On Monday, August 21, hundreds of students at West Virginia University, the state’s flagship land-grant institution, walked out of their classrooms to protest the massive gutting of their university by its administration. Students wore red T-shirts and red bandanas around their necks, carried homemade signs with messages like “Stop the Gee-llotine” (a reference to WVU President E. Gordon Gee), played protest songs on fiddles and guitars, chanted “STOP THE CUTS!” and shouted impassioned speeches into megaphones. At issue was the administration’s proposal to fire 16 percent of the faculty and cut 9 percent of its undergraduate majors and twenty graduate programs in response to a projected $45 million shortfall over the next two years. For those familiar with West Virginia’s long history of labor struggle, the students’ action might conjure up images of the Pittston Coal Strike, the Ravenswood Aluminum Lockout, or even the Battle of Blair Mountain, but their most direct and important reference was the West Virginia educators’ strikes in 2018 and 2019.
Five years ago, educators in public schools in all fifty-five counties of West Virginia went on strike to fight for a 5 percent raise and affordable health care coverage through the state-sponsored Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA). Though there is still no permanent revenue stream for PEIA, and its costs recently increased, public employees won the raise and walked out again in 2019 to kill a state senate bill to allow charter schools in the state. Most current in-state WVU students were, at that time, middle or high school students in West Virginia public schools. Teachers who may wonder what impact their labor organizing had can rest assured that their students were taking notes. Today, they are applying those lessons through West Virginia United Students’ Union (WVUSU), the rapidly growing group that organized the walkout and is leading the charge against the administration’s austerity cuts.
As the West Virginia State Folklorist during the time of the 2018 and 2019 strikes, I spent days at the state capitol interviewing educators, students, and allies and documenting how their signs, chants, attire, and songs could be distilled into a common message: that teachers’ working conditions were students’ learning conditions. I’m struck by how WVU students are invoking that message today, presenting a broad vision for the future of education that focuses on sustaining educational resources and opportunities for the state, its students, and the people who do the hard work of educating.
Rachel Midkiff, a first-year master’s student in nutritional and food sciences at WVU and member of WVUSU, was in high school in Putnam County during the educators’ strike, which changed the way she thought about teachers. She told me:
Before the 2018 strike, I definitely looked at teachers in a different way. They were just my teachers, they taught me and I left. But after the strike, I definitely gained a new perspective on them and a new respect. I could finally see that they were more than just a teacher. They were a human being and a worker that deserves those rights.
Though Midkiff’s program is not slated to be impacted directly by the cuts, she decided to get involved in the union in solidarity with her fellow students and past professors, and out of a familiar frustration with those in positions of power—whether college administrators or state legislators—over public educators in the state. “This pattern just keeps happening of the people in charge not really caring or valuing the people . . . who actually work the one-on-one jobs, actually teach in the classroom. And it just doesn’t make sense to me.”
Student organizers view the proposed cuts as a labor issue, both for the faculty and staff whose positions will be eliminated—the Charleston Gazette-Mail reports that at least 130 staff have already lost their jobs—and for the downstream impact on education and job opportunities in the state. “Even though it’s not the same specific struggle, it’s still the same struggle broadly. We’re all still just the working class, the general people of West Virginia fighting against the employers,” said Olivia Dowler, a history, Spanish, and philosophy triple major from Weirton, West Virginia.
Student organizers feel added responsibility to lead the charge against the proposed cuts because of limits on faculty and staff protest imposed by the administration and state government. This summer WVU administration added a Code of Conduct addendum to faculty contracts, which among other stipulations requires them to “respect the decisions that have been made in the best interest of the University” and “avoid conduct that reflects adversely on the image of the University.” The state legislature passed a law after the 2018 and 2019 strikes that codified an existing legal opinion that all West Virginia public employees are forbidden from striking. WVUSU co-founder Matthew Kolb, a math major from Follansbee, West Virginia, said that the law
is influencing the way that the faculty and staff at WVU organize. . . . The administration has engaged in a very, very heavy intimidation campaign against its employees. They are terrified to organize. . . . It’s extra important that [our student union] exists because we have more room to mobilize than they do.
What’s more, both the educators’ strikes and WVU’s budget shortage are born out of the same deep structural crises: the state’s continual underfunding of public education and attempts by those in power to make educators and their students shoulder the costs of this disinvestment. As Dennis M. Hogan writes in the Baffler, during E. Gordon Gee’s first term as WVU president from 1981–1985, the state of West Virginia funded 60 to 70 percent of the university’s budget. Now it funds only 13 percent, all while the state boasted a surplus of $1.8 billion in its fiscal year 2023 budget. In March of this year, the state legislature increased the costs of PEIA health insurance, which covers all state employees, including WVU faculty and staff, and was a primary impetus for the 2018 educators’ strike. This increase contributed $10 million to WVU’s deficit. Gee has refused to ask the state legislature to allocate funds from the surplus or reduce administrator salaries to address the budget gap, despite it being largely created by the state’s slow underfunding and Gee’s administration’s costly real-estate ventures and overblown projections of increased enrollment.
This inaction and the administration’s proposal to axe programs that are actually profitable suggest that the draconian cuts are in reality a conscious ideological decision—what Gee euphemistically calls “academic transformation”—masquerading as a financial crisis. Indeed, the world languages program, which the administration originally slated to be completely eliminated (after a department appeal, the administration amended its recommendation to still eliminate all majors but retain five faculty in Spanish and Chinese), yields an annual profit of nearly a million dollars.
While Gee blames the deficit on declining enrollment and COVID-19, the situation neatly aligns with his plan to winnow down academic programs and support resources. This manufactured crisis will allow well-compensated administrators and their hired consulting firm, the rpk Group, to restructure the university as they see fit, then retire or move on to their next job. Meanwhile, West Virginians will be left to bear the burden, bound to live in a state already facing a dire teacher shortage, where there are not enough English and world language teachers, fewer people trained to work in public administration or local arts and humanities nonprofits, fewer people to carry on West Virginia’s strong ceramics tradition, and fewer qualified public health workers in a place that desperately needs them.
Almost 50 percent of WVU’s student body is from West Virginia; 25 percent are from low-income backgrounds. The program eliminations and faculty cuts Gee and his administration are recommending effectively communicate that they do not believe that a robust liberal arts education is something that West Virginians and poor and working-class students deserve. Wren King, a recently graduated triple major in anthropology, women’s and gender studies, and geography from Morgantown, West Virginia, said, “To think that universities have to be a business transaction and not an institution where you can go and learn and change and be exposed to other perspectives and cultures and ways of knowing? It’s a travesty . . . these cuts that administration is making are at odds with the experience that we come to college for.” Kolb, the WVUSU co-founder, added, “There’s this idea that education should ultimately serve the people who profit off of other people’s labor. The [administration’s] long-term goal really is to return true learning and education to the wealthy and then leave job training for the rest of us.”
Student members of WVUSU feel that the cuts are yet another example of how those in power—who, like Gee (who plans to retire after his contract expires in 2025), can make their money and leave—use West Virginia as a sacrifice zone. “The thing that makes WVU so special also is being extracted and taken away from us,” King said.
I feel that the teacher strikes really hearken back to what we deserve as West Virginians. We deserve a safe environment to be in. We deserve to have the resources to take care of our communities, and we deserve the resources to educate our kids and educate our future workforce. The teacher strikes fought for K-12 education, and now we’re fighting for [post-secondary] education.
There’s evidence that it’s a compelling message. WVUSU has grown from five members to over 300 since it was founded in May, and has been a crucial unified student voice against the dismantling of their university as they know it. On September 6, faculty passed two resolutions—one of no-confidence in Gee (797 for and 100 against) and another to freeze the academic transformation (747 for and 79 against). Despite both resolutions receiving an overwhelming majority of votes, the Board of Governors responded immediately with a statement of unequivocal support for Gee and his “strategic respositioning,” and will proceed with their vote on the final recommendations on September 15, which if passed will set the cuts in motion in the 2024 fall term. WVUSU has responded in turn, organizing rallies for the public comment session and the Board of Governors vote this week.
The union does not plan to stop its organizing efforts after the vote, no matter its results. “If the academic transformation goes through, the union will still be there,” King said. “They’re already talking about future movements and keeping that sense of solidarity. It’s important because the campus climate has changed drastically, not just from this, but over the past couple of years, and we need to be able to share our voices.”
According to Kolb, WVUSU is already in contact with students from around the world in Pakistan, across the country in Florida, and just 200 miles down the road at Marshall—West Virginia’s second-largest public university after WVU—who are interested in starting student unions on their own campuses. He said, “The fight that we’re doing for the time being is right here but as we go on down the road, the real main goal is to see students and faculty really organize in defense of education in all of its forms around the country.”
As WVUSU emerges as West Virginia’s newest expression of solidarity born out of downward pressure by those in power, they are also leading what will no doubt become a national movement against the neoliberal gutting of higher education. Other student unions that emerge in other places may warn their administration in the same way that K-12 public educators in other parts of the country warned their legislators after the 2018–2019 educators’ strikes: “Don’t make us go West Virginia on you.”
Emily Hilliard is a folklorist at Berea College. Her book, Making Our Future: Visionary Folklore and Everyday Culture in Appalachia, was published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2022.