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I write today as a proud, but concerned – no, indignant – alumnus of the University of West Virginia.
At the WVU Board of Governors meeting last month, the Office of the Provost shared the recommendations of the Program Portfolio Review. This process has looked at academic programs across the University as part of President E. Gordon Gee’s December 2020 charge to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic “smarter and stronger” than before.
As a result of this review, the Office of the Provost decided to terminate fifteen programs and majors (almost all of them are Arts and Humanities programs), including consolidating various BFA and MFA programs into programs. unique. Particularly puzzling is the University’s decision to discontinue the BA in Religious Studies program.
Conversely, the review designated thirty programs as “current opportunity programs,” a list that does not include a single arts or humanities program. The results of this review and the content of these lists smack of the anti-humanist discourse and corporate mentality that has besieged American academia and offers a disturbing glimpse of a university without arts and letters.
I implore WVU to reconsider the role of the arts and humanities in university life and to revisit these decisions, which risk playing directly into the hands of conservative anti-intellectualism and undermining the mission of the University.
My experiences as a religious studies and history student at WVU from 2009 to 2013 changed my life. You might think that’s an exaggeration, but it isn’t.
In the classes I took through these programs, I found myself exposed to much larger worlds than I ever imagined as a young, first-generation, working-class rural student. from West Virginia. These courses and the passionate professors who taught them have helped me see the world in a different light and see humanity’s place in it in exciting and sometimes terrifying ways.
At a broader level, I have developed critical thinking skills that have proven invaluable in my post-WVU career as a historian and as an engaged citizen. Humanities disciplines like these encourage students to think deeply and with empathy about the human condition and the diverse experiences of people in space and time; they are the cornerstone of learning and practicing equity, diversity and inclusion.
These elements of a religious science and humanities education are not quantitative, but the COVID-19 pandemic and its far-reaching consequences have shown us that our society needs to develop these skills of critical thinking, of engagement. deep and empathetic now perhaps more than ever.
The arts and humanities also teach us that rhetoric matters; the words we say or not and the decisions we make, no matter how small, are never apolitical.
Dropping out of the Bachelor of Religious Studies program, even though its faculty continues to offer religious studies courses, loudly states that the university administration does not believe that the formal study of many religious traditions complexes of the world is part of the university curriculum.
Employment outcomes are not the only appropriate metric for measuring the value and effectiveness of a program. There may not be a directly corresponding career at the end of a religious studies major, but a religious studies degree nonetheless provides students with the overall and historical context and reasoning ability necessary to actively engage. in our contemporary global and globalized society.
In an age when conservative political candidates proclaim academia as the enemy, university administrators must uphold the values of academic freedom and intellectual research that characterize university life.
We must mount a vigorous defense of university programs and the varieties of inquiry they promote in the face of downsizing pressure. Now is not the time to end university programs in the service of quantitative measures of “success” such as placement or enrollment.
Instead, let’s invest in the future of all the programs that help make WVU a great example of what a university should be, a place to grow and learn.
I sincerely hope that WVU recognizes the intrinsic value that a humanities education can have and reconsider your decision to discontinue the BA in Religious Studies program.
Land grant universities are not – and should not be – mere trade schools; they cannot accomplish their full mission as spelled out in the American code when they begin to erase the arts and humanities. More than ever, the inhabitants of VM need access to solid and rigorous learning in the humanities.
Please don’t deny them these same life changing opportunities that I enjoyed a decade ago.
Carl “CJ” Rice is a doctoral candidate in the Combined History and Classics program at Yale University. CJ graduated from West Virginia University in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in history and religious studies before earning a master’s degree in history from North Carolina State University in 2016.