The world of higher education has been in shock this past week after West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee announced plans to dramatically cut academic programs and jobs in the coming year. “West Virginia University, a crucial institution in one of the nation’s most impoverished states, is poised to jettison all of its faculty dedicated to teaching Spanish, French, Chinese and other foreign languages,” Nick Anderson reports at The Washington Post. “The state’s largest public university also is moving toward elimination of a master’s degree program in creative writing and a doctoral program in mathematics, among other proposed cuts, in response to declining enrollment and what university officials call a ‘structural’ budget deficit of $45 million. In all, 32 of the university’s 338 majors on its Morgantown campus would be discontinued and 7 percent of its faculty eliminated under a plan made public last week.” If WVU proceeds with the proposed cuts, the impact on campus workers—student employees, grad workers, faculty, staff, facilities workers—and the local economy will be massive. What brought WVU to this crisis point? And what can be done to fight back? In this urgent episode, we talk with: Leslie Wilber, an organizer with West Virginia Campus Workers who graduated with a Master of Fine Arts degree from WVU earlier this year; Morgan King, a recent graduate of WVU, a Fulbright Scholar, and a Marshall Scholar; Dr. Jessie Wilkerson, associate professor and Joyce and Stuart Robbins Chair of History at WVU, a member of the West Virginia Campus Workers union, and the author of To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice.
Additional links/info below…
- Leslie’s Twitter page
- Morgan’s Twitter page
- Jessie’s Twitter page
- West Virginia Campus Workers website and Twitter page
- West Virginia United Student Union Twitter page
- WVCW: “Stop the Cuts at WVU” page
- CALL TO ACTION: Save WVU – An Open Letter from Alumni
- Mya Helm, Slate, “Everyone at West Virginia University Knew Something Was Up. I Hate That We Were Right“
- Nick Anderson, The Washington Post, “WVU’s Plan to Cut Foreign Languages, Other Programs Draws Disbelief“
- Emma Pettit, The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Scholars See Dangerous Precedent in West Virginia U.’s Plan to Cut Foreign Languages“
- Jessie Wilkerson, University of Illinois Press, To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice
- Maximillian Alvarez, The Real News Network, “Big Pharma Leaves 1,400 Workers in the Dust with West Virginia Plant Closure“
- Maximillian Alvarez, The Real News Network, “Duke University’s Ploy to Ban Graduate Student Unions at All Private Universities“
- Working People, “**Jessie Wilkerson** (Bonus episode)“
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- Labor Radio / Podcast Network website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- In These Times website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- The Real News Network website, YouTube channel, podcast feeds, Facebook page, and Twitter page
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- Jules Taylor, “Working People” Theme Song
Music / Post-Production: Jules Taylor
Leslie Wilber: My name is Leslie Wilber. I graduated from WVU’s MFA program in creative writing last May 2023. And while I was at West Virginia University, I was also a member and an organizer with West Virginia Campus Workers.
Morgan King: Hi, my name is Morgan King and I am a recent alum from WVU. I graduated a few years back with a Bachelor’s in civil engineering and a minor in political science. And since then I’ve been fortunate to be a Fulbright Scholar in Spain and a Marshall Scholar in the United Kingdom.
Jessie Wilkerson: Hi, my name is Jessie Wilkerson and I am a professor at West Virginia University in the history department and I’ve been here since 2020. I’m also a member of the West Virginia Campus Workers Union.
Maximillian Alvarez: All right, welcome everyone to another episode of Working People. A podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today. Brought to you in partnership with In These Times magazine and The Real News Network. Produced by Jules Taylor and made possible by the support of listeners like you. Working People is a proud member of the Labor Radio Podcast network. If you’re hungry for more worker and labor-focused shows like ours, follow the link in the show notes and go check out the other great shows in our network. And please support the work that we’re doing here at Working People so we can keep growing and keep bringing y’all more important conversations every week.
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My name is Maximillian Alvarez and we are recording on Friday, August 18. We’ve got a very urgent episode for y’all today. As you heard, we are honored and grateful to have Leslie, Morgan, and Jessie on the call today. All are currently or formerly affiliated with West Virginia University, which you have all no doubt seen, has been in the news this past week and it is not good news. In fact, it’s incredibly devastating and horrifying news and we’ve had a lot of folks asking us about it, if we could do an episode on it, and hear from folks working on campus about what is going on at WVU, with these massive proposed cuts to programs.
Frankly, it feels like a lot of the universities, campus communities, and higher education communities across the country are in shock right now. We wanted to get Leslie, Morgan, and Jessie on, and I’m incredibly grateful to them for making time to do this, especially with everything else that they’re dealing with right now and that their colleagues and loved ones are dealing with right now. And we’re going to try over the next 50-60 minutes to give you guys as much on-the-ground perspective as we can. But for those who maybe haven’t heard the news or maybe have seen little tidbits on social media, I wanted to set the table here for a second and read extensively from a new report that was published today, August 18 at the Washington Post.
This is a piece by Nick Anderson titled “WVU’s plan to cut foreign languages, other programs draws disbelief.” And so Anderson writes in this piece, which we will link it to in the show notes, “West Virginia University, a crucial institution in one of the nation’s most impoverished states, is poised to jettison all of its faculty dedicated to teaching Spanish, French, Chinese, and other foreign languages. Students interested in learning a new tongue would be pointed to instructional alternatives — such as, possibly, an online app.
“The state’s largest public university also is moving toward elimination of a master’s degree program in creative writing and a doctoral program in mathematics, among other proposed cuts, in response to declining enrollment and what university officials call a “structural” budget deficit of $45 million. In all, 32 of the university’s 338 majors on its Morgantown campus would be discontinued and 7% of its faculty eliminated under a plan made public last week.
‘We are going through an existential crisis in higher education,’ E. Gordon Gee, WVU’s president since 2014, told The Washington Post in an interview Wednesday, ‘and we happen to be on the point of the spear.’ Gee said cuts are essential to free up resources for programs in higher demand such as forensics, engineering, and neuroscience. Amid declining public confidence in higher education, Gee said, universities must earn back trust. ‘The people of the state are telling us what they want,’ he said. ‘And for once, we’re listening to them.’
“But the recommendations have angered and scared professors and left students disillusioned. ‘It’s come as a major shock and a major blow to the morale of many of my peers,’ said Christian Adams, 18, a sophomore from Clarksburg, W.Va., who wants to major in Chinese studies. ‘It’s heartbreaking.’
“The proposed cuts are preliminary, and some academic units are appealing the recommendations. But university officials aim to have WVU’s Board of Governors act on a package of cuts as early as Sept. 15. ‘We’re going to do it with speed,’ said Gee, who plans to step down in 2025. ‘Our board will look at it, and then the threat will be behind us. We will have moved into an investment strategy again.’ Any cuts would not affect fall semester classes. Faculty cuts would take effect in May, officials said, with contingency plans to help students in discontinued programs finish their degrees.
“But enrollment has slid nearly every year for the past decade, with the pandemic exacerbating the problem. In fall 2022, the system head count was little more than 27,000, with 24,741 on the flagship campus. About 42 percent of undergraduates in Morgantown are from West Virginia. The in-state charge this year for tuition and fees is about $9,600. Those from out of state pay about $27,000. Those figures don’t count housing and food.
“A Chronicle of Higher Education analysis found WVU’s debt has risen more than 50 percent since 2014, to $962 million in 2022. Meanwhile, the Chronicle found, state appropriations for WVU fell nearly 36 percent from 2013 to 2022. Republicans have controlled the state legislature since 2015.”
So again, apologies for reading so much for y’all at the top of the episode but I wanted to make sure that we had a shared basis of understanding of what’s going on here. I’m not saying that the Washington Post’s reporting is definitive or even preferable but I do think it had a lot of the essential information. And again, we will link to that piece in the show notes for this episode. But without further ado, I’m going to shut up and I want to toss things back to our incredible panelists and ask first, Leslie, starting with you, if we could say a bit more for listeners about you three and your respective relationships to WVU.
Tell us a bit more about what this institution has meant for you personally, what your experience there has been, and then if you could tell us what the hell this past week has looked like through your eyes.
Leslie Wilber: Thank you so much. So I came to Morgantown, West Virginia three years ago to start my MFA in creative writing. It’s a creative workshop-based program as MFA programs are. And something that the people who aren’t in the English department and perhaps aren’t at WVU, might not realize is how important the MFA students at West Virginia University are to teaching and making the English department run. Most years, our cohort is nine students and it’s a three-year program, so at any time there’s going to be about 27 MFA students. Each of those students will typically teach two sections of composition per semester. The cap last May was raised from 22 students per section to 24 students per section.
So each graduate student in the English department, including the MFA students, is teaching about 48 students most semesters. And those are all undergraduate students. During my time at West Virginia University, which again ended in May, I was super fortunate to have incredible mentorship from the creative writing faculty and my thesis director Glenn Taylor. I was able to work with Katie Ryan at the Appalachian Prison Book Project and the Higher Education Prison Initiative, which is an incredible, incredible program that has ties to West Virginia University.
And of course, I was able to become – I am rambling a little bit – But I was able to become involved with the union organizing here which I’m also very grateful for and I work with incredible and very experienced union organizers like Jessie. While I understood that the English department was going to have some big changes coming – We knew that we were under review again last May. They announced that composition courses would have 24 rather than 22 students in them – I was really shocked to find out that the MFA program was suggested to be discontinued.
MFA programs, particularly those that are fully funded, that is our tuition is paid and we work as graduate teaching assistants or graduate assistants for a stipend, those tend to be across the board pretty competitive and popular programs. To my knowledge, there hasn’t been any shortage of applicants or interest in the program. And I heard the night before the announcement a friend texted me to let me know that the MFA program was slated for discontinuance and I was really shocked by that.
Morgan King: So I was born and raised in Charleston, West Virginia. Growing up, West Virginia University had such a profound effect on every aspect of West Virginia’s culture. I would, as a kid, get so excited to watch WVU basketball games. I was a really nerdy kid as well. So by the time I got to high school, if you asked me what my favorite subject was, I would say equally math and Spanish. So when it came time to apply to college, I did what a lot of kids do in West Virginia, which is look to WVU. I applied nowhere else and got into the engineering program and registered immediately for political science and international relations classes because I was really interested in this opportunity that I had to study multiple disciplines.
When I talked to other schools in the country, when I said, well, I’m interested in both of these subjects, they said, well, you’ve got to pick one. You can’t do both of them. And when I came to WVU and toured, they were so receptive to me pursuing interdisciplinary subjects that, in my opinion, go very well together. At the root of it, it’s all problem-solving. So when I was a student at WVU, I took many classes in Spanish up to the higher 300 levels. I was shy of a minor, took political science classes, and received a minor in that. And then ultimately studied civil and environmental engineering because looking at environmental policy problems locally and around the world was what I was so passionate about.
It made me want to explore the world more and learn more about global citizenship, which was a value that I felt was really instilled in the different clubs that I participated in, like Model United Nations, and in the classes from the really great faculty in the departments that I was in. If I hadn’t had access to those Spanish classes especially, I never would’ve had the chance to apply to the Fulbright program that I did, let alone get accepted because of the language requirements. And so it’s been really shocking to me this past week to see the university propose such reckless cuts.
Language is so critical. It’s the root of all of our communication. And to cut that off is to isolate our school, our state, then from the world. And it’s, frankly not disappointing, but outrageous to even suggest that these cuts should be made. And really disappointing because I never would be where I am today and I never would’ve had the opportunities that I’ve had, had it not been for some of the very programs that the WVU administration is proposing to cut.
Jessie Wilkerson: That was so powerful, Morgan and Leslie. So I got to WVU in 2020 right at the height of the pandemic. And I had been at the University of Mississippi for six years before coming here and I couldn’t wait to get to WVU. My areas of interest and scholarship are Appalachian history, labor and working-class history, and women’s history. And what better home for, especially Appalachian and labor history, is there than West Virginia? And there was so much excitement around that scholarship about Appalachia but they also see Appalachia as part of the larger country and the world. And the incredible students here that I met on my visits. I was so excited to join the faculty here and that’s still the case. I have amazing students here.
And I wanted to say that when I got here, the first class I taught was a 20th-century US history course for undergrads. And so many of those students had been recently standing on picket lines with their teachers in West Virginia. Students here understood the value of a union and I didn’t have to explain much about that; They already knew it and they understood that history and those who didn’t, had students in the class who talked to them about working-class history in West Virginia in the past but all the way up to their lifetimes as the teachers went on strike.
And so there are so many reasons I was excited to come here. And I also want to say that I fundamentally believe in public higher education. For the side that Leslie and Morgan have talked about, that public higher ed serves the people of our state. It serves often many working-class kids. Most people in this country go to school relatively close to their homes. That’s the vast majority of students who end up going to college or university. I really believe in our shared resources and this is the People’s University in West Virginia. And I fundamentally believe in that. So my reaction to these cuts –
– And actually let me say one other thing first, Max. So I believe in public higher education. I also believe in public sector jobs and defending public sector work. Our university is the biggest employer in Morgantown. It’s one of the big employers in West Virginia. My spouse works as a staff person in mail services here at WVU. And these are people who make hourly wages. They’re not getting rich on these jobs. $14-$20 is what they’re making but they get health insurance and they get retirement and it’s considered a stable job. And those jobs beyond the faculty jobs are also really important. And we don’t know what those cuts are going to look like yet. That should be coming out in the next month or so. And I suspect it could be as bad or even worse because cuts to staff don’t make the news the way that cuts to, say tenured and tenure-track faculty do. So I wanted to say that.
So when this news came out I was really angry because I know how much this is going to hurt people that I care about, people that are my colleagues who’ve spent many, many years in their disciplines, becoming experts, who are really great teachers, who care a lot about this state and about this place. And that they’re facing facing mass layoffs and the consequences of that on people’s lives. So that’s the reaction I’ve been having. I also have been really heartened by the outpouring of support, especially the student support for faculty who potentially are going to face these layoffs. West Virginia United Student Union has been organizing. They have a march planned for Monday.
And that really gives me a lot of hope that students are showing up and saying, we want to defend our public resource. We want to defend what belongs to all of us. And so I’ve been angry and I have been surprised by how extensive the proposed cuts are. Although I have to say that this didn’t come out of nowhere. Since I got here and in my last institution, we have been facing austerity measures and that’s been the trend for a long time. Here at WVU, the reality since I got here has been that we were experiencing attrition in our departments. We removed phones, the landlines from our offices, and did all these little cost-saving measures to try to save money.
We’re not supposed to be printing, which is wild when you’re in a field where you are a writer and the library has had to suspend buying books and resources. The everyday level has been really tough for a long time and the morale has been low and now we’re seeing, or we’re hearing that our colleagues could lose their jobs and there may be more layoffs to come which is why I think West Virginia Campus Workers is so important but I’m going to stop right there.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, I’m actually going to pick right up on that but before I do, I wanted to sneak in another plug. Longtime listeners of the show will recognize Jessie’s voice because we actually did do an episode together a while back, which we will link to in the show notes where we spoke about Jessie’s incredible book, which is titled aptly for the moment that we’re in right now, To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice. I cannot recommend that book enough. Also, I want to, as I said, pick up on what you all were saying there and communicate to people what we are talking about here with WVU in Morgantown, what this institution means as a site of work, as a place of work, upon which so many people’s livelihoods depend.
And I feel like all three of you have touched on different facets of this. Because Morgan, you were talking about how the students who come through to get their education at WVU, that’s essential training that you’re going to need to find employment outside of school. And to pursue your passions, your dreams, to help the world as best you see fit with the training you get at the flagship university through the programs that are now being put on the chopping block. But also, Leslie, as you talked about, we also have a lot of people working – And Jessie, you also mentioned this – On campus, right? We’ve got graduate workers teaching courses, we’ve got faculty at different levels, tenure, tenure track, non-tenure track.
We’ve got staff in the offices in the libraries. We’ve got facilities folks keeping the campus clean and making the facilities run and doing maintenance, all that stuff. To say nothing of the broader campus community that has an economy that depends on the people who are going to, attending, living, and working at this university as well. And we’re talking about a town, a state, a working-class population that has been taking hit after hit after hit. Two years ago on this show, we spoke with a worker, now laid off at the Mylan now Viatris plant. The pharmaceutical plant that had been in Morgantown, an institution for over half a century closed down. So that was another major blow to working people in Morgantown.
And now we have these cuts at WVU and we’ve still had a pandemic in between all of that. I wanted to ask if y’all could say a bit more about … The way that you framed it, Jessie, is right. Viatris was a plant closure, this in many ways is like a plant closure. The entire university is not closing down but a lot of people are going to lose their jobs. The economy’s going to take a hit. A lot of people are going to be hurt by this. So I was wondering if we could go back around the table and say a bit more about the university as a place of work. Who is working at this university, what does that look like, and what are these cuts going to mean for that diverse ecosystem of working people in and around Morgantown?
Leslie Wilber: I would also point out that besides you’re talking about the larger town of Morgantown and then you’re talking about university employees, this is fresh in my mind because I’m doing temp work at the beginning of the semester for one of the contracted companies that WVU hires to run some of its services. So things like food services, the bookstore events, those aren’t things where people are actually getting a paycheck from the university, but those are a lot of jobs that are contracted by the university. So there’s also those workers as well.
I would say that one of the things I find, well, there are a few things, but one of the things that I find particularly heartbreaking about the timing of this is when I think about my own experience. Again as a graduate worker in a three-year program, announcing this last Friday, the week before classes start, I think about the people who are coming into my program, the MFA program coming into other programs. The MFA program in particular, you have people who are coming here with the expectation of not only being able to incubate their creative works for three years and have the time to develop as emerging artists but also thinking that they’re going to have a job that will pay not very much, but at least some of your bills. Even if it’s paying quite poorly for the next three years.
So you think you have this plan for the next three years and then getting here and having the rug pulled out from under you? And I know as far as I’ve heard that in the English department, graduate workers’ stipends have not been decreased but in other departments, graduate workers have been forced essentially into decreased stipends in order to continue their studies. So people who are partway through a program are being asked to sign new contracts. And not to go on about this too much but I would really emphasize the fact that most of the graduate workers at West Virginia University are wildly undercompensated for their work.
Again, in the English department, most of us teach two sections per semester in the MFA program, and folks are making a stipend of $16,750. PhD students make a little more, the MA students make a little less. So there’s just a whole batch of people. Also, if you look at the math department, if you look at the music department, these graduate workers come in thinking that they have at least a couple of years of their lives planned out and some funding for their lives and then having the rug again ripped out from underneath them.
And then as recently as last year, we got a new professor in the creative writing program who’s an incredible memoirist, Brian Broome. They put some effort into recruiting this writer into this mess. And so I think about the professors or the staff or anybody who’s been recruited to this institution when they know that there’s this crisis, whether it’s real or manufactured right on the horizon.
Jessie Wilkerson: Can I jump in real quick because I want to add another piece to what Leslie was talking about? Leslie has laid out what life looks like for grad workers whose stipends are very low and they have stagnated and are lower than many of our peer institutions. And then we also have teaching assistant faculty who are on usually yearly or maybe a few years of a contract. They’re not tenured, they’re contingent faculty who also are making usually around $50,000 a year. And then, of course, we talked about staff making $14, $15, $16 an hour. And I want to contrast that with what’s been happening at the upper levels.
Over the last decade, the salaries of administrators have grown and the number of administrators in those offices has expanded. And those are people who are on the lower end are making around $300,000. And then you have the president of the university who’s making $800,000 and is getting retention bonuses. I don’t think it’s every year, but maybe every few years. And so I would be curious to hear Morgan talk a little bit about that as well because I’ve seen on social media a lot of students pointing out the class politics of all of this.
And we keep hearing about enrollment declines and we keep hearing about the pandemic funding is drying up, and it’s been suggested that faculty are no longer valued by the people of West Virginia. And so it’s our fault that people don’t really care about these programs anymore. And then meanwhile, you have these administrators who make a lot of money who also made decisions about the budget, and who’ve left us with a massive deficit. You pointed that out, Max, or you read the part about the deficit in the Washington Post piece.
So WVU was on track to expand and spending a lot of money to expand and then suddenly in February, we started hearing about, oh no, we have this projected deficit and we have to start layoffs immediately. So we hear all of these other reasons for what’s going on but what I’m seeing and hearing with students is that they’re pretty clear-eyed about the class dynamic here. And so, not to put you on the spot, Morgan, but I’ve seen you tweeting about this and I wondered about your perspective and what you’re hearing from students and other West Virginians.
Maximillian Alvarez: I would like to say also before we toss it to Morgan, to anyone listening, go read the rest of that WaPo article because they talk about how President Gee, who came on in 2014 was talking all this shit about how they were going to build up the university, enrollments were going to keep going up, and then they haven’t. They’ve been going in the opposite direction, but they’ve continued to build. And now he’s out here making it seem like the problem is that a bunch of liberal faculty have gotten too woke or some shit. And the people of the state don’t want us funding language programs or creative arts. I don’t know, this smells like bullshit to me, but I’m speaking for myself. But I wanted to encourage folks to read the full article that we linked to in the show notes. So Morgan, take it away.
Morgan King: Leslie and Jessie’s points are spot on and it tells this story of exploitation that our state is no stranger to. For goodness’ sake, our governor was once the only billionaire in our state and it’s this story that continues where these older white men in power are those that continue to retain the most wealth and hoard it. And it’s the story that we’ve seen in West Virginia’s history, is essentially an extraction colony. West Virginia is one of the poorest states in the country, one of the most isolated, and we’ve seen this at all levels of the different power dynamics and class dynamics in our state, this divide. And it’s been really interesting to watch it from this perspective at WVU because it’s repeating history.
It’s the same old same old of the old boys club that we see well across the country and world. And on top of that, on top of the excessive salaries of administration that aren’t being cut while they’re asking faculty and staff that make under a hundred thousand dollars or much less to lose their jobs or take cuts. It’s frankly insulting to these programs and to students who have depended on these faculty members for their opportunity to have an education and pursue a career.
And it’s going to continue this feedback loop that we’re seeing from our state legislature. But now also we’re seeing from WVU of not investing properly in our residents or in our students or in our workers, and then we’re going to see more people leave. We’re going to see fewer people come, and it’s going to continue that story of West Virginia as an extraction and resource colony that only benefits the wealthiest.
Maximillian Alvarez: Man. That’s spot on but very, very depressing to think about. I want to keep this next question broad so that y’all can pick it up wherever you think is best. But we’ve already started talking about the path that led us here. And I want to broaden that out a little bit and talk about whether it’s from the university administration side or from the student side. But talk to us a bit more about the conditions that have brought us to this crisis point and how you yourselves and your respective corners of the campus community have seen those conditions firsthand. I also want to add, if I can editorialize for a second, as a former grad student worker at the University of Michigan, and a union member with GEO, they are also still technically on strike.
My alma mater right now is threatening to replace graduate student workers who continue their strike into the fall semester. So speaking only for myself and no one else, kindly, University of Michigan administration, go fuck yourselves. But when I think about the elephant in the room, when I listen to and read President Gee’s rationale for these cuts, it seems so ridiculous. Because we’re talking about enrollments declining, university’s debt exploding, and we’re not getting the enrollment numbers that we want. And so we have to prioritize the programs that the students who are coming say that they want. But the thing that’s not mentioned is, I don’t know, speaking as a millennial when you saddle entire generations with debt because you have categorically, catastrophically, and systematically defunded public education for the past 50 years.
And every state dollar that has been taken away from public education has been put on students and their families in the form of debt that we will never be able to repay, the vast majority of us that is. So eventually you’re going to see the results of that. The chickens are going to come home to roost because younger generations have seen our generation grow up, have all this debt, have shitty job prospects, and stagnant wages. And they’re going to say, well, it’s probably not worth me taking that risk to take on all this debt and enter a job market where I probably won’t find the job that I’ll need to pay it back. And so if we reinvest in higher education as a public good, if we admit as a society that doing the opposite for the past 50 years is a catastrophic failure of social policy, we can do that.
It’s okay to say we were wrong and that this was a stupid idea and that it was a catastrophic idea and we need to fix it. That’s okay. We can do that. We don’t have to keep going down this road for Pete’s sake. But that’s also a big thing that seems to be missing in the calculus for these cuts and the way that mainstream media is talking about it. But again, I wanted to put that in there speaking for myself as I was reading all these articles, and no one was mentioning that, it was driving me nuts. I want to toss it back to Leslie and ask if the three of you could say a little more from your perspective, your vantage points. What brought us to this crisis? How deep does this go? And how have you seen those conditions piling up firsthand?
Leslie Wilber: So I’d like to speak to a policy issue first and then talk a little bit about creative writing. So last year when WVU, in the winter/spring, was beginning to look at the tenure year review process, some of us at West Virginia campus workers were beginning to do some of the research around that. And I would say that one thing we haven’t touched on yet is the use of outside consultants. West Virginia University has a more than $800,000 contract with RPK Consulting Group. They’re a consulting group that has worked with various colleges and university systems that have been working to dismantle tenure. They were, I believe, the Kansas Board of Regents, and the UNC system.
If you go to the RPK group’s website you can see a list of their clients. And if you were to Google them you would see any news story that you see them in. It tends to be about a university that has some element of tenure or its structure dismantled. Speaking to creative writing and what it was like on the ground in our program, one of the things that frustrates me about this is the assumptions that the administration is laying out about undergraduate students are really quite ugly. They’re making assumptions or forwarding this idea that undergraduates aren’t intellectually curious or creative and are, as Morgan was saying, looking at education in this very extractive way. Where you put a coin in, you get a token out or whatever.
And I would say that my own experience with teaching creative writing here, teaching fiction, and other graduate workers teaching creative writing, faculty teaching undergraduate creative writing here, those classes are in demand. They fill up fast. My cohort, we had a big plan to promote our creative writing classes and we made flyers and everything and the classes were full before we could even promote them. These are popular classes. In my fiction class, I had students from West Virginia, from Appalachia who were interested in telling Appalachian stories. I had students from Columbia.
I had students from all over different parts of the US who were in different majors: Engineering students, computer science students, of course, English, history, students in the humanities. Whether or not people are majoring in a world language or majoring in music or majoring in creative writing, these are things that are valuable. And if a student can’t spend their undergraduate years exploring new creative practices, learning new things, and developing new ideas through studying a wide variety of disciplines, when are people supposed to do that? When do you have the freedom to do that? And so I would say that there is this false perception that there isn’t a demand for these courses and these programs when there is an extremely high demand for some of these courses.
Morgan King: I’d love to build on that too in the discourse around the outside consultant who was hired to propose these cuts. What’s crazy to me is that our university is filled with academics who know how to collect data. They know how to analyze it. They know how to make decisions and recommendations based on that. Why are we outsourcing this when we have the skillsets available in-house? The university hires faculty members that do institutional research and it seems insulting to those well salaried and well-educated researchers that WVU employs. And in particular, it’s wild to me too, given all of this other knowledge and research that we have in-house that they would even consider these austerity measures.
We’ve seen, around the world, austerity measures failing whether it’s governments or businesses and it creates more poverty, it creates more inequality, it creates more unemployment, and really only benefits the rich and powerful. So maybe I’m not surprised because it continues that narrative that I was talking about earlier where it’s the same people that hoarded the most wealth, that hoarded the most power, that wants to retain it. And so despite all of this evidence we have in-house and all of this training that could recommend actual solutions to address this budgetary crisis, they’re outsourcing it to see how it would benefit those in power the most.
Jessie Wilkerson: These are all really important points. And Max, as I think about your question about how we got here. It’s really complex and a lot of people who are a lot smarter than me have talked about it and have analyzed it. But I’m going to boil it down to what I understand it to be which is, in part, because private interests like the RPK group or contractors and others have captured public funds. And so that’s been happening for a while now and we haven’t done a great job of organizing to defend public higher ed and our common good. That’s also related to the student loan debt crisis. That’s another way of privatizing the public good. I’m thinking of the work of Tressie McMillan Cottom in lower ed and Dennis Hogan’s excellent analysis of what’s going on in higher ed.
And it’s Dennis Hogan who talks about student loan debt as a disciplining measure. So we see the rise of student loan debt and the increase in tuition after the mass protest of the liberation era of the ’60s and ’70s. What we have to remember, public higher ed is a space where a lot of people organized in movements in the ’60s and ’70s, and those were really crucial spaces. So then you’ve seen over the last decades, these disciplining measures and trying to contain that energy. And there are people organizing around that. West Virginia Campus Workers has organized with the American Federation of Teachers Academic or AFTA, Scholars for a New Deal for Higher Education, and Higher Ed Labor United have organized United Campus Workers across the southeast.
So it’s starting to happen. I’m thinking of my friends in Tennessee who stopped a huge effort by the governor in Tennessee to privatize all facility jobs and contract those jobs out to a firm in Chicago. And they were able to lobby to stop that. It would’ve affected not only the universities but also all state facilities. And that’s why I always say to people, we need to be organized because we don’t know what’s coming down the pipeline but something is because it’s happening all over the place. And what we’re seeing at WVU is a really dramatic case. It’s happening at warp speed and has taken a lot of us by surprise but this is unfortunately probably where we’re headed at other places as well.
And then the other thing I was thinking about, Max, is how this conversation – From the top here at WVU – This argument sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit, that university education is solely to get you a job. It is job training, and there’s been an argument that we should get back to our industrial education model as a land-grant institution. I have no problem with job training and the idea that that’s what some people want and need but they’re pitting that against another model: the liberal arts model or the education for the arts and education for education’s sake. And also there’s this idea of job training but then you have to pay. College is more expensive than ever so you have to pay thousands of dollars in order to be qualified to get a job that more than likely is not going to pay off that debt very quickly, if at all. So that to me is some bigger issues.
Maximillian Alvarez: You are still a worker, you are going to on average earn more with a college degree than without. So it’s a perverse incentive for working people trying to determine how they’re going to carve a path to a comfortable, dignified future. It’s like you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Don’t get a college degree, you’re going to be that more disadvantaged in the job market. If you do get a college degree, you’re going to be that much more saddled with debt. Right? It’s a really frustrating and ridiculous situation that we find ourselves in but we have to fight back where and however we can and we have to support each other where and however we can.
You guys know if you listen to this show, the academic labor movement has a very big place in my heart. And we have spoken to folks, as I said on strike, grad workers on strike at the University of Michigan. We had the largest higher education strike in US history last year at the University of California system, with 48,000 academic workers on strike. We had strikes and unionization efforts from The New School to the University of Illinois at Chicago. We had Rutgers faculty go on strike for the first time in school history. It’s not all doom, gloom, and awful things coming from the top. There will always be a fightback coming from the bottom. The question is, which is going to have more force behind it?
And with the last few minutes that I’ve got of the three of you, I know I got to let you go. And I really appreciate you taking the time to chat with us today. I wanted to ask if you had any final messages for President Gee, the Board of Governors at WVU, and the broader public about what we will lose if these cuts go through. What the campus community will lose? What campus workers and what American society will lose if these cuts go through? What happens now? And what folks out there listening in and outside of West Virginia can do to stand in solidarity with y’all and your fellow campus community members there?
Leslie Wilber: If I had a message to Gee and the rest of the administration, it would be that despite what they’re saying, West Virginians, students, and people who are paying attention, seem to understand that their messaging and what they’re doing is in bad faith. The undergraduate community here, the people of West Virginia are savvier than they are being given credit for by this administration. And people understand that they are trying to rob students, particularly students in this state of public resources that are very much needed.
Morgan King: For me, what I would say to Gordon Gee is that if he wants to create bad engineering in medical professionals, then he’ll go through with these cuts. He said that his priority is to open up funds for essential programs like engineering and some of the medical programs. And I’ll use doctors and engineers as an example; the doctors take a Hippocratic Oath to do no harm. I don’t know about you all but I’ve met so many doctors that don’t have both the emotional intelligence and the softer skills that are essential for providing care. It’s more than being able to pass a biology test. Professional engineers have the same thing. They have something called an engineer’s creed where they dedicate their professional knowledge to the advancement and betterment of public health, safety, and welfare.
And to be able to do that, you have to be well-rounded to be an effective engineer. And I know this firsthand from all of the engineering classes that I took. It was my world languages classes. It was the art classes I took, dance classes, and loved them, having grown up dancing. I took political science classes and international studies classes and those made me a stronger problem solver, a stronger critical thinker, listener, and speaker, and ultimately made me more effective at analyzing what the impact of my projects in engineering would do. You can build a rocket, but if you don’t know what impacts it’ll have on the surrounding communities, it’s frankly irrelevant if you can build that project.
And so we have to be able to analyze and assess our impacts on the social, economic, and other aspects of the world. And so if Gordon Gee says he’s prioritizing these fields, then he will keep the programs that he’s trying to cut. If I could also add, I’ve worked with a few alumni from WVU and we produced a letter drawing attention to some of these cuts. And we’re looking for more alumni across the country to sign. If you have any degree or certification from WVU, you’re more than welcome to sign. And we have a little short link you can go to called tinyurl.com/savewvu.
Jessie Wilkerson: So what I would want to say to West Virginians, as someone who was a first-generation college student who felt a lot of pressure to go to college in order to get a job but loved music – And so I was a music major first, and then I switched to becoming an English major because I loved books. And then I went on to study history – We deserve a robust, diverse education, and West Virginians deserve that. What we’re looking at is the possibility that working-class kids will have access to job training and wealthy kids will have access to universities where they can explore all of their vast interests. And I don’t think that’s the world I want to live in.
And so I know that people in West Virginia understand the value of a robust education. We saw it with the West Virginia teacher strike. People really, really have deep pride in this university and in their schools. And so I would ask those folks to call the administrators. You can find the phone numbers online, reach out to us. There’s going to be a student march on Monday at noon on campus and I hope people show up to that. Reach out to the Board of Governors who make decisions about this university and let them know what you want out of a university. And then the last thing, my request is to check out the website, aftaacademics.org/wvcampusworkers. And you can find ways to get involved with West Virginia Campus Workers.
You can also find many of the petitions there that various programs have put out as they start to make their appeals to save their programs. We need you. One more thing is I hope that my colleagues across the country will show up for us in whatever way they can. If that means your organization writing a letter for us or spreading the message about what’s happening here, retweeting the articles. Like I said, I don’t think this is distinctly about West Virginia. This is something that’s happening in a lot of places already, and if it hasn’t, it’s probably going to happen soon.