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Flagship Public Universities Likely to Cut More Humanities, Staff — Especially in Rural States

‘Are we going to revert back to “normal?” No, we will have a new normal.’

West Virginia University students Taya Sullivan, right, Matthew Kolb, left, and Will Snidow, center, show off a poster marking student protests against cuts in some of the school’s programs
West Virginia University students Taya Sullivan, right, Matthew Kolb, left, and Will Snidow, center, show off a poster marking student protests against cuts in some of the school’s programs. Cuts to the humanities are expected to grow at public universities across the country, particularly in rural areas. (Elaine S. Povich/Stateline)
Taya Sullivan, 20, is a freshman at West Virginia University, double majoring in neuroscience and Spanish. She also has a campus job in a linguistics lab, building on her majors and earning money she needs to continue her studies.

Next semester, both her Spanish major and her job will be gone.

Sullivan has been caught up in the university’s decision to eliminate its foreign language majors. The school is axing 28 majors altogether, ranging from undergraduate languages such as French and Russian to graduate majors in math and higher education. It also is cutting 12 percent of its professors.

Administrators say they’re responding to a budget shortfall, declining enrollment, flagging student interest in humanities courses, and pressure from parents who want their kids to be prepared for good-paying jobs after graduation.

“Are we going to revert back to ‘normal?’ No, we will have a new normal,” said West Virginia University President Gordon Gee in an interview with Stateline. “We are going to be much more oriented toward listening to the people who pay our bills — parents, students, legislators and others. And they very much want to see universities, particularly land grant institutions like ours, become engines of creativity and economic development.”

Many lesser-known public colleges nationwide have begun cutting back on the humanities, but West Virginia University is the “tip of the spear” for flagship state universities, Gee said.

Similar reductions are only expected to grow across the country, particularly in rural areas where campus budgets are lower, enrollments are more likely to be falling, and where the pressure for career-oriented majors may be greater. But critics argue that such changes in emphasis will sap states of intellectual firepower, leaving them with fewer leaders and citizens who are well-rounded.
West Virginia University President Gordon Gee shows off the book he co-authored
West Virginia University President Gordon Gee shows off the book he co-authored, “Land-Grant Universities for the Future: Higher Education for the Public Good.” Gee argues that public universities have an obligation to train students for good careers and cannot offer instruction in every discipline. (Elaine S. Povich/Stateline)
In West Virginia, the cuts have prompted student demonstrations, a faculty resolution and objections from some lawmakers. Gee is unmoved.

“The budget [deficit] was only an accelerant; it’s change or die,” he said. “We are the first to jump off the cliff. I could make a living from calls from other university presidents to ask, ‘How are you doing it?’ We are having to change. We can no longer be everything to everyone. We’ve got to make choices.”

Other state universities, especially rural ones, are making similar choices. Missouri Western State University has eliminated dozens of majors and minors including English, history, philosophy, political science, economics, sociology, art, Spanish and French. Eastern Kentucky University shut theater programs and economics. The State University of New York at Potsdam is also cutting degree programs, including in art history, dance, French, Spanish and theater.

More cuts could be coming. The Board of Regents for the University of Kansas system announced in June it is reviewing proposals to eliminate programs at the six state universities. The review is meant “to ensure that programs meet student demand, improve student affordability, support Kansas communities and help meet the state’s workforce needs.” A decision is expected in 2024 on which programs to cut or consolidate, said Matt Keith, spokesperson for the Kansas Board of Regents.

Humanities courses such as languages, history, arts and literature are particularly vulnerable nationwide. Schools are more inclined to emphasize business, science, math and technology studies, which could lead to more high-paying jobs.

Students also appear to be turning away from the humanities: Data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics shows that the percentage of bachelor’s degrees conferred by four-year institutions in the humanities dropped from 16.8 percent of all degrees in the 2010-11 school year to 12.8 percent in 2020-2021.

State budget reductions and schools’ funding shortfalls also have contributed to cuts, particularly in rural states. State spending on higher education fell in 16 of the 20 most rural states between 2008 and 2018, when adjusted for inflation, according to a Hechinger Report analysis of data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a research and policy institute that advocates for left-leaning tax policies.

Higher education funding per student declined by more than 30 percent in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania during that period. In Kansas, it went down by nearly 23 percent.

State budget problems accounted for some of the reductions, but in other cases lawmakers preferred to spend available dollars on roads or K-12 education.

Even when state budgets were flush following a huge outlay of federal funds during the COVID-19 pandemic, many states, including West Virginia, opted for tax cuts rather than investments in higher education. In March, West Virginia Republican Gov. Jim Justice signed a law immediately reducing the income tax by an average of 21.25 percent.

‘Save the Institution’

Some students at state universities that are eliminating courses of study feel they are being shortchanged.

Sullivan, speaking in a tiny campus library study room with two other students who are also facing the end of their majors, says she’s “enraged” at the changes at West Virginia.

“This is making things much more chaotic. There goes my job, too,” she said. A Fairmont, West Virginia, native, she is considering transferring to another school, but said doing so would be daunting because her courses, job and financial aid all are tied to West Virginia University.

Sullivan and a group of students led by senior math major Matthew Kolb, of Follansbee, West Virginia, protested on campus this fall, joined by some faculty members whose jobs are being cut. But it was no use; the school announced that it will eliminate 8 percent of its majors and the Ph.D. program in mathematics. The school also is cutting faculty in career-oriented departments such as mining engineering and petroleum and natural gas engineering.

Kolb, 21, said he was particularly disappointed about the demise of the Ph.D. program in math, which he had planned to enroll in after finishing his undergraduate studies. “After these cuts, I won’t be able to get into it at all,” he said. “I would have to leave the state and the state already has a problem with people leaving. I could be one of those people.”

In September, the WVU faculty Senate issued a vote of no confidence in Gee. But Justice said in September he would not back some Democrats’ call for spending $45 million of the state’s $2 billion surplus to “bail out” the college.

An analysis of WVU finances by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, a progressive group, found that if state lawmakers had kept education spending levels the same as a decade ago, the university would have an additional $37.6 million in state funding.

Republican state Sen. Eric Tarr, who chairs the Finance Committee, was outspoken in defending the formula and the cuts at WVU.

In an interview with Stateline, Tarr said it became impossible for the legislature to ignore WVU’s budget deficit. “Prior to establishing the higher education funding formula, their appropriation was based on the success of their lobbying of the legislature,” he said. The formula will “help a lot of [state] schools ‘right size.’”

He said he feels for professors who are losing their jobs, but that it’s more important to “save the institution.”

The program cuts would not disproportionately disadvantage poorer students, he said, because while their academic choices might be limited, their job prospects will not be.

“The most disadvantaged students are able to help their family out with their first check in their pocket.”

Debating the Value of Humanities

WVU English professor Adam Komisaruk, who also directs graduate studies in the English department, says the larger question is what state universities want to be.

“Is our mission as a university simply to respond to market forces and popular prejudice, and to make educational decisions based on supply and demand? Or are we committed to providing a robust and diverse exposure to modes of thought that will allow our students to become knowledgeable, responsible, ethical engaged members of society?

“If we want to run a vocational training program, fine. But you can’t pretend you are a liberal arts full institution committed not only to our land grant mission to serve the people of the state but also committed to modern ideas of liberal education and broad-based knowledge. You can’t have it both ways.”

A Russian fairy tales and legends class taught by professor Lisa Di Bartolomeo on campus late last month elicited eager discussion about how Russian writings relate to today’s interpersonal power struggles, evoking topics ranging from gender norms to totalitarian governments.

“The things we talk about in that class are imminently applicable to students’ everyday lives,” said Di Bartolomeo, who is looking for a new job. “Even more than that, it gets them to think holistically about human culture, human history, human traditions and what makes us human and what unites us as human beings, as opposed to what divides us.”
West Virginia University Russian literature professor Lisa Di Bartolomeo lectures to a class
West Virginia University Russian literature professor Lisa Di Bartolomeo lectures to a class in Russian poetry. She's losing her job due to the university's decision to scrap her department and all language majors. (Elaine S. Povich/Stateline)
Rural students can be particularly affected by university cuts, said Andrew Koricich, executive director for the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges and an associate professor at Appalachian State University in North Carolina. As West Virginia is a mostly rural state, a higher proportion of its students come from rural areas.

“A lot of states are shifting more toward looking at higher education not just as a public good but as a cost-benefit calculation. Then it becomes a value judgment whether rural students deserve the same education as urban institutions and students,” Koricich said.

But he acknowledged that many rural students, and some urban ones too, are influenced by their parents and other adults who tell them the point of college is to get a good job, which changes their thinking on what is worth studying.

Those students and their parents are selling the humanities short, said Robert Townsend, program director for humanities, art and culture at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which studies those disciplines and advocates for their instruction.

While humanities and arts majors may not make as much money as engineers, he said, they do make good salaries and far more than their peers who never went to college. And many students lack technical skills but still will do well with a college education.

“Engineering is not the obvious alternative for somebody whose gifts and skills are words and history,” he added. “IT is not for everybody.”

In West Virginia, the Academy study showed that humanities graduates averaged an annual salary of $56,841, while education majors averaged $49,189 and arts majors $40,167. Engineers, by contrast, made $91,646 annually, while high school graduates earned $39,351.

Gee noted that students at West Virginia can still study languages, just not major in them, and suggested there are other ways to learn a language, including online courses. He also said that requests for foreign language classes are down by two-thirds this spring from the previous semester.

Tarr, the state lawmaker who supported the WVU cuts, said the return of humanities majors at WVU will depend on the school’s financial situation.

“We won’t require the people of West Virginia to bail out an institution that won’t make the structural change they have to make to continue their longevity,” he said. If the school gets solvent, he said, it can consider bringing back subjects and majors that were cut.

Cuts Across the Country

In Kansas, the Board of Regents’ criteria for evaluating the programs that may be cut include student demand (at least 25 junior and senior majors), and employment (51 percent or more are employed in the region over a four-year average).

Keith, the regents’ spokesperson, said that next year, universities in the state system will begin to make recommendations about which programs to continue and which to modify or cut.

SUNY Potsdam in far northern New York state initially identified 14 programs as candidates to be scrapped, but in the end it cut nine: art history, chemistry, dance, French, philosophy, physics, Spanish, theater and music performance.

Potsdam President Suzanne Smith said in a letter to the community that students enrolled in the now-eliminated programs represent only 4 percent of all students.

Students in the programs will be provided with “individualized plans for degree completion,” she said.

Potsdam spokesperson Alexandra Jacobs Wilke said in an email that the campus is reviewing applications for the “voluntary separation program” for staff. The outcome of that voluntary program could determine if other staff reductions are necessary, officials said.

Miami University of Ohio is trying a different tack for low-enrollment programs: consolidation rather than elimination. A memo from the university showed 18 programs under consideration for melding into other specialties, including American studies, art history, classical studies, French, German, Italian studies, religion, as well as Russian, East European and Eurasian studies, and women’s gender and sexuality studies.

Spokesperson Alecia Lipton said the proposed reductions are in response to “limited student interest, so we can reallocate our time and energy.” She said students currently majoring in those disciplines would be allowed to complete their course of study.

But what is lost, according to West Virginia professor Di Bartolomeo, is “the arts and sciences values that have motivated university education since ancient Greece. They are cutting the departments that bring diversity of opinion, diversity of cultural background, and diversity of experience to the university education.”

This article was first published by Stateline. Read the original article.
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