books in recycling bin

A Threat to Education Anywhere Is a Threat to Education Everywhere

While the Appalachian Prison Book Project is not under the umbrella of West Virginia University (WVU), we have a long-standing history with the University. West Virginia University is home to many of our dedicated volunteers and generous donors—the downtown campus is right down the street from our humble workspace in the Aull Center.

More than that, APBP grew out of a graduate course on the history and literature of imprisonment taught at WVU by English Professor Dr. Katy Ryan, our founder, current education coordinator, and director of the WVU Higher Education in Prison Initiative (HEPI). The University provides us with work-study students, and we are grateful for support from the English Department—we’d like to think of ourselves as neighbors—but right now, we’re watching with horror at what is happening at WVU.

Our established relationship with the University makes it incredibly difficult to grapple with the recent funding, program, and job cuts proposed as part of an “Academic Transformation” process. These budgetary cuts are especially detrimental to liberal arts programs, threatening HEPI and liberal arts as a whole.

The situation at WVU right now is more a time of turmoil than transformation. We believe it to be within our power and aligned with our mission to speak to the issue and offer resources to stop the cuts. Here, we attempt to put our fears, frustrations, and confusion into words.

WVU’s “Academic Transformation” Is an Attack on Higher Education

In response to WVU’s $45 million budget deficit, senior administration is proposing mass layoffs, slashing department budgets, and shuttering programs across the University.

Among these recommendations are significant cuts to the English Department faculty.

Depending on how the Board of Governors votes this Friday, September 15, around 150 faculty could be cut, which follows the 135 layoffs that occurred this summer. Programs slated for discontinuation have had the opportunity to appeal; however, according to the University administration, appealing could have consequences.

WVU’s “Academic Transformation” has drawn national attention—and educators, students, and community members in Appalachia and beyond are standing in solidarity against these unprecedented cuts. Faculty at WVU recently passed a vote of no-confidence in President Gee by an overwhelming margin (797 to 100) and also voted to freeze the University’s Academic Transformation efforts (747 to 79). Students and alumni have also expressed their concerns and have rallied to fight for WVU’s future.

In an open letter to the Board of Governors, West Virginians, and all Americans, WVU faculty described the situation at WVU as “a canary in the coal mine for the integrity and future of public education throughout the United States.” They also wrote about the value WVU brings to the state of West Virginia and how these cuts will cause “irreparable harm to our state’s economic, cultural, and intellectual ecology.”

We stand in solidarity with WVU faculty, staff, students, and alumni who argue that the University’s Academic Transformation is a direct attack on higher education.

(Want to stay up to date on the proposed cuts at WVU? We recommend starting with The Daily Athenaeum’s coverage of the University’s financial crisis.)

Access to Education—and to Literature—Are Human Rights

WVU is both a flagship and a land-grant university in West Virginia and serves as an opportunity for students in Appalachia, particularly in the state, to pursue higher education. As WVU faculty wrote in their open letter, “West Virginians deserve a real university.” What do these shuttered programs and layoffs mean for the state of liberal arts and education in West Virginia? In Appalachia?

The ramifications of these proposed layoffs, program discontinuations, and budget cuts reach far beyond balance sheets. We must grapple with what will no longer be possible once the University shifts away from its commitment to the arts and humanities.

Our relationship to the WVU English Department and to literature means we cannot help but focus on the existential threat posed to English and to the extraordinary work that we have been able to do since those first seeds of an idea were planted in Katy’s English class.

These deep cuts threaten the English Department’s long commitment to community engagement through programs like APBP and HEPI. With a 1/3 reduction in faculty, this kind of applied humanities will be impossible. The English faculty won’t be able to create experiential learning opportunities for students who find their way to new passions and careers. They won’t be able to extend literature into spaces—like prison cells—where it’s needed. They won’t be able to sustain this important work.

The survival of programs like our in-prison book clubs and HEPI, too, depend on support and deep connections across University departments. HEPI’s inaugural cohort of incarcerated learners has had the opportunity to take interesting, thought-provoking classes, such as a deeply popular vampirism-themed literature course taught by Dr. Lisa DiBartolomeo. The Department of World Languages, Literatures and Linguistics, where Dr. DiBartolomeo is housed, is one of the programs slated for discontinuation (even after the appeal presented on August 25). Will future students, behind bars or on the WVU campus, have the opportunity to take courses like these?

APBP and HEPI are beautiful examples of applied humanities—and of the type of community engagement that will no longer have a chance to take root under the new University configuration.

When we—APBP’s coordinators, board members, organizers, and core volunteers, those of us who are deeply passionate about the mission of this organization—speak and write about the work we do to provide books and educational opportunities to incarcerated Appalachians, we are often asked why. Why do we send books to people behind bars? Why do we support degree-bearing classes, book clubs, think tanks for folks on the inside?

Answers vary, but there is a common thread: We believe access to education and literature are human rights. What senior administration, President Gee, and the Board of Governors at WVU are proposing is a direct threat to our values. And it’s happening just down the street.

Fight for the Future of Public Education in West Virginia (and Beyond)

What happens when we devalue literature? What do we lose? We can’t even imagine a world without liberal arts … but now we’re being forced to envision a future without creativity—artistry—imagination.

If you share our reservations about the Academic Transformation happening at WVU, now is the time to speak truth to power—to act. The Board of Governors vote is this Friday, September 15, on the proposed cuts; the campus community will be notified by September 18.

You have the power to sway the vote. Contact University officials:

Take the #donegiving pledge. Participate in protests, sign petitions, and encourage others to get involved. Share the open letter by WVU faculty with the Board of Governors (via Valerie Lopez) and ask them to read it. Submit written comments to the Board of Governors ASAP.

Student organizations, the WV Campus Workers Union, and various other groups are uniting to voice dissent regarding the Academic Transformation. So, regardless of your relationship to the University, there is a place for you in the fight to abandon the transformation process and protect the arts.

We hope you’ll join.

By Jordan Pugh, Katy Ryan, and Lydia Welker

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