ACLS Statement on Fighting for an Ambitious Vision of Public Higher Education in America

Published at the American Council of Learned Societies website, September 11, 2023

According to its mission statement, West Virginia University is committed “to lead transformation in West Virginia and in the world through local, state, and global engagement.”

By proposing major cuts in its undergraduate and graduate programs, including engineering, environmental planning, languages other than English, law, linguistics, mathematics, music, public administration, and theater, the university is denying its students and the people of West Virginia access to the wide range of knowledge necessary to fulfill that mission. The path WVU is treading is unprecedented for a public flagship and dangerous for American higher education and society.

Since the proposal became public knowledge in early August, many letters and op-eds have argued against it, and the protests of WVU faculty and students have gained wide public attention. On September 1, 2023, the university responded by pulling back on a small number of cuts.

As a leading voice in the humanities and social sciences, areas heavily represented in the programs targeted for reduction, ACLS encourages President E. Gordon Gee and the WVU Board of Governors to continue rethinking the plan and to work with the WVU faculty to provide what is good and right and equitable for WVU students and the people of West Virginia.

The administration describes its approach as an “academic transformation,” arguing that the academic departments and programs on the chopping block are attracting fewer numbers of degree-seeking students each year, thus losing tuition dollars and becoming unsustainable. State lawmakers recently approved a new higher education funding plan that benefits “degrees that lead to jobs.” These decisions rest on a short-sighted view of the value of education and research across a range of fields. A 2021 Association of American Colleges and Universities report that surveyed executives from a wide range of industries including technology, finance, and manufacturing revealed, in fact, that employers value liberal arts education.

The stewards of the university—the administration, the Board of Governors, and ultimately the legislature that votes on its budget—must adopt a broader perspective. They are duty-bound to protect the creation and circulation of knowledge for the public good in all its diverse aspects, across disciplines and interdisciplinary areas.

The value of study that deepens our understanding beyond the immediate interests of the market has been celebrated by Americans as different as George Washington, who as president advised Congress to invest in “science and literature,” and W.E.B. DuBois, who argued in 1902 that universities must educate for a world larger than the workplace.

ACLS calls on WVU and other universities who may be tempted to imitate the surface pragmatism of WVU’s approach to focus their energy and resources toward renewing the great tradition of education in the liberal arts and sciences for which the United States is known around the world. We celebrate the WVU faculty and students—some wearing red, paying homage to the miners’ strikes of the early twentieth century—who are leading the charge to remind citizens and legislators in West Virginia of the public research university’s responsibility to advance the good of the state and society beyond state borders. 

DuBois saw efforts to reduce the goal of education to “material advancement” as a sinister bid to “dull the ambition and sicken the hearts of struggling human beings.” The gutting of our nation’s public universities must stop. We and many others are ready to help. 

The following ACLS member societies and institutions have affirmed their support for this statement:

American Academy of Religion
American Association for Italian Studies
American Philosophical Association
American Folklore Society
American Historical Association
American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies
American Society for Environmental History
American Sociological Association
Association for Asian Studies
Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies
Association of University Presses
College Art Association
Dance Studies Association
German Studies Association
Linguistic Society of America
Medieval Academy of America
National Council of Teachers of English
National Council on Public History
North American Conference on British Studies
Organization of American Historians
Rhetoric Society of America
Shakespeare Association of America
Sixteenth Century Society & Conference
Society for Cinema and Media Studies
Society for Ethnomusicology
Society for Music Theory