Create a free Diverse: Issues In Higher Education account to continue reading

WVU's Cuts: A Threat to Digital Age Justice?


The current budget crisis at West Virginia University (WVU) underscores the vital role of education in safeguarding justice in the digital age. As hubs for the development of cutting-edge technology and the molding of critical thinkers who drive progressive change, institutions of higher learning are indispensable. When these institutions face threats, the effects ripple throughout society.

WVU, the state's crowning educational jewel, faces a daunting $45 million budget deficit. Historically, dwindling state funding has forced the university to turn increasingly to tuition for sustenance, setting it apart from its better-endowed peers. Combine this with a decline of roughly 5,000 students over a decade and unanticipated expenses, such as a sudden $10 million increase due to state health insurance adjustments, and the institution's financial health appears dire.Dr. Chad TopazDr. Chad Topaz

In a bid to mitigate this crisis, the university's decision-makers have unveiled plans for deep academic program cuts. Notably, the endangered programs encompass graduate tracks in the School of Mathematical and Data Sciences and, alarmingly, the comprehensive Department of World Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics. The implications of these cuts go beyond course offerings. They are a microcosm of the challenges confronting higher education and bring to the fore critical questions of social justice that should concern all of us.

Here are some of the issues at stake.

Educational Access and Equity: At its essence, social justice emphasizes universal access to educational resources, irrespective of socio-economic or geographical backgrounds. WVU's impending program cuts stand to rob many West Virginians of this very access. For many, especially those who cannot venture out-of-state, this might mean the end of their academic aspirations in these disciplines.

Economic Mobility: The world stands on the cusp of a data revolution. In such times, axing avenues in mathematics—a field instrumental to data sciences and analytics—risks thwarting students' potential for upward economic mobility.

Cultural Awareness: In an interconnected world, the value of global understanding is immeasurable. Languages serve as bridges, fostering connections and empathy. Their removal could spell a generation less equipped to navigate global challenges.

Demographics: Cultural identity plays a pivotal role in personal development. Severing ties to language and cultural studies might alienate sections of the student population seeking to explore their ancestral roots.

K-12 Teaching: The repercussions of these cuts could extend down to the K-12 level. Without a robust higher education system to train educators, the foundation of early education in the state could be imperiled.

But there's another layer to this story. With the advent of Large Language Models (LLMs) like ChatGPT, the interplay between mathematics and world languages takes on a heightened significance. LLMs are trained on vast datasets from diverse linguistic sources. By cutting linguistic programs, institutions risk narrowing the range of linguistic and cultural inputs available for these models. This might lead LLMs to evolve without a holistic representation of human language diversity, possibly causing these models to become overly biased towards dominant linguistic cultures. Additionally, sidelining the deep mathematical rigor that is indispensable for navigating the landscape of LLMs might result in a society with just a select few skilled enough to harness, critique, or reshape the algorithms that drive our digital world.

The potential outcome? Technological tools that misrepresent or sideline non-dominant cultures, further estranging marginalized groups.

The stakes at WVU aren't just about budgeting. They touch on the heart of what education should represent in the 21st century. We stand at an inflection point: will we uphold a robust and inclusive educational framework or will we risk exacerbating societal disparities? To policymakers and stakeholders at WVU and beyond: consider the long-term ramifications of these decisions. The choices made now will echo for generations to come, shaping the future of our digital society. Ensure they are choices we can stand by.

Dr. Chad Topaz is a Professor of Complex Systems at Williams College.

A New Track: Fostering Diversity and Equity in Athletics
American sport has always served as a platform for resistance and has been measured and critiqued by how it responds in critical moments of racial and social crises.
Read More
A New Track: Fostering Diversity and Equity in Athletics