You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

West Virginia University Is Everything That’s Wrong With Higher Education Today

Its president ignored the warning signs about declining enrollment. Now WVU is deeply in debt, in thrall to market-worshipping consultants, and cutting a shocking number of programs and faculty.

WVU President E. Gordon Gee
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
WVU president E. Gordon Gee in 2015

Anticipating a $45 million budget shortfall, West Virginia University president E. Gordon Gee in August moved to eliminate 32 different undergraduate and graduate programs—roughly half of them in the arts and humanities, including all foreign language programs—and cut 169 full-time faculty members. Those numbers were scaled back only slightly after students protested and the faculty overwhelmingly voted that it had no confidence in Gee.

WVU is hardly alone in its predicament—and in its response to it. Many public universities are facing budget deficits, and this year some of them have likewise slashed entire academic programs to reduce costs, their knives out for the liberal arts in particular. But the excuses many schools are making for the cuts don’t stand up to scrutiny, and in some instances they’re downright disingenuous—a clear case of leaders’ passing the buck.

Senior administrators almost always frame the cuts as a fiscal necessity, the leadership’s hand forced by declining enrollments. “Tragically, we no longer have the resources to support the current portfolio of academic programs, particularly our lowest-enrolled degree programs or majors,” Miami University declared. Marymount’s president, Irma Becerra, was blunter: “Over the long term, it would be irresponsible to sustain majors [and] programs with consistently low enrollment, low graduation rates, and lack of potential for growth.”

But these tidy explanations obscure more inconvenient truths. Contrary to popular belief, many arts and humanities programs—including some of those being cut this year—are actually profitable. Also, administrative budgets have ballooned at a pace well beyond those of academic departments, and yet they aren’t usually on the chopping block (perhaps because administrators are the ones wielding the cuts).

What’s most troubling about the excuses for cutting departments wholesale, though, is the implication that these programs are themselves to blame for not being more popular with students—when in fact the universities’ financial woes often fall squarely on the leaders themselves. It’s yet more evidence of a consultant-driven mentality that is overtaking university administrations, where academic inquiry is reduced to its value in the marketplace. But by suggesting that certain subjects have outlived their professional utility, these schools are presuming to know which specialties of knowledge will be in high demand for decades to come. History shows that’s a fool’s game.

The universities cannot plausibly claim they didn’t see this problem coming.

The U.S. birth rate has been declining drastically for years, and higher education has been well aware that this would eventually result in a smaller pool of students reaching college age; the so-called enrollment cliff was expected to start around 2025. So university administrations have had years to prepare for it.

Some, though, were in outright denial—perhaps none more so than Gee of West Virginia. In 2017, he announced a plan to grow WVU enrollment from 28,409—after a decade of holding steady between 28,000 and 29,700—to 40,000 by 2020, and spent accordingly on debt-financed building projects and industry partnerships. “Of course, we will be careful with our growth,” Gee said at the time. “We will protect the quality of life that we love in this community, and we will not overburden our infrastructure.” The opposite has come true: WVU had a little over 26,000 students in 2023 and was $33 million in debt during the last fiscal year—yet has continued to spend. The future is no brighter: The university projects a loss of 5,000 students over the next decade due to reduced enrollment, costing it $72.5 million.

Gee had at his disposal the information he needed to avoid much of WVU’s budget shortfall. What he did instead was manufacture a fiscal crisis as a pretext to reengineer the academic core of WVU. His may be an extreme example, but administrators elsewhere have been using similar tactics—namely, slashing entire academic programs before looking to nonessential spending to cut costs.

Perhaps nowhere is more ripe for cuts than the bloated administrations themselves. Between 1976 and 2018, the number of full-time administrators at higher education institutions increased by 164 percent, while the number of other professionals who work for them increased by an astounding 452 percent. To put this in perspective, faculty hiring over the same period increased by 92 percent, a little more than the 78 percent increase in student enrollment. With enrollments projected to decline, we’re seeing cuts to academic programs but not to the biggest growth center in higher education employment. If the rationale is that fewer students means fewer faculty needed to teach them, why are the likes of WVU and other budget-stressed institutions not applying the same logic to administrative costs?

One reason, perhaps, is that senior leadership believe certain academic subjects—and their majors—have outlived their usefulness and thus their role as part of a comprehensive higher education. We’re accustomed to thinking of this as the “crisis of the humanities,” but it’s not just humanities subjects on the chopping block. Cuts at WVU include some programs you might expect—art history, jazz pedagogy, music—but also biometric systems engineering, energy environments, public administration, mathematics, management, resource management, and occupational and environmental health sciences. Not all of these cuts are total—some are cuts to graduate degree programs or partial faculty reductions—but all are ostensibly geared toward bets on future student interest and enrollment and future economic needs.

Similarly, the 10 programs being cut at Vermont State University include applied business, computer engineering technology, climate change science, and school psychology. Cuts at Marymount University include mathematics, economics, and secondary education, among others. At the University of Maine, Farmington—the University of Maine system’s public liberal arts college—philosophy and religion, history, world languages, and women’s and gender studies are all being slashed.

In many cases, the programs being cut actually operate at a net profit for the university. WVU is cutting programs in Russian, Chinese, Spanish, French, and German studies, though budget records show that the World Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics Department nets at least $800,000 per year. Though it may seem counterintuitive, departments of English, math, history, and world languages typically make money for colleges and universities, as they serve a high number of students through general education courses—even with declining numbers of majors—and have relatively low overhead compared with departments where research and teaching require expensive equipment, or in which faculty are paid higher salaries (think business schools, economics, and medical science).

When you put it all together, the claim that slashing academic programs is necessary for sound fiscal management looks dubious at best. What’s actually happening is that ideologically motivated higher education leadership have been using the pretext of financial exigency to reengineer higher education. But the ideology isn’t necessarily liberal or conservative; it’s the short-term thinking of business management.

Rpk Group, which founder Rick Staisloff describes as “a leading national consulting firm supporting universities and nonprofits with their growth strategies,” is behind the cuts at WVU and boasts a long list of college and university clients. A slide presentation Rpk Group prepared for the University of Virginia in 2018, obtained by a professor there through a Freedom of Information Act request, encourages leadership to “shift the frame from cost cutting to maximizing return on investment.” Rpk Group’s method involves analyzing academic departments and programs based on student application numbers to a given program (before students enroll, and regardless of whether they change their mind once they do) and counting how many students have been enrolled in majors and programs (for a 2018 presentation, the firm used average data from 2013 to 2015).

Making bets on this crude form of analysis is risky and shortsighted because predicting student interests and enrollment patterns, as well as economic needs that may impact enrollment, is notoriously fraught. Examples abound of subjects across the liberal arts and sciences that were foolishly written off. Number theory, a branch of pure mathematics, was long dismissed as useless until people realized its essential value in wartime cryptography. In 2000, Arabic and Middle Eastern language programs made up less than 2 percent of all foreign language classes offered in the United States; after the 9/11 attacks, Arabic became the fastest-growing foreign language taught at U.S. colleges and universities. In 2020, Covid-19 spurred the first mRNA vaccine brought to market, despite the fact that research on delivering mRNA to cells developed in the 1970s. What changed? Among other things, advances in nanotechnology enabled old mRNA research to become useful in new applications. Virology, in particular, is a research area for which it’s better to be prepared than to be reactive, as the case of Nigeria illustrates. And as machine learning and natural language processing take on increasing relevance not only across academic subjects but in many areas of day-to-day life, you might be surprised at how valuable experts in language, literature, and culture are becoming to artificial intelligence research and applications.

We don’t know—not even university presidents; not even management consultants—when circumstances will elevate a neglected or undervalued area of study to dire importance. Since at least the 2008 financial crisis, higher education leaders, policymakers, and the media have increasingly accepted as a given that higher education should not be comprehensive but rather driven by return on investment, based on short-term, fluctuating, homespun ideas about market value. This is a high-stakes gamble on an unknowable future.

But whether, say, jazz pedagogy proves especially valuable one day is also beside the point of studying jazz pedagogy. “What we do [in liberal studies] is empower [students] to think about themselves not just as someone who needs a job, but someone who wants to contribute to society,” said Ann Kennedy, a gender studies professor at the University of Maine at Farmington whose position was eliminated. “The lesson of the liberal arts is that we can all contribute. And that may not be in your job, it may be in other ways.”