MORGANTOWN – The WVU Board of Governors spent three hours on Thursday listening to faculty, students and alumni who oppose the Academic Transformation process, and the proposed cuts in programs and faculty positions.
Speakers were granted two minutes each – though many tried to go as much beyond their limit as they could get away with – and aired some common themes: the potential damage to WVU and its reputation, the potential loss of opportunities for students, the wisdom of the process, the lack of transparency and dialog, and the desire to freeze the process and rethink it.
Brian Powell, a computer science and electrical engineering teaching assistant professor, said many understand the need for change and faculty are not unwilling to change, but there should be an alternate way forward.
“The problem here is the process,” he said. “This process has been disorganized, opaque and just baffling.”
He was one of several who noted contradictory statements from university leadership: that this has been a response to a budget deficit, yet WVU is on solid financial footing. And because of that, this has been needlessly rushed. “We don’t even have a clear rationale for the urgency of this process.”
WVU needs to form a strategic plan and then move forward in a bottom-up manner, not top down, he said.
Some were cynical about the public comment meeting. One speaker asked: If this was a real listening meeting, why was the vote already on the Friday’s meeting agenda?
Many viewed the elimination of the World Languages, Literatures and Linguistics department as shortsighted and parochial.
Rena Belierzer talked about her education in Arabic studies. “Arabic, professionally, has been my greatest asset.” For languages students, she said, their travel abroad serves as a flash point in their careers. For here, online language study and language apps were nowhere near as useful as her in-person classwork and her time abroad then using the language.
And world languages professor Lisa DiBartolomeo said graduating high school students should not have to leave West Virginia to study languages.
On the decision-making process, Christian Rowe said, “I believe this proposed transformation will harm the university lifeline for the poorest students.” It’s an effort to cover administration mistakes and bloated salaries. “This is a school and not a business.” He told the BOG, “If you go through with this, never again can this body say that they are listening to anybody but themselves and outside consulting outfits.”
Alumna Alice Meehan said, “We’re humans. We’re not to be reduced to numbers.”
Matthew Kolb is a fourth-year WVU student majoring in math and a co-founder of the West Virginia United Students’ Union, which has more than 350 members, he said. “I’m not sure how tapped in you all are to the students. That leaves us concerned that nothing going on will accomplish anything.”
And associate professor Mickey Holcomb asked, “Is it not possible the Board of Governors instead has been sold a story?” She called the idea of the proposed cuts without corresponding cuts in administration “laughable.”
Clarissa Estep, director of international studies, was among those who said that administration’s estimates of how few students will be affected is shortsighted and doesn’t account for the cascade effect across the university – for language minors and for students in all majors who want to broaden their education or need the credits. In-person training is critical to the success of international studies majors, she said.
Some speakers predicted that elimination of the Ph.D. in math will ultimately affect WVU’s R1 research status, and WVU will be the only R1 with no graduate degree in math.
Every STEM major takes math, one said. “The most lasting effect will be the damage to our national and global reputation. … We have not been meaningfully engaged.”
John Fox said he takes pride in being a Black West Virginian, but cited a Bette Midler quote that West Virginians are poor, illiterate and strung out. When he meets people in other states, they look at him with pity and say, “I’m sorry that you have to live there. … As West Virginians, we are not respected, we are not seen.”
Important classes he took at WVU are being cut, he said, and he urged the BOG to reconsider.
Another said, “Our futures are more than solutions for your debts. … I have no faith whatsoever in your outside consultant.” The bad decisions being made here will lead to more bad decisions: “Our kids are brilliant, and you are hurting them.”
Some speakers said WVU should retain its mission of liberal arts education and not narrow its focus to job training.
Rachel Hogue said she drove four hours one way for her two minutes. “The idea of an academic transformation focused on employment outcomes is shortsighted. … We cannot predict today what the needs of 20 years will be.”
And Laura Kimble, a member of the House of Delegates but speaking as a private citizen, said, “We should not be viewing students as merely workers.”
Brian Butcher addressed the BOG from his position as a Morgantown city councilman. “I think the decisions being made here are greatly going to affect the city I represent, for years to come.” He also called on the BOG to freeze the process. “You all fully understand what effects these cuts will have.”
The BOG meets again Friday, Sept. 15, to vote on the final recommendations from the provost office’s Academic Transformation program portfolio review.