The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After uproar, WVU to keep some foreign language classes, but not all

West Virginia University’s plan to keep Spanish and Chinese language instruction responds to critics of a budget-cutting plan

Woodburn Hall on the West Virginia University campus in Morgantown. (Ray Thompson/AP)
4 min

West Virginia University would keep some face-to-face Spanish and Chinese classes but eliminate majors in those subjects and numerous other foreign language and linguistics classes under a revised budget-cutting plan announced Tuesday.

The state’s largest public university, known as WVU, faced intense scrutiny after top leaders this month recommended dissolving the Department of World Languages, Literatures and Linguistics and two dozen faculty positions within it. The university said on Aug. 11 that it was exploring remote options, including an online app, to provide foreign language instruction for students who still want it.

WVU’s plan to cut foreign languages, other programs draws disbelief

That proposal was part of a larger package of cuts to academic programs that WVU said is needed to close a $45 million annual budget deficit.

The package of recommendations, which also included eliminating a PhD program in mathematics and a master’s degree program in creative writing, has drawn outrage from many on the Morgantown campus and beyond. The fate of foreign language instruction at WVU became a focal point of protest.

Experts in the study of languages at universities deplored the proposal and said they knew of no other state flagship university that was taking such a radical step.

With Tuesday’s announcement, WVU sought to respond to critics by dialing back the proposed cuts in foreign languages. The new recommendation would keep five faculty positions for Spanish and Chinese classes.

“We listened to our students’ feedback and have provided an option for face-to-face language instruction,” Maryanne Reed, WVU’s provost, said in a statement. “This final recommendation will allow students to take language courses as electives and potentially as minors. This will also support our students pursuing prestigious scholarships and membership in honorary organizations such as Phi Beta Kappa. We feel this recommendation addresses the continued enrollment decline while serving the needs of our students.”

Still, the proposal omits any mention of face-to-face classes in Russian, German or French — all of which until now have been part of WVU’s offerings. There would be no more bachelor’s degrees at WVU in those languages or in Chinese or Spanish, and there would be no more master’s degrees in linguistics or in teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL).

These proposals and other recommended program cuts will go to the university’s Board of Governors for action on Sept. 15.

Many faculty at WVU remain distressed. Tuesday’s announcement provided little comfort to those who have devoted their careers to teaching foreign language and literature.

“My colleagues and I are devastated,” said Lisa M. Di Bartolomeo, a teaching professor of Russian studies and Slavic and East European studies. “I found out at the end of a class, when a student came up to me and showed me the press release on her phone. None of the rest of my colleagues had been informed yet. It was one hell of a way to find out that the job you love is over. Honestly, I don’t know how I’m going to get through my next class without melting into a puddle of tears.”

While the university’s president once predicted that WVU’s student body could grow to 40,000, the school has struggled with declining enrollment in recent years. In fall 2022, its total student head count was little more than 27,000, including 24,741 on the flagship campus. About 42 percent of undergraduates in Morgantown are from West Virginia. Many of those from out of state come from neighboring Virginia or Maryland, or from elsewhere in the Mid-Atlantic and the Midwest.

WVU has said its $45 million shortfall represents less than 3.5 percent of its $1.3 billion annual budget. E. Gordon Gee, president since 2014, said he would not ask the state’s Republican legislative leaders for a bailout. He said his strategy is to make tough decisions now and ask lawmakers later for support.

Gee describes himself as a fan of foreign language proficiency and recently told The Washington Post that he speaks German and Italian. But he said universities must adapt to declining student demand for foreign language majors. “We’ll break the dam,” he said, “and a lot of people will follow us.”