Faculty and students push back against proposed cuts at West Virginia University

Over almost three hours, speakers at a public comment session repeatedly asked for a halt to proposed cuts to faculty and academic programs at West Virginia University.

“I’m here to humbly and desperately request that the Board of Governors freeze the cuts,” said Brian Butcher, a Morgantown city councilman.

Conflict at WVU has been building because the university faces the likelihood of being down $45 million this year — potentially growing to $75 million over the next five years if steps aren’t taken to control costs.

A large crowd gathered for Thursday’s public hearing. (MetroNews photo)

University leaders are dealing with the shortfall with a tuition increase of about 3 percent, the use of some financial reserves and by cutting employees and programs.,

Following an appeals process that produced some changes to original proposals, the public comment period in front of WVU’s Board of Governors started at 11:30 a.m. Thursday and stretched to 2:30 p.m. Participants were granted two minutes to speak, and many were cut off before their remarks concluded.

Starting at 9 a.m. Friday, the board of governors will gather again for a meeting that includes voting on final recommendations on what university officials are calling an academic transformation.

The board will consider recommendations that could result in a reduction of 147 faculty positions. And the board will consider various recommendations for 130 academic programs. Potential actions include keeping programs intact, maintaining programs but with fewer faculty members, recombining programs so that they collaborate in some way or fully discontinuing programs.

Retired professor Judith Stitzel took note of the scheduled vote already on the agenda for the next day and concluded the die is cast.

“If this is a real meeting at which you are listening to things that are going to help you make the decision on whether to support the current recommendations, why is it already on the agenda that they are going forward to implement?” Stitzel said. “Please put a freeze on what you’re doing. Listen to what you’re hearing.”

Christine Hoffman, an assistant chair in the English department, also suggested the decision has been made already and that the many pleas are likely to go nowhere.

“I hope that you will prove me wrong today and tomorrow, but it’s my understanding that you’ve already stated your support for the dismantling of WVU as a public institution and that there’s little anyone can write or say today to change your minds,” Hoffman said.

Faculty overwhelmingly voted no confidence in President Gordon Gee last week. Gee has continued to make public statements in support of the academic transformation, saying the university needs to change to get stronger in the future.

Gee and some current and past members of the Board of Governors published an “Open Letter to the People of West Virginia” that said “West Virginia University is NOT eviscerating, gutting or decimating the University or higher education. Such hyperbole is irresponsible and harmful.”

Hoffman said that letter is one of the factors that has turned her off.

“You changed my mind about the possibility of staying here long-term and doing the work I was hired to do,” she said, adding that she is not certain yet whether she will lose her job through the reduction in force. “I do know that there is no future for me at an institution run with such callousness, such incompetence and such reckless disregard for employees.”

Dan Totzkay, a faculty member in the Department of Communication Studies, said he understands change has to happen. But he asked for a gracious approach to likely layoffs.

“There’s just a hundred and some faculty members, but those are a couple hundred families that are probably losing their primary breadwinner, who are going to have to explain to their kids why they won’t get to go to the same school any more, why they have to find a new job, why they have less money now,” Totzkay said.

One of the signs at Thursday’s public hearing. (MetroNews photo)

“If we have to get laid off, please do so without attacking us personally.”

The programs to be cut entirely include bachelors degree tracks in foreign languages such as Chinese, French, German, Russian and Spanish. Masters and doctoral programs in mathematics are up for elimination. Masters and doctoral programs in higher education and higher education administration are in line to be cut. An academic track in recreation, parks and tourism services is another among almost 30 programs proposed for elimination.

“Critical thinking, along with the skills that make critical thinking actionable, include writing, speaking, calculating, envisioning, communicating with those who speak another language,” said Jason Ybarra, a faculty member in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

Several students spoke out against cuts, saying their academic options would be narrowed.

“You can imagine the anger and the vitriol that I felt when I learned that our administration and the school that I worked to get to for years is gutting, eviscerating and dismantling our institution,” said Miles Case, a third year student from Morgantown.

Anabella Tiano, outreach coordinator for the Student Government Association, described overwhelming reaction from her fellow students. Tiano said town hall events, surveys and forums have revealed students would be less likely to attend the institution if the changes were in place.

“Above all, students have expressed a loss of faith in the leaders of their university,” Tiano said. “This board makes decisions that affect a higher education institution within an underserved state and have the responsibility to take account for student concerns.

“Throughout this process, students have been raising their voices and I truly hope the board of governors will take into considerations the clear opinion of the student body. We, the students, oppose these changes to our beloved university.”





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