college protestors with signs and banners

West Virginia University votes to ax foreign language degrees

Faculty and students who are opposed argue that the move puts the state's flagship university at risk of offering a subpar education, especially in terms of producing graduates who can compete in the international workforce.

The World
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Editor's note: As expected, on Friday, West Virginia University’s Board of Governors approved most of the proposals to slash academic programs, including eliminating all of its world languages degrees. WVU will still offer courses, but not majors, in Spanish and Chinese. A total of 143 faculty positions and 28 programs will be terminated. According to Inside Higher Ed, some students cried and a professor stormed out as “board members approved cut after cut.”

To save money, West Virginia University, which is facing a $45-million budget shortfall, is looking to cut 32 majors. The biggest cuts will be to its world language department, which will be eliminated entirely. 

Administrators say only about 400 students will be directly affected. But those opposed to the cuts say they haven't accounted for the broader impacts.

Scott Crichlow is an associate professor of political science. He said that students in his department who are pursuing international relations or national security need languages.

The school is "denying those students the ability to get key communication skills through the study of critical languages that affect political science directly," Crichlow said. "And many other departments around the university are like that."

West Virginia University is the state's flagship university and its largest. In recent years, state government funding dropped as did enrollment. Meanwhile, the university made large investments in construction and spent money on acquiring hospitals.  

Taylor Delong, an international studies major, said that she was disheartened that she and other students were not counted as being affected by the cuts.

"I'm not sure how you can issue an international studies degree without a language," she said.

Delong graduates in May, but she worries about what the changes mean for her future and the students who come after her.

"How will my degree look if we no longer have a major department? What value will it still hold," Delong said.

The university is considering alternative methods of language instruction, such as a partnership with an online language app like Duolingo.

But Duolingo took issue with the suggestion. Cindy Blanco, deputy editor of learning content at Duolingo, wrote in an open letter to the university: "Learning on an app cannot replace the rigorous study that undergraduates complete in university-level language and linguistics programs."

Igor DeCarvalho DaCosta is a student from East Timor at WVU on a US State Department scholarship to study economics and data science. He said he understands the value of languages and what it will mean to lose them.

"When I heard about that, it's quite sad," he said. "Through language, we can connect to each other."

Since starting classes in August, students have led a walkout in opposition to the cuts and have become a presence at campus meetings.

Jenny Santilli, a WVU alumnus and a retired Spanish teacher and an education professor at Fairmont State University, attended the rally against the cuts.

Santilli said that with West Virginia facing a teacher shortage of more than 1,500 certified positions, she worries about the impacts the cuts will have on the future of language education, in general. And, she said, the staffing for world languages for kindergarten through high school students is "disastrous." 

"We have people that have not had any Spanish," Santilli said. "We've had people that maybe had, you know, three, four or five courses in undergraduate studies trying to muddle through. They're doing their best, but that's not the same as having a certified teacher."

Last week, an overwhelming majority of faculty members gave the university president, Gordon Gee, a vote of no confidence. They also passed a resolution to freeze the cuts.

Before the vote, Gee addressed the faculty assembly, saying: "This is all about change. I have great faith in this university. I have great faith in all of you. And I think that, in the end, that will be a better institution, but we will proceed forward with what we're doing right now. And I think that will strengthen our institution by doing so."

Within minutes of the vote concluding, Board of Governors Chair Taunja Willis Miller released a statement expressing the board's faith in Gee's leadership and expressing the need for change. 

The Board of Governors will vote to approve the proposed changes on Sept. 15, which is expected to pass.

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