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Student-Led Opposition to Program Cuts at West Virginia University

Sophomore Christian Adams initially enrolled at West Virginia University with plans to study Chinese, envisioning a future in labor or immigration law. However, unexpected changes arose when the university made significant program cuts in response to a $45 million budget shortfall in September.

The decision to eliminate the world language department and numerous other programs, including English, math, and music, prompted Adams to shift his major to politics. This transition was motivated by the university’s actions and the resulting impact on academic offerings.

In response to what the American Federation of Teachers described as “draconian and catastrophic” cuts, Adams co-founded The West Virginia United Students’ Union. This union emerged as a leading opposition force against the cuts, organizing protests, circulating petitions, and advocating for faculty positions and majors slated for elimination. Despite their efforts, the university proceeded with cutting 143 faculty positions and 28 majors.

Expressing disappointment, members of The West Virginia United Students’ Union emphasize that their efforts are ongoing. Many of the union’s leaders are first-generation college students and recipients of financial aid, reflecting the state’s status with the lowest rate of college graduates.

Their collective aim is to catalyze a new era of student engagement in university politics and decision-making processes.

“Essentially, what this represents for WVU is a new chapter in student politics,” remarked Adams.

This movement aligns with a broader trend of student activism across U.S. higher education institutions, addressing issues ranging from the cost of education to representation and access to a diverse curriculum, as well as workplace safety concerns.

Financial challenges at the university in Morgantown, including declining enrollment, revenue losses during the COVID-19 pandemic, and increasing debt from building projects, prompted the drastic measures. While other U.S. universities and colleges have encountered similar financial constraints, WVU’s situation stands out as one of the most severe examples of a flagship institution resorting to significant cuts, notably in foreign language programs.

The union criticized the decision to eliminate 8% of majors and 5% of faculty, asserting that it represented a failure of university leadership to uphold the mission of a land-grant institution established in the 1800s to educate rural students historically excluded from higher education. With a quarter of West Virginia’s children living in poverty and many public K-12 schools lacking robust language programs, the importance of language skills in the global job market cannot be overstated.

As the university continues to assess its finances, the union intends to closely monitor the budget, oppose any further proposed cuts, and develop alternative proposals to preserve curriculum and faculty positions.

Additionally, the union aims to oversee and influence the selection of the university’s new president following the retirement of E. Gordon Gee next year. Last year, Gee faced symbolic motions from a faculty group expressing no confidence in his leadership. He characterized the curriculum cuts as part of a broader shift in higher education and positioned WVU as a leader driving change rather than succumbing to it.

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