Photo caption: West Virginia University will dissolve its English Language Learning Institute for international students as part of the Academic Transformation. The program served students from all around the world who came to WVU. (Kristen Williams  | Courtesy photo)

Faculty who teach English as a Second Language say the Academic Transformation could unfairly hurt international students 


West Virginia University will lose 10 academic minors amid campus changes due to a budget crunch. The majority of the program loss involves foreign languages as the university’s Board of Governor voted to eliminate the World Languages Department. 

The university will also dissolve its English Language Learning Institute, which helps international students learn English before beginning their college careers and is sometimes required before students can enroll in a major. 

Next summer, the Office of Global Affairs will start its own program helping international students learn English as a second language, according to the university. 

The new program won’t hire faculty, only a staff member to oversee it who can also teach. Faculty who currently teach English as a Second Language are being eliminated as part of the campus cuts known as the Academic Transformation.

Kristen Williams, a faculty member in the ESL program, learned in October that her job was going away. Since 2010, Williams has helped international students access food pantries, medical care and more while helping them learn English.

“Without our unit, I’m kind of terrified about what’s going to happen once we no longer exist for our international students,” she said. 

In 2020, Saif Al-Nabhani, 22, relocated from Oman to Morgantown in hopes of pursuing a college degree. He said the ESL faculty did far more than teach him how to fluently speak and write in English and were the most helpful people on campus.

“The thing I loved the most is that [the faculty] treated us like we’re family,” said Al-Nabhani, who is now finishing his degree in petroleum and natural gas engineering.

In September, the WVU Board of Governors voted to discontinue 28 academic majors, including its foreign languages majors, in what they’ve said was to close a $45 million annual budget deficit. Hundreds of faculty positions have been eliminated, including faculty in the ESL department, and the university could cut additional jobs as financial reviews continue.

Ten minors were cut due to the Academic Transformation: Arts Management; Recreation, Parks, and Tourism Resources; Foreign Language in Translation; German Studies; Italian Studies; Japanese Studies; Linguistics; Russian Studies; Slavic and East European Studies; and Teaching English as a Second Language.

WVU will no longer have foreign language majors, and the university will offer Arabic, Chinese, French and Spanish classes as needed. 

While the university has pledged to teach out students in discontinued majors, campus leaders have acknowledged that other faculty are likely to leave in the wake of the Academic Transformation. It could further impact what classes the university can offer.

At least one minor, Appalachian Studies, has been shuttered, in part, because of faculty departures. 

These 10 minors will be discontinued at WVU  

  • Arts Management
  • Recreation, Parks, and Tourism Resources
  • Foreign Language in Translation
  • German Studies
  • Italian Studies
  • Japanese Studies
  • Linguistics
  • Russian Studies
  • Slavic and East European Studies
  • Teaching English as a Second Language

Ann Pancake, an English professor who taught courses in Appalachian Studies, left WVU earlier this year in response to leaders’ decisions about the future of the university. Her courses offered valuable perspectives to West Virginia students who often felt ashamed of where they’d grown up, she said. 

“I’m really, really angry,” she said. “I’m seeing the way it hurts the students, and it hurts the young people in the state.”

Faculty, students fear changes will impact international student recruitment

While universities across the country have cut Foreign Language classes, WVU is the first flagship, R1 university to remove its entire World Languages Department, and the university has faced intense scrutiny for its decision. 

University leaders said the program was too expensive for its low enrollment numbers; program faculty denied that their program had been a financial drain on the university. 

They voiced concerns about the impact on in-state students who didn’t have access to diverse foreign language courses in many rural public schools. 

Professors in the ESL program said the language department cuts unfairly hurt another population: the school’s international students.

WVU currently has more than 1,000 international students in undergraduate and graduate studies. 

Tracy Dingess is a teaching instructor in WVU’s ESL Institute and has been with the university for 26 years. 

Faculty in the university’s ESL program didn’t expect to be on the chopping block, he said. Their contracts won’t be renewed past May. Dingess doesn’t know where he’ll work next. 

“My personal concerns are irrelevant,” he said. “We care about our students.”

Most international students required some type of support in order to successfully obtain their degrees, he added.

WVU Director of Communications April Kaull said the ESL program will move under the Global Affairs Office on June 1 to put students in closer proximity to university staff already focused on helping international students succeed. 

“The program’s curriculum will shift only slightly and will be modeled after other staff instructor positions that both teach and offer student support services on campus,” Kaull said in an email. 

Graduate teaching students will assist the new program director with ESL courses.

“Currently, ESL programs at WVU are only enrolling 15-20 students, so 2-3 instructors should be more than sufficient to provide high-quality instruction,” Kaull said.

Williams said the loss of the English Language Learning Institute comes at a time as the university needs to increase international student enrollment following the COVID-19 pandemic’s border closures. 

She works closely with embassies that send students to WVU, and countries sometimes foot the bill for the student to come to the United States and learn. She worried the high-profile changes at WVU, particularly to foreign languages, would negatively affect recruitment. 

“What does it say to the world about how WVU, the flagship university, feels about internationalization?” she questioned. 

Originally from Saudi Arabia, Asma Almalki and her husband moved to Morgantown so her husband could pursue a degree with a scholarship. 

“We chose Morgantown because it had the opportunity for me to study English,” she said. 

Almalki, 30, is currently taking ESL courses in hopes of enrolling in the university for a business degree. The ESL faculty felt like family, she said.

Like Williams, she expected that the Academic Transformation and changes to ESL would result in her home country sending fewer students — and money — to WVU.

“I think the university will lose students,” Almalki said. 

Editor’s note: This story was updated to reflect that WVU will also offer Arabic and French language classes.

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