West Virginia: outcry over “unprecedented” language cuts

West Virginia: outcry over “unprecedented” language cuts

Almost the entire department of world languages is set to be cut at West Virginia University – in what stakeholders are calling a “bloodbath” – leading to a vote of no confidence in the university’s president.

West Virginia University may explore alternative methods of delivery such as an online language learning app. Photo: Unsplash

Last month, it was announced that under president E. Gordon Gee, the university was set to cut 169 faculty positions and more than 30 degree programs. The cuts, which originally included the entire department of world languages, literatures and linguistics, are a response to a $45million budget deficit for the 2024 fiscal year.

As a result of an appeal, instruction in Spanish – described the university as “a high demand language” – and Chinese – “a critical need language” – would be offered based upon student demand and instructional capacity, with five faculty reinstated.

“This final recommendation will allow students to take language courses as electives and potentially as minors” said Maryanne Reed, provost and vice-president for academic affairs, WVU.

According to the university, the number of foreign language degrees awarded has been on the decline both nationally and in WVU’s main recruiting market over the past 12 years.

However, the cuts – which also impact graduate programs in mathematics and arts degrees – have caused outrage among staff, students and stakeholders across the state and country, many of whom are accusing Gee of mismanaging university funds.

“It’s unprecedented,” said Akash Patel, president of American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages said of the cuts.

“It gives you goosebumps and it makes you think about what kind of implications is this going to have for higher education institutions across the US?

“Language inspires empathy,” said Patel.

“It inspires the global citizens of tomorrow, something we so desperately need in our world today, with all of the animosity, all of the xenophobia and homophobia and wars and contention, language education is a true antidote and promotes conflict resolution and peace building.”

On September 6, faculty convened and passed a resolution of no confidence in the university’s leadership by a majority 797 votes to 100, as well as a vote to freeze the pending program cuts.

As well as being accused of mismanaging finances, the resolution claimed that Gee has refused to accept responsibility for the university’s current financial situation, further highlighting “poor planning” and “faulty decision making.”

Despite the landslide vote, the WVU board of governors shortly after released a statement from its chair Taunja Willis-Miller, expressing “unequivocal” support for Gee and the university’s “strategic repositioning”. The statement also said the board rejects the “multiple examples of misinformation” that informed the resolutions.

“The university is transforming to better reflect the needs of today, and we must continue to act boldly. President Gee has shown time and again he is not afraid to do the difficult work required,” the statement read.

What kind of implications is this going to have for higher education institutions across the United States?

Back in August, the university said that part of its plan to eliminate the language requirement for all majors would involve exploring alternative methods of delivery such as an online language learning app or online partnership with another university.

“Further, we will seek to create greater access to study abroad opportunities, where students can gain language proficiency through immersive experiences,” said Maryanne Reed, provost and vice president for academic affairs.

“How do you expect [students] to engage in a truly global world with a learning app, which is what they’re planning to replace some of these language courses with? It’s really disheartening,” argued Patel.

Jenny L. Santilli, sits on the executive board of the West Virginia Foreign Language Teachers Association, and is alumnus of WVU. She believes the cuts are part of a bigger movement afoot, involving “conservative” leaders looking to “eliminate things that that would broaden people’s lives”.

“They don’t want people to know about other cultures. They don’t want them to know about accepting diversity,” she told The PIE.

“The things world languages teach you includes critical thinking, problem solving, finding patterns, thinking on the fly. And they just don’t want you to have those skills. They want you to just learn your job, not learn to advocate for yourself and just accept whatever crumbs they give you.”

On September 7, some faculty members continued their efforts by publishing an open letter, urging the board of governors to freeze the process.

“As the flagship university and land-grant institution of one of the poorest states in the United States, our university has unmatched importance for the people of West Virginia. It also offers a clear example of the significance of a public university: what it has been, what it risks devolving into, and what it still can become,” the letter said.

“West Virginia already has a teacher shortage of 1,700 educators; what will happen in future years without graduate math, world language, arts, music, and more?” it continued.

As for Patel, he does not believe that the interest in language learning is necessarily declining, but instead languages are being portrayed as “useless” and worries for the precedent WVU’s cuts are setting.

“Sadly, this is going to be something that’s become going to become a blueprint for many other public universities that are struggling right now with all of this financial crunch after overspending at their universities and now having a budget crunch and a deficit of millions of dollars,” he said.

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