‘It’s been chaos:’ WVU nears end of tumultuous academic year after jobs, programs unexpectedly cut

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Lisa Di Bartolomeo is a professor of Russian studies and Slavic and East European studies at West Virginia University. (Amelia Ferrell Knisely | West Virginia Watch)

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Last July, Drew Herter auditioned to join the jazz program at West Virginia University. A trombone player inspired by artists Count Basie and Charles Mingus, Herter dreamt of a full-time job touring the country in a band. 

A few months later, the university’s Board of Governors cut the jazz program along with 27 other academic majors in what they said were efforts to deal with a multimillion dollar financial shortfall and “modernize the curriculum.” 

“What’s happened here, it’s been chaos,” said Herter, 21, who is from Morgantown. 

“As a land-grant university, if you take away that Black American music, you’re sending a message to not just the state but the country of what you value,” he said. “In my opinion, you’re valuing the wrong things.”

WVU is wrapping up a publicly tumultuous year as national media have questioned how a land-grant university, particularly one in a poor state, can remain competitive after gutting its World Languages Department, graduate math programs and more. Around 300 jobs were cut, including faculty and library positions, and other professors have left in protest to campus changes, dubbed the “Academic Transformation.” 

University President E. Gordon Gee has said his efforts to reshape the institution were driven to help students graduate and land jobs. The university will reflect an ever-changing world, he said.

Drew Herter, 21, is a student studying jazz at West Virginia University. Jazz studies was among programs cut in the “Academic Transformation.” (Amelia Ferrell Knisely | West Virginia Watch)

“We will serve as the great connector — building partnerships that drive industry, education and public sector growth,” Gee said in October. He said he’d cut financially-draining majors. Leaders would invest in business, medical and nursing programs among others.  

Joe Lynch is an assistant professor of biochemistry in the Division of Plant and Soil Sciences. His job was among faculty reductions due to the Academic Transformation.

He recalled last fall learning that his job of three years was cut after watching Balloons Over Morgantown, the city’s annual hot air balloon event.

“It was a glorious sunny day, then I got to my office and that email was waiting for me,” Lynch said. “I was told consistently that I was exceeding expectations for my tenure-track position. To be told that, no, what I’m doing doesn’t bring value to the university, that stung.”

Gee will step down from his role in 2025; a search for the next university president is underway

Faculty and students worry about the future of the university and what it can offer to West Virginia, a state grappling with a drug epidemic and poor education outcomes. In 2022, 46% of the state’s high school graduates enrolled in college.

Nya Feinstein’s academic majors were affected by the Academic Transformation, including Russian studies, which was wiped out by the changes. 

Joe Lynch is an assistant professor of biochemistry at West Virginia University. (WVU photo)

“It will put my generation, which includes incoming students, at a very strong disadvantage,” said Feinsten, 23, who is from Lancaster, Ohio.

“I’m sad that there are people who have things they wanted to study being told these things aren’t important.”

Faculty prepare to move on

On a Tuesday in April, Lisa Di Bartolomeo, a professor of Russian studies and Slavic and East European studies, was packing up her campus office in Morgantown. Her space was peppered with hand-made projects from students, including a white knitted arctic wolf.  

“Every single thing I pick up, I think about that student and the environment of that class and how fun it was,” she said. “That’s really the hardest thing.”

After nearly two decades at WVU, her job — and department — were cut in the Academic Transformation. The Board of Governors eliminated the World Languages, Literature and Linguistics department, taking with it majors in foreign languages. WVU will retain five faculty positions and continue to offer Spanish and Chinese classes as needed for students.

Last year, the board tasked Gee with swiftly dealing with a $45 million budget shortfall, which they said could expand to $75 million by 2028. Declining student enrollment, the COVID-19 pandemic and rising state health insurance premiums were blamed for the urgent financial woes. 

Faculty — and media reports— pointed to Gee’s history of lavish spending and noted that leaders spent $350,000 on chartering a private jet

Boxes fill Lisa Di Bartolomeo’s office in Evans Hall on West Virginia University’s Morgantown campus. This is her final semester at the university. (Amelia Ferrell Knisely | West Virginia Watch)

“The people who got us into this mess are not facing any consequences,” Di Bartolomeo said.  “It would be one thing if we were fired because we were terrible at our jobs… but we’ve all been good at our jobs. Hell yeah, I’m angry.”

The World Languages department was profitable, said Di Bartolomeo, bringing in $800,000 a year.

WVU eliminated one administrative position in the transformation. Rob Alsop, former vice president for strategic initiatives, stepped down in October. 

143 faculty positions cut, others leaving

According to the university, 143 faculty jobs were eliminated in units that included chemistry, civil and environmental engineering, English and public health.

A new performance-based funding formula for higher education, outlined in a 2023 state law, prioritizes degrees that contribute to workforce development in the state. It helped to shape the cuts, Mountain State Spotlight reported

Eighteen mathematics faculty positions were cut after university leaders voted to do away with graduate math programs. 

Faculty whose jobs were cut had the opportunity to appeal to leaders’ decisions. According to WVU Communications Director April Kaull, 47 faculty were eligible for a due process meeting and 25 participated. One decision was retracted following due process, she said. 

Other faculty have left in the wake of the Academic Transformation though Kaull could not share a number.

I really think this is something they should have figured out before they took my tuition money. It’s unethical at best.

– Brennan Kellermeyer, WVU freshman

The Daily Athenaeum, the university’s student newspaper, reported that seven law school professors have voluntarily left the school in response to the cuts. Five law school faculty positions were axed in the budget crunch. 

“ … Faculty and staff retire, depart or come to the university regularly for all kinds of reasons and we do not anticipate these activities to be outside the norm as we look to the future,” Kaull said. 

Rosemary Hathaway, an English professor, left after 17 years at the university. She described the past academic year as “exhausting and infuriating” for faculty and students.

“Frankly, I just find it all shocking. Gee and the administration in general have gotten so detached from understanding what this university means to people,” she said. “It’s not just where West Virginia students come to get job skills. It’s a place they come to that opens up the whole world to them and makes things possible that weren’t possible to them. That’s just been driven into the ground.”

Hathaway and former faculty member Ann Pancake, who also left in response to the Academic Transformation, previously taught in the university’s highly-touted Appalachian Studies program. Their exits contributed to the program’s current pause. 

‘It’s unethical at best’

WVU was still working out its finances, Gee told lawmakers in February. 

Leaders described the financial situation as “stable” but cited concerns for the 2025 fiscal-year budget due to inflation and increased costs with the Public Employees Insurance Agency, or PEIA. 

Remaining faculty will uphold the university’s promise to “teach out” students who were affected by the program cuts, though there’s no legal obligation for employees to stay. 

Kaull said junior, senior, graduate and most sophomore students whose majors were cut will finish their original degrees.

“The programs verified that each student has a plan to complete the program within the teach-out time frame or has decided on an alternative program,” she said. “ … In the few cases where this was not possible, the students have chosen new programs of study at WVU.”

Brennan Kellermeyer, 18, is a freshman at West Virginia University who had planned to study jazz. (Submitted photo)

Freshman student Brennan Kellermeyer, 18, had to change his plans to study jazz performance as a saxophonist. 

A friend told him his major had been cut. Now, he is looking to transfer out of state. 

“I really think this is something they should have figured out before they took my tuition money,” said Kellermeyer, who is from Annapolis, Maryland. “It’s unethical at best.”

Garrett Cessna, 22, was able to finish his Spanish degree along with a second major in biology. He’ll graduate next month. 

“I know a lot of people who come after me won’t have the same opportunities as me to learn in this department,” he said. 

Cessna, a Weirton native, continued, “It’s something I think about — how does this affect other first generation college students of similar backgrounds? How are they going to compete? It’s going to set a lot of Appalachians back further than we already are.”

Moving forward after the Academic Transformation

Following the cuts, the university has added several new academic programs. Earlier this month, the Board of Governors approved a new business program that will be the “second supply chain-focused degree,” a news release said. Another new bachelor’s degree will focus on chemical forensics.

Meanwhile, WVU students have organized, continuing to push back on the job cuts. Students told the Associated Press that they’re keeping a close eye on university spending and ongoing president search. 

Di Bartolomeo worried that the Academic Transformation permanently damaged WVU’s reputation. 

“The university has the potential to, hopefully, with new leadership and changes to right the ship and hopefully ensure what’s happened now isn’t permanent — and that we can heal.”

Scott Crichlow, a political science professor, said he will remain at WVU despite his disagreement with the cuts.

“My path is to try to do more university service,” he said. Crichlow, who has been at WVU for 22 years, was recently named Faculty Senate Chair Elect and will assume the role for the 2025-26 school year. 

“This has been my whole career,” he said. “I want the opportunities [students] had to continue to move forward.”

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