend all their money on job-preparation programs that feed a narrow range of jobs that exist today.

The cuts to the liberal arts at WVU, especially those to languages, will tell West Virginia’s many rural, working-class or first-generation college students not to get ideas above their station — ideas that they might want to learn about a world outside West Virginia or beyond the walls of a future employer.

Where other state universities understand their mission to be to offer a full range of academic programs to the students of their state, Gee takes a different tack: “Someone else is going to have a great PhD program in mathematics,” he told The Washington Post. “And you know what? God bless them.” What could be more cynical and opportunistic than the combination, in a public institution, of eliminating educational breadth and at the same time, cultivating elite status for selected programs? For instance, Gee told The Post that cuts to the liberal arts programs would allow the university to develop a “world-class” program in neuroscience.

The cuts being made to the liberal arts at WVU will dramatically narrow educational opportunities not just for West Virginia students who want to major in humanities fields but also for STEM and business students. All students’ job prospects and lives are enriched by language study, writing instruction and the research and analytical skills taught in beginning and advanced literature and culture courses, as the Humanities Indicators data, the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ employer survey data and other sources attest. Public universities are the only route to a college degree for many Americans.

A quarter of WVU’s students receive federal financial aid in the form of Pell Grants, and more are first-generation college students. Yet these cuts at WVU tell those West Virginians that the humanities, and especially the study of languages and culture, are reserved for others — for West Virginians who can afford to pay the tuition at private colleges and universities.

And teaching isn’t the only job of a state university. In addition to producing educated citizens who can collaborate and compete with the rest of the world, state flagship universities contribute to the production of knowledge. Eliminating the department of World Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics eliminates all research on language acquisition at the university.

How are languages best learned? What is the significance of the ways different cultures consume social media or write television shows or read books or discuss politics? What is the relationship between a country’s literature and culture and its business and politics? Research in language and literature needs the support of universities if we are to move forward in our understanding of the world around us, and that is no less true in the humanities than it is in science and technology fields.

It’s heartbreaking to see these cuts to West Virginia’s research university. In calling for this slash-and-burn of the liberal arts education WVU used to offer, West Virginia University’s leaders are making clear how little they really value the education of the majority of West Virginia’s citizens.

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