The Class Warfare at West Virginia College

Three years in the past, President E. Gordon Gee of West Virginia College had a terrific concept—a profession capper. As he neared retirement, he would embrace the “tutorial transformation” of public larger training and streamline his college.

For too lengthy, as Gee instructed anybody who would pay attention, public universities had tried to be the whole lot to everybody and sustain with elite non-public schools. When the coronavirus pandemic shut down American universities in 2020, Gee embraced its disruptions as a present—a “black swan second,” as he put it, that compelled academic leaders to ask questions “relatively than fake to have solutions.” And that December, he started rolling out his personal plan to return WVU to an older agrarian perfect with majors that result in partnerships with state industries and courses that enable college students to graduate into jobs.

This yr, as WVU confronted a funds deficit that directors estimated at $45 million, Gee’s efforts to reshape his establishment intensified. He spoke of investing in medical, nursing, cybersecurity, and enterprise levels to serve a working-class state with an growing old inhabitants suffering from illness and drug abuse. He would slash money-draining majors and reduce required programs that run up prices for college kids. These youngsters, he insisted, are our prospects. At first of the autumn semester, Gee terminated greater than two dozen majors and reduce professors in different applications, in areas as various as overseas languages, public well being, jazz research, and neighborhood planning.

Some cuts had been really baffling, given his insistence on WVU’s obligation to strengthen the state. The college determined to cease granting graduate levels in environmental-health sciences, training administration, and math. Lots of WVU’s 27,000 college students—Gee’s prospects—protested that this wasn’t what they wished. The school forged an overwhelming no-confidence vote within the president, to zero impact. Greater than 140 professors will quickly be with out jobs.

A rich man simply shy of 80 years previous, Gee fashions himself a fact teller. “Folks have misplaced religion in larger ed,” he instructed me. “It’s an existential second.” Most state legislatures are spending much less per pupil than a decade in the past. All through larger training, whole pupil enrollment is declining. Too many universities resemble dinosaurs lumbering towards extinction, Gee argues. Sufficient with strategic plans, he instructed the college: “We want strategic motion.”

West Virginia’s Democrat turned Republican governor and GOP legislators have performed their position in WVU’s unhappy drama, pointedly declining to share a penny of the state’s $1.8 billion surplus with their flagship campus. But this isn’t only a MAGA morality story. Gee has waved off speak of lobbying for extra state money as a salvation for the college.

The destruction of dozens of majors and careers at WVU, which serves many working- and middle-class college students, raises a basic query in public larger training: Should you’re a vibrant child of modest means, which alternatives do you deserve? For many college students, their state’s important public college stays their greatest hope of breaching the partitions of sophistication distinction. Because the ax falls, that idealistic mission fades, and inequalities widen. A pupil at Cornell College, for instance, has a buffet of selections, together with greater than 4 dozen languages as various as Sinhala, Outdated Norse, Farsi, Khmer, and historic Greek. In contrast, a pupil at West Virginia College will quickly have simply 4 selections—Chinese language, Arabic, French, and Spanish—and there is not going to be sufficient instructors for college kids to main in any of them. “No different state flagship college has forsaken language training for its college students or made the sorts of cuts to the humanities that WVU is enterprise,” the chief director of the Fashionable Language Affiliation, a nationwide group of language and literature students, wrote in an August letter to Gee.

WVU directors speak of utilizing expertise to putty over cuts. At one assembly, in accordance with two college members who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic, a dean instructed to professors that the varsity may search a contract with Rosetta Stone, the language-software firm, to interchange misplaced courses. “Maybe,” a school member countered drily on the best way out of the assembly, “we should always simply rent speaking parrots.”

Once I requested Gee in regards to the threat of irreparable harm to his college, he didn’t sound regretful. This second, he instructed, known as for daring, and he relished that. “I’m audacious,” he instructed me jauntily. He portrayed WVU as his laboratory and its present troubles as a check of his energy. “When the legislature wouldn’t give me the cash I sought years in the past, I stated, ‘Okay, give me the liberty to make the modifications I would like.’ And so they consider in freedom, and so they did.”

At West Virginia College, in-state tuition, room, and board prices lower than $23,000—not even half the typical price of attending a typical non-public school. A few quarter of WVU’s attendees are first-generation school college students. One such pupil, Taylor DeLong, met me on the Blue Moose Café in downtown Morgantown, a pleasantly ramshackle school metropolis that sprawls throughout hills and edges the Monongahela River. She was sporting a Nirvana T-shirt. A 22-year-old senior, she has blond hair and the honeyed accent of her native Wyoming County, within the southern a part of the Mountain State. Her county suffers the plagues of opioid and meth dependancy, and has misplaced inhabitants steadily for the reason that Eighties. It’s, in different phrases, a microcosm of West Virginia, the place drug overdoses are spiraling and life expectancy is 72.8 years, the second lowest within the nation.

landscape of Morgantown, West Virginia
Morgantown, West Virginia (Chase Barnes for The Atlantic).

DeLong excelled in highschool. Her mother and father preached the virtues of training. However her father was a coal miner, and to tackle a private-college tuition appeared an impossibility. She enrolled at WVU, took courses in philosophy, language, and worldwide research, and will really feel her mind coming afire. “Once you’re from the place I’m from, there are usually not choices except you grow to be a blue-collar employee,” she instructed me. “I knew there was a bigger world on the market. I knew it.” She speaks a number of languages and plans to take the foreign-service examination in just a few months. Maybe, sometime, she’ll grow to be a diplomat.

However the college that made such a future conceivable is ailing. The funds for the varsity library was reduce by $800,000 in current months, and directors laid off workers and have suspended ordering new books. Liberal-arts departments can’t afford to repair photocopiers. English college are stretched so skinny that nobody might provide a category on Shakespeare. “We manage, did profit concert events and petitions and speak-outs, and the administration refers to us as ‘the youngsters,’ as if we all know nothing,” DeLong stated. “Their equation is ‘income from a significant equals worth.’”

The scholars protesting Gee’s plans have leaned into their state’s historical past, donning pink bandannas in an homage to great-grandparents who wore the cloths in the course of the bloody coal strikes of the Twenties and Nineteen Thirties. “Folks hear ‘West Virginia’ and suppose ‘dumb rednecks,’” she stated. “No, no. It doesn’t must be that approach. Harvard and Yale will at all times have philosophy. We must be proud that programs like which are nonetheless obtainable to ‘widespread folks.’”

“I like my state,” DeLong continued, “nevertheless it looks like we’re systematically having the shit overwhelmed out of us.”

The following day on the Blue Moose, I met Hunter Neel, one other first-generation pupil, a shy younger man who grew up close to Morgantown. His mother and father had been absent from his life, he instructed me. His grandparents—a carpenter and a homemaker—raised him. Languages entranced him. In late August, he enrolled in courses for his grasp’s diploma in linguistics; in mid-September, the WVU Board of Governors voted to dismantle this system. Considered one of his favourite professors, Nicole Tracy-Ventura, who teaches utilized linguistics, obtained her layoff discover in mid-October.

Looming cuts threaten a world-languages division that, by most measures, is kind of profitable. The world-language division turns a revenue—it generates about $800,000 a yr extra in tuition income, the college estimates, than it prices to run the division. Its college students win extremely aggressive nationwide scholarships. This previous summer season, WVU introduced with fanfare that two linguistics professors, Jonah Katz and Sergio Puente-Robles, had been awarded a $250,000 Nationwide Science Basis grant to check pronunciation with a watch towards divining the origins of language. The college lately instructed Katz that he will probably be laid off on the finish of the spring semester. If he leaves, WVU will lose the grant.

Directors have promised that upperclassmen and graduate college students can nonetheless full their majors and graduate, however by that time any professor who can discover a new job could have left. Graduate college students will discover themselves in progressively larger courses with fewer electives. Neel teaches undergraduate courses to defer his tuition. He stated he has loans and no financial savings. If he transfers to an out-of-state graduate program, he dangers dropping a lot of his credit. He tries to sidestep panic. “I like academia greater than I ever would have imagined.” He paused. “We’ve had this repute as a state of uneducated hillbillies. College leaders are enjoying into it.” I requested him whether or not his household is aware of of his troubles. He tossed up his palms; his tutorial world is terra incognita to them. “They only realize it’s unhealthy.”

Critics of American larger training, significantly those that pleasure themselves on being hardheaded types, are inclined to dismiss sure levels as arcane and impractical. Majoring in linguistics, for instance, might sound frivolous to some, though it’s relatively related to pure language processing and psychoacoustics—the fields that produced Siri and Alexa. One want solely look again on the Eighties, when the telemarketer reigned, and jobs in pc and information processing had elevated by 182 % over a decade, and physicians and dentists almost doubled their employment of aides and directors. Synthetic intelligence and the web have wreaked havoc on all of these sectors, whereas a significant in philosophy or artwork historical past can lend itself to a profitable profession in legislation, in authorities, or at a tech start-up.

For the second, West Virginia College is considered one of two universities within the nation that allow college students main in puppetry. The joke writes itself: C’mon—puppetry?! Sometimes, fewer than a dozen college students a yr main in this system, though many extra college students take courses. School and college students reported that at a gathering in September, as college students walked to the microphone to denounce funds cuts, a number of members of the board of governors rolled their eyes at mentions of puppetry.

Taylor Delong poses for a portrait
Taylor DeLong, a WVU senior (Chase Barnes for The Atlantic).

But this system has treasured little overhead, its bodily plant a 12-by-20-foot room full of puppets and marionettes—a Jim Henson fever dream. Mary McClung, who teaches costume design, is the lone professor. A local West Virginian with a wry wit, she was a ceramic artist and sculptor till she determined she wished her creations to open eyes and mouths and are available to life. She arrange store at WVU and, like a pied piper, drew college students. “You’re designing environments, new pores and skin and eyeballs and characters. That is wealthy for college kids and guarantees a profession outdoors of cubicles.” Her former college students have discovered jobs in early-childhood lecture rooms, CGI labs, and Hollywood studios.

McClung has spun inspiring tales for years. It labored till it didn’t. This yr, directors instructed her that the undergraduate puppetry main might probably survive in shrunken type, however provided that McClung stuffed out a number of paperwork and lobbied the college senate and the administration. And she or he has her personal design and fine-arts courses to take care of.

She sighed. No thanks. “There’s this sense now at WVU that training must be purely utilitarian. Like a vocational faculty. Who wouldn’t wish to go to a faculty with a puppetry program?”

For many years, John Goldwasser has taught graduate math, which might quickly disappear. He instructed me he’s close to retirement, and nearer nonetheless to despair over Gee’s cuts. However once I requested him about Gee himself, he chuckled with a grudging appreciation. Small in stature with an ebullient method, the president is a grasp salesman and fundraiser, a bon vivant with a powerful sense of his private model. That, for a lot of college boards within the twenty first century, is the platonic perfect of a pacesetter. “I’ve heard him speak to high-school mother and father and youngsters and he makes me wish to be a pupil,” Goldwasser stated. “His greatest knack is getting rich folks to journey over themselves to open their checkbooks.”

Gee was raised as a Mormon in Vernal, Utah, then a dusty metropolis of three,000, and attended the College of Utah earlier than acquiring a legislation diploma and training doctorate at Columbia College in New York Metropolis—which he described, in a 1998 interview with high-school college students, as “Baghdad on the Hudson.” His style in vogue ran to bow ties—of which he now owns 2,000—and in music to Dave Brubeck and Simon and Garfunkel. Then as now, he cultivated a picture as a wide-eyed, endearing sq..

There may be on the similar time a restlessness to him. After a stint as a judicial fellow to Supreme Court docket Chief Justice Warren Burger, Gee turned to academia and in 1981, on the age of 36, grew to become president of WVU. He spent 4 years engaged in vigorous fundraising and constructing earlier than packing off to grow to be president of the College of Colorado after which Ohio State. In 1998, he left for Brown College. He roiled professors and college students at this most liberal of colleges by inveighing, throughout a speech in his native Utah, towards ethical relativism and web tradition. To nobody’s amusement, he reduce funding for the college’s beloved Charleston String Quartet.

He stop Brown abruptly in 2000 to grow to be chancellor at Vanderbilt. (Former Brown president Vartan Gregorian instructed The New York Occasions, “I’m shocked, completely upset and dismayed.”) Seven years later, he returned to Ohio State to serve once more as its president. Alongside the best way, he epitomized a motion to deal with peripatetic college presidents like company CEOs. By 2004, Vanderbilt was paying Gee $1.3 million, making him the second-highest-paid college chief within the nation. At Ohio State, his wage and compensation approached $2 million a yr. In a nod to his trademark neckwear, the varsity spent 1000’s of {dollars} on promotional bow ties and bow-tie cookies.

Ohio State officers finally uninterested in Gee and his model of wit. He instructed an viewers in Columbus that coordinating Ohio State’s many divisions was “just like the Polish military or one thing.” A yr later, whereas speaking to Ohio State’s athletic council, he framed his opposition to Notre Dame becoming a member of the Large Ten Convention in non secular phrases. “I negotiated with them throughout my first time period,” he stated, “and the fathers are holy on Sunday, and so they’re holy hell on the remainder of the week. You simply can’t belief these rattling Catholics on Thursday or Friday.” Profuse apologies adopted, together with a college suggestion that he endure cultural-sensitivity coaching. As a substitute, he abruptly introduced his retirement. He now jokes that he was about to be run out of city. “I’m the inadvertent president at WVU,” Gee instructed me. “I retired at Ohio State simply forward of the sheriff.”

diptych of a portrait of Hunter Neel and the entrance of West Virginia University
Hunter Neel, a graduate pupil in linguistics (Chase Barnes for The Atlantic).

When Gee reappeared because the interim president of West Virginia College in 2013, the board of governors assured everybody that he was not a candidate for the full-time place. Three months later the board provided the job to him.

Gee’s admirers level to his stalwart protection of free speech and of a range of views in lecture rooms and lecture halls. Seven years in the past, the breadth of WVU’s analysis and graduate choices led to its classification as an R1 analysis college, a sought-after laurel that the varsity appears prone to retain, at the very least for now. Previously few years, WVU’s commencement and retention charges have risen, though these charges path the college’s counterparts in neighboring states. Gee’s wage, $800,000 a yr, is comparatively modest.

Nonetheless, hints of champagne tastes stay. The drive from Morgantown to Charleston, the state capital, takes about two hours. Gee and his high aides have made use of a 35-minute flight on a constitution jet. Previously 9 years, the college has spent a complete of $11.7 million on constitution jets to varied locations, most of which of that are in West Virginia. “The usage of constitution flights is a part of effectively conducting the enterprise of an R1, land grant flagship college,” a college spokesperson instructed me by electronic mail.

Gee has thought deeply in regards to the land-grant college, having co-authored, in 2018, a e-book, Land-Grant Universities for the Future, and written essays on the topic. President Abraham Lincoln initiated the land-grant college system, of which WVU is one, in 1862, providing federal lands to states to determine colleges that, with out excluding classical research, centered on extra pragmatic disciplines corresponding to agriculture, science, and engineering.

Gee proposes to return to that perfect. He has argued for a land-grant college fiercely dedicated to applications that tailor tutorial content material to wants within the native market. However that begs a bigger query: What does it imply for a college to serve its state? Ought to it assist West Virginia employers discover staff and recruit new firms? Or ought to it focus extra on serving to the state’s younger folks notice their aspirations, even when their goals occur to not contain well being care or enterprise faculty?

For higher or worse, WVU’s board has empowered its CEO president to press forward as he pleases. 4 years in the past, he selected a provost—the college’s chief tutorial officer, a extremely coveted place—with out a job search and with out consulting college. She was beforehand a WVU dean, lacks a doctorate, and made $435,561 in 2022. (She lately took a voluntary 10 % pay reduce.) The school senate protested. Gee provided a disarming rejoinder. “Look, I’m 75, and I don’t have the time to do a number of searches,” he stated. “I didn’t seek the advice of you, I do know.”

Gee reveals a keenness for large guarantees and grand gestures. “I’ve an edifice complicated,” he declared in his state-of-the-university tackle at WVU in 2014. All through his profession he has thrown up shiny state-of-the-art buildings. The college’s debt elevated precipitously on his watch at WVU, simply as Ohio State’s and Vanderbilt’s did. In 2014, he promised that enrollment at WVU would soar from 29,000 to 40,000 by 2020. It fell as an alternative. As Gee was employed partly for his administration acumen, this may need registered as a disappointment. Once I raised the problem, Gee provided a winsome snicker. His imaginative and prescient accommodates grand failure at least success. “I plead responsible that I had an aspirational 40,000 aim,” he instructed me. “That aspirational aim didn’t happen.” The WVU Board of Governors was however reassuring; in July, it prolonged Gee’s contract by June 2025, which incorporates bonuses totaling at the very least $1 million upon retirement.

Mary McClung in her office at West Virginia University
Mary McClung within the Puppetry Lab (Chase Barnes for The Atlantic)
image of the Puppetry Lab at West Virginia University
(Chase Barnes for The Atlantic).

Gee’s story has one other twist, one which additional reveals the space between him and lots of of his college students. Gee will get alongside splendidly with company chieftains and a few years has earned half one million {dollars} or extra in further revenue and inventory choices from company boards. In 2000, whereas at Vanderbilt, he joined the board of administrators of Massey Vitality, a now-infamous coal-extraction firm. Then one of many largest mining operations within the nation, it provided Gee good-looking compensation: He finally was paid between $192,000 and $235,000 a yr, plus inventory choices. However the board’s oversight was spectacularly ineffective. Twenty-three staff died in Massey’s mines throughout Gee’s years on the board. The federal authorities levied massive fines on Massey for environmental degradations. Gee, who served for some time because the board’s security and environmental chair, insisted to a pupil newspaper at Ohio State that Massey “has among the best environmental data within the nation.” Later got here a cataclysm: In 2010, lower than a yr after Gee resigned from the board, an explosion at Massey’s Higher Large Department mine in West Virginia killed 29 miners. Federal and state investigations discovered “reckless” and “blatant” disregard for security. There have been lies, acts of intimidation, and two units of books, these studies discovered, these studies discovered.

4 years after the accident, WVU’s board of governors, a number of of whom had connections to the fossil-fuel trade, voted unanimously to nominate Gee because the president. An official WVU journal ran a listing providing 5 causes that “we’re gaga for Gee.”

Whereas reporting in Morgantown, I saved coming throughout folks whose lives had been reworked by WVU. One was David Mersing, who grew up in Terra Alta, a working-class city of possibly 1,400 folks within the blue-green hills to the southeast of Morgantown. An detached high-school pupil, he joined the navy and later labored as a truck driver earlier than changing into one other of WVU’s many first-generation college students. He obtained a bachelor’s diploma and doctorate in chemistry there. This soft-spoken 50-year-old has a spouse and three youngsters and teaches on the college, mentoring college students who in his story hear their very own.

He holds workplace hours almost day-after-day, and former college students routinely electronic mail to ask if they will lean on him for tutoring assist. “These youngsters are what I’m right here for,” he instructed me. Then he paused and stared on the wall. “I’m undecided what the long run holds in the event that they let me go.” Because it occurs, he’ll survive one other yr, as older colleagues in his division selected to retire to avoid wasting the roles of youthful college.

Gee instructed me he’s not oblivious to such worries. However he insisted that cash issues or no, WVU should change. He pointed to a bleak nationwide panorama. Certainly, the president of Dickinson State College in North Dakota lately proposed to chop majors in math, political science, data analytics, and music. The State College of New York at Potsdam lately introduced {that a} steep drop in enrollment had compelled deep funds reductions and cuts—deeper, definitely, than those Gee is considering. When saying cuts in chemistry, physics, public well being, and theater, Potsdam’s president broke into tears.

Whatever the toll on college students, college, and even some school presidents, the travails of public universities have grow to be a wealthy supply of enterprise for the consultants who advise beleaguered presidents on their choices. A number of years in the past, Gee and WVU paid $1 million to EAB, previously generally known as the Instructional Advisory Board, a Washington, D.C., agency, to assemble information on college applications, inspecting methods to recruit and retain extra college students and taking a look at their efficiency in numerous school majors. This previous April, the college gave a still-active contract value as a lot as $875,000 to the RPK Group to research that information. The Maryland-based consultancy—which has had contracts with the American Affiliation of State Faculties and Universities, the Kansas Board of Regents, the Metropolis College of New York, and the colleges of Virginia and Missouri, amongst many others—presents higher-education shoppers its “Mission Market and Margin®” technique to “optimize” their enterprise mannequin and “align tutorial choices to pupil and labor demand.” (WVU declined to launch any suggestions or different work product from RPK.)

But darkish claims of doom are value interrogating. Kentucky sits on West Virginia’s western border and has solely modestly higher median household incomes and poverty charges. But its flagship public college enjoys file enrollments, to not point out vibrant foreign-language departments and math doctoral applications.

Gordon Gee poses for a portrait in his office at West Virginia University
President Gordon Gee in his workplace (Chase Barnes for The Atlantic).

Arkansas has social indicators just like West Virginia’s. However the College of Arkansas has expanded choices and aggressively recruited college students from different states. Lisa Corrigan, a communications professor there, has examined the doings at West Virginia College. “The demographic cliff is a product of the consultant-industrial complicated,” she instructed me. “This can be a manufactured disaster. At Arkansas, we’re drowning in college students.” Regardless of all of the speak of streamlining, demand seems sturdy for a large range of courses at many flagship public universities.

In the meantime, at WVU, directors are making cuts that look puzzling even by a purely utilitarian lens. The administration has reduce recreation majors and a resource-management doctorate at the same time as West Virginia officers speak of economies constructed on outside sports activities and the restore of waterways and forests. The state suffers a extreme scarcity of public-school math lecturers, but the college has reduce the one math doctoral program within the state.

Gee is undeterred. He stated WVU nonetheless has tons of of majors and graduate applications. “If the nation has 30 wonderful math Ph.D. applications, why does West Virginia want one too?” he requested me. Addressing the mounting assaults on his stewardship of WVU, he added, “I can’t settle for a story that I’ve mismanaged the college. I’m leaving in 2025. That makes me very courageous.”

Trying on the hole between Gee’s rhetoric and the agenda he’s pursued, one struggles to inform whether or not his phrases have which means. Most of the applications that Gee has focused provide college students paths to profitable careers or strengthen the state in methods it desperately wants. Some are even tracks that he’s praised up to now as important. I reminded Gee that solely seven years in the past, he gave a speech arguing that world languages and linguistics had been ever extra important in a contemporary world. But he insists now that if language weren’t required for a lot of majors, most college students wouldn’t take the programs. “We’re taking away world languages as a result of our college students wished to get rid of it,” he stated. “Our college students are uninterested in our telling them what programs to take.” He recounted a dialog he had with a WVU pupil who instructed him, “I took 4 semesters of Spanish, and I landed in Madrid and couldn’t even get a taxi.” With the air of a person tossing a trump card on the desk, Gee requested me, “What does that inform you?”

What got here to my thoughts was my dialog with Taylor DeLong, that senior from the mountain hollows. She spoke of how her courses provided undreamed-of consolations. She studied overseas in France. One night she met a pair from Argentina. She instructed me, “I spoke with them for 2 hours in Spanish.” She glowed. “To be a well-rounded particular person, to have a way of this world, that’s what this training gave me.”

The aspirations of a Taylor DeLong won’t cajole conservative state legislators into opening the purse for WVU. And maybe this rural state can’t hope to steer a younger lady like her, bent on serving in an embassy sooner or later, to spend her profession right here. Though one may think a unique imaginative and prescient, by which a Wyoming County lady of wordly accomplishment returns to WVU to show a category or give a lecture and so enriches her alma mater.

An existential query—to borrow considered one of Gee’s favourite adjectives—hangs over this deconstruction and reconstruction of a 27,000-student state college. When you tug at a thread right here, a seam there, and applications unwind and careers finish and professors and graduate college students are despatched packing, are you able to simply sew up what’s left? Gee might attempt to reorient WVU round its medical faculty, neuroscience middle, and enterprise faculty, however the attraction of these colleges may depend upon being woven into the material of a grander college.

Will a whip-smart aspiring neuroscientist select Morgantown, after cuts to the humanities and to a math doctoral program that may appeal to like-minded college students? Will younger folks in West Virginia really feel “socialized to depart,” within the phrases of the famend Appalachian novelist and essayist Ann Pancake, as a result of shrinking alternatives? (Pancake instructed the Mountain State Highlight that she has herself determined to depart WVU this yr due to the cuts.)

I needed to marvel: What may need transpired had Gee emphasised the ethical urgency of making grand choices for working- and middle-class college students? What if he had taken the case for constructing a high college on to West Virginians? As a substitute, the inescapable impression he leaves is of a school president—a person with expertise, power, and willpower—who settled for a utilitarian imaginative and prescient and straitened selections.

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