BUCKHANNON — After the announcement last week that 15 staff members would be terminated immediately and 12 contracts for faculty and staff would not be renewed at West Virginia Wesleyan College, students organized two events to let their voices be heard.
The first, a sit-in that lasted most of the day in the administration building, and the second, a student town hall in Wesley Chapel with president Dr. Joel Thierstein, allowed students to peacefully display their frustration and share their concerns with the college administration.
In this final article on the student town hall, The Record Delta took a look at some of the specific questions asked during the 3 ½ hour town hall. Many of the students were concerned about cuts in their particular programs, about how the reduction in force was handled and about the education they would continue to receive at the liberal arts college.
Kaylee Burdette, a junior physics major, inquired about how small departments would be able to provide adequate instruction with reduced faculty.
“Wesleyan’s mission statement is encouraging critical thinking,” Burdette said. “I was wondering how we can still foster this with some programs and courses, especially now that some are now only being taught from one perspective instead of multiple.”
Thierstein said this is a challenge for small colleges generally.
“This is why the big institutions can say, ‘Well, we give you all these perspectives,’” he said. “The difficulty that big institutions have is they don’t give you perspectives from cross disciplines, and so what the value of a small liberal arts institution has been throughout its history, including now, is the value that you have history faculty teaching from one perspective, you have philosophy faculty teaching from one perspective. Often, it’s the same issue. You just learn it from different perspectives.
“And so, the value of liberal arts education, and in particular liberal arts colleges, is the integration of faculty. Hopefully, that didn’t change. They are still teaching from their different perspectives.”
“We have this expertise in the college,” he continued. “The value here, and this is why critical thinking is more valuable here and more taught here than it is at big universities, is because we have that integration of faculty. I count on that not changing.”
Katy Ross, a senior psychology and gender studies major, asked about how the Spanish program could continue to be offered when its only professor is set to be eliminated next summer.
“You stated in your comments that you don’t intend to replace any of those who were terminated because it was the position itself that was eliminated and not the individual,” Ross said. “You also stated that no academic programs would be eliminated. When the only Spanish professor was let go, what does that mean for underclassman Spanish minors?”
Thierstein replied, “The dean did an excellent job on this, and I will give him credit for this. He came up with a solution to that problem. Next fall, the new program will come into place. It won’t be the same. It won’t be a full-time faculty member. It will be a different plan. I’m not too worried about that. The Spanish minor will be OK.”
Olivia Insani, a sophomore music education major with an emphasis in voice, asked about the music department, which lost a vocal faculty member as part the reduction in force.
“The music department took a really, really big hit with the loss of a vocal faculty member,” Insani said. “As a voice major, I lost my teacher. I lost my mentor. It’s not only that, but it’s the fact that where else would you go? Around this area, you can imagine that there aren’t that many people qualified to teach voice... I just wish the emotions of the students were taken into account. I felt yesterday when I was approached by my teacher that I had a death in the family.
“Being a vocalist or being a musician is a very emotional thing in that you are shaping yourself ... Sure, you’re learning, but you are learning so much about yourself as a person.”
Insani also cast doubt on the college’s assertion that the position would be truly be eliminated.
“I know that position is going to have to be filled in some capacity,” Insani said. “There is going to have to be someone coming in to take that, because the course load is too heavy not to be filled in some way. I am just saying I don’t know how there is going to be someone more qualified.”
Students broke out in applause, but were admonished by senior Will Wasson, who moderated the student town hall, to hold their applause.
Thierstein acknowledged the decision meant a big loss for Wesleyan.
“The fine and performing arts is the heart and soul of campus,” he said. “Here, they are very special. We have the best in the world. That was a big loss. I know Dr. Moore was moved by that, so I know he is working very diligently to make sure you are taken care of the best that he can. I know it’s not going to be the same. I know she cares about all of her students. That was a big blow to the music department.”
Melissa Guydish, junior exercise science major, expressed her concerns with the process, including how faculty and staff were treated when let go, and also lamented the loss of her mentor.
“There were teachers that I loved who got escorted off campus by security,” she said. “There were teachers who found out they got fired in the morning and they had to go back and teach their class. I don’t think that’s right. They were treated like they did something wrong, especially the ones who were escorted off.
“They were treated like they did something wrong, and they didn’t do anything wrong. They sacrificed for their students, they sacrificed for their school.
“You guys preach that you care, that they were amazing and that this wasn’t personal, but it was personal. We are a family here.”
Guydish said that for some students, Wesleyan is more than just a place to come take classes for a few years.
“I made a family out of these teachers,” she said. “To see them go the way they did, I think was simply wrong by an institution that I have such pride in. I think if this were ever to happen again, this needs to be treated really different.
“They didn’t deserve to be embarrassed. They have done so much. I lost my mentor. I lost my internship because she is no longer here. She is the same person that is bringing me to Texas to the largest science conference in the world. She has done so much in two years and unfortunately we are not going to be able to see how much she was going to do.
“I think it was really wrong how it was handled, so I want to know, if this ever happens in the future, how it is going to be handled differently?”
Thierstein defended the way the college handled the reduction in force, but also said Wesleyan would continue to evaluate the best way to handle such situations going forward.
“No faculty member was escorted off campus,” he said. “They were notified that their contract would not be renewed. There were security in the area. They were not with faculty. No faculty members were escorted off campus. They were escorted back to their offices, and that is standard HR procedure. They were escorted back to the office to get the keys to the office. When the keys were returned, that was the end of the escort.”
Thierstein said the college had to be aware that those terminated would react emotionally.
“The challenge for us was how do we do that,” he continued. “These are people who have just been told they are part of the reduction in force. Their job was over. They had to clean out their desk and go home. That is an emotional moment. It’s a very blinding moment.
“We went back and forth, who do we use to take them back to their office? We came down to the idea of security. The security [officers] are trained. They are the only large group on campus who are trained to be sympathetic and to handle emotional situations. That’s what they do.
“We talked to them beforehand that these people didn’t do anything wrong. Be gentle, be kind. Help them if they need help. This is not a for cause issue, this is a soft issue. Don’t do anything. If they want to talk, talk. They are trained how to handle emotional situations.”
Thierson said all WVWC security guards wear uniforms and they were wearing their uniforms during the process of escorting staff back to their offices to retrieve keys.
“You’re right, it looked bad,” he acknowledged. “That was not the intention. They were just waiting outside to be as respectful as possible and not embarrass people.
“Your point is well taken, and if this ever happens again — I hope it doesn’t — that will be something we will review again.”