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 the state realize the degree to which the WVU administration played an active role in this 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.
It is hard for us who love WVU to understand the rationale behind WVU President E. Gordon Gee’s proposed budget cuts, including cuts to programs that have proven their profitability. That includes the department of World Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics, where I got my Arabic Studies minor, and which makes an average annual profit of $800,000.*
WVU is the largest and only R1 university in West Virginia, meaning its high-ranking research programs span the academic spectrum. As a land-grant university established by the Morrill Act in 1862, WVU was entrusted with educating neglected rural students, who generally do not have access to exclusive private universities because they prioritize tuition revenue and privilege legacy applicants.
Many of the programs potentially facing the ax are those that grant students the greatest possibility for socioeconomic mobility. One comprehensive analysis of college majors and social mobility found that majors in education were uniquely advantageous; indeed, Gee himself received a doctorate in education, from Columbia. Multiple programs in education are recommended for discontinuation.
This is not the first time WVU has made inexplicable financial decisions, revealing a concerning level of indifference and institutional inadequacy. In 2014, Gee predicted that university enrollment would increase to 40,000 students, despite the fact that enrollment only reached approximately 31,000 at its historic peak. His administration proceeded to make financial decisions based on fiscal data that was almost nonexistent. The irony of Gee’s decision to cut WVU’s graduate program in mathematics, in light of his own statistical ineptitude, is palpable.
And, predictably, Gee was wrong; WVU’s enrollment has declined. In 2023, it reached a low of 26,000. But the assumption had already been interwoven into the budgetary calculus for WVU, setting it up for failure. Certainly, the budget crisis stems from a mix of factors. Some, like inflation and pandemic-induced dropouts, are unforeseeable and beyond administrators’ control. Other causes, which administrators are handsomely compensated to monitor, include graduation rates, political shifts in West Virginia, rising interest rates, and the end of COVID-related aid. For the administration to claim they have been blindsided by these issues, despite drawing high salaries as public employees to track them and laying out more big money to consultants to provide additional data, is confusing, to say the least.
We can’t help but juxtapose these choices with the fact that West Virginia consistently ranks as one of the poorest U.S. states, with a median household income of $50,884 and a poverty rate of 16.8 percent. Students from West Virginia, those who unquestionably proved to be the most rigorous, inquisitive, and committed peers I met during my undergraduate career, often shared advice for navigating poverty on WVU’s campus with one another. It is not uncommon for students to work jobs at low wages without employer benefits. Many of us struggled to afford to live in Morgantown, one of the state’s most expensive places to live, without federal financial assistance. Nearly everyone closest to me met SNAP eligibility requirements for food stamps.
Meanwhile, Gee’s past appointments at American universities concluded amid controversies he incited by implementing reductions to academic programs. His expense report at OSU revealed the university spent $7.7 million on Gee’s expenses, almost equaling his $8.6 million salary. When he was president at Brown, the university spent $3 million renovating his home. Under his supervision as chancellor at Vanderbilt, Vanderbilt spent $6 million renovating the mansion where Gee lived; Gee also incurred a $700,000 tab for hosting social events.
The contrast between the lifestyle implied by these big numbers and the way the students at WVU struggle does not go unnoticed on campus. WVU maintains the state’s largest health system and is West Virginia’s largest private employer. As a recipient of Medicaid, I supported other students in need of health care access, including helping them apply. During my tenure as senator in the WVU Student Government Association, student leaders frequently shared their frustration with one another regarding Gee’s access to complimentary healthcare through WVU.
Between 2010 and 2023, the WVU administration carried out extensive new construction initiatives and refurbishments aimed at enlarging its campus presence, as Dan Bauman details in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Much of this, including various buildings for the College of Business and Economics, the College of Physical Activities and Sport Sciences, agricultural sciences, and advanced engineering research, was funded by debt and private-public partnerships.
I watched as new buildings sprang up year after year, creating an ominous undertone on campus as more and more students disappeared. My friends and I were especially disturbed by the grandeur of Reynolds Hall, which opened in fall 2022. Reynolds Hall cost $100 million to construct. It was named for alumnus Robert “Bob” Reynolds, who donated $10 million to the project and now sits on the WVU Board of Governors. This is the board that votes on whether to approve these sweeping program cuts. I echo student concerns when I say that public universities’ boards of governors should be democratic bodies, not elite bureaucratic institutions.
West Virginian students and faculty do not choose their programs and specialties in a vacuum. Today, I am a labor historian and am studying the exploitation of Black people by the West Virginia coal industry. My research led me to the discovery of the Mining Extension Service of West Virginia State College, which provided mobile classroom education to rural Black West Virginian communities. This program was established in 1937 and discontinued in 1957 by an act of the state Legislature in the name of integration, abandoning Black West Virginians who had the greatest potential to benefit from education. Almost all records chronicling its existence were transferred to WVU’s library, until they were ordered to be destroyed in 1971 with officials alleging that the documents constituted a fire hazard.
West Virginia’s political elite have had a long-standing interest in denying people like me access to higher education. The loss of academic freedom extends to both student and faculty capacities to speak about the budget cuts. A current student stated, on the condition of anonymity: “Students like me can’t afford to go anywhere else. I can’t get this kind of education anywhere else in the state. The administration is telling me I’m only allowed to learn what they decide not to discontinue.”
A former member of the WVU Student Government Association also anonymously expressed: “I’m a student leader, and I don’t know what I can and can’t say. [The WVU administration] affects my future in West Virginia, and that’s all I’ve ever had.” It is hard for students to read the administration’s recent announcement that “the next item for review in the academic transformation will be the more than 450 organizations that support student life” as anything other than a thinly veiled threat.
If the academic offerings subject to dismissal had been absent at WVU in 2017, my first hope would’ve been to leave West Virginia and enroll in a university that authentically valued liberal arts and global preparedness. At the time, that was an option I could only dream of. But I am confident that ambitious students like me will figure out ways to attend university elsewhere, if they can afford to.
This, perhaps, is the ugly truth we’re learning through WVU’s budget controversy: Gordon Gee plans to retire in 2025. I have no doubt his grandchildren will benefit from a private education similar to his own, consisting of a thorough liberal arts education with access to subjects now increasingly reserved for the elite, such as math and foreign languages. They will have their choice of careers in the arts, humanities, government, finance, security, diplomacy, business, or tech. Those who decide what is worth learning, what is worth teaching, what counts as a “structural deficit,” will never bear the brunt of their own choices.
West Virginians, trapped in the clutches of economic hardship, find themselves mercilessly shackled to a state most can ill afford to abandon, left to suffer the full weight of the WVU administration’s harrowing decisions. We will learn only subjects aligned with the preferences of the rich, driven by their financial motivations. We will work for the oligarchs for the rest of our lives, just like our parents and our grandparents did for the global coal industry. We will continue to amass inconceivable riches for the nation’s privileged elite until our last breath, and we will find our resting place in unadorned cardboard coffins beneath West Virginia soil.
And those condemned to languish within the husk of WVU, who would excel within a capacious and intellectually coherent university, will only find it harder and harder to access avenues of social and economic mobility.
Correction, Aug. 18, 2023: Due to an editing error, this piece originally cited a figure of $800 million as the average yearly profit for WVU’s Department of World Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics. It is $800,000.