In 2017, the late Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen issued a dire prediction for American colleges and universities. “In 10 to 15 years,” he told a symposium on higher education, “50 percent of the 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. will be bankrupt.” Christensen’s observations drew from his and Henry J. Eyring’s book The Innovative University, which argues that economic trends and technological change will doom the traditional campus model of higher education unless institutions take astute industry-wide steps to avoid crisis.
Christensen died in January 2020 and just missed the Covid-19 pandemic’s vaulting effects on higher education. His predictions, however, show worrying signs of bearing out, especially as our sclerotic institutions show no meaningful signs of change. According to Higher Ed Dive, which curiously insists that it is not maintaining a “death watch,” 96 American institutions of higher education have disappeared or announced plans to disappear since 2016, either through dissolution or merger with other institutions. Very few new institutions have opened since the expansion of state universities and community colleges in the 1960s.
Most surviving colleges and universities struggle with severe declines in enrollment, significant loss of public funds, adverse high-value legal judgments, massive increases in administrative costs, expensive and increasingly mandatory “diversity”-related programs, and other financial stressors that Christensen could scarcely have imagined six years ago. Despite some state government action to eliminate or marginalize diversity bureaucracies in public institutions, these challenges seem to be worsening.
Consider West Virginia University, for example, which recently announced major budget cuts to cover a $45 million deficit. The university seeks to save some $75 million by eliminating 32 of its majors and programs of study and 169 faculty members, or some 16 percent of the total. According to a comprehensive list published by WVU, heavy blows will fall on the arts, humanities, foreign languages, and specialized programs in science, law, and business, ironically including WVU’s graduate programs in higher education administration.
The proposed cuts were made following a self-study by WVU’s senior leadership and conducted in what it describes as a “holistic” fashion in consultation with deans and program directors. The study apparently did not include rank-and-file faculty members, students, alumni, or other players who might have relevant insights. The process has been guided by the oddly named consulting firm rpk GROUP, which alliteratively claims to be in the business of “maximizing Mission, Market, and Margin” for its clients but has no authority over the process at WVU. Decisions are subject to brief appeals before WVU’s Board of Governors, to whom supplicants will have 45 minutes to make their case prior to the board’s final vote on September 15. Eliminated programs will reportedly be allowed to “teach out” their currently matriculated students before entering oblivion.
Shockwaves are coursing through academia and among the declining number of people who care about its fate. Despite WVU’s embarrassing woes, it is not some podunk liberal arts college that hardly anyone knows or cares about. Established in 1867, it is a Research-1 (R1) institution boasting the “highest level of research,” according to the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. It is West Virginia’s most prestigious institution, the state’s only R1, and the flagship school of the state’s public university system. For decades, WVU’s proximity to Washington has attracted its graduates to government service, including foreign policy and national security positions that have drawn on its strengths in critical languages. It enrolls nearly 30,000 students and ranks among the top 250 universities.
Nothing of this magnitude has happened before at any institution of WVU’s size or stature. “No other state flagship university has forsaken language education for its students or made the kinds of cuts to the humanities that WVU is undertaking,” says Paula M. Krebs, executive director of the Modern Language Association, which has tracked a precipitous decline in foreign language study across the nation in recent years. Lisa DiBartolomeo, a WVU professor of Russian, said that she and her 23 World Languages Department colleagues, all of whose jobs are marked for elimination under the proposed cuts, are “cycling through the various processes of grief, denial, [and] anger” as they face unemployment in a sparse academic job market.
The general chatter among the professoriate holds that WVU’s fate—and worse—is the wave of the future, not an aberration. Many note that WVU’s proposed cuts involve only academic programs and staff but not administration. WVU’s president, E. Gordon Gee, who will leave office in 2025 after a checkered 44-year career overseeing multiple universities, claims to “feel a hell of a lot of pain about how this affects our colleagues, my friends, [and] my neighbors”—but not enough pain to part with any amount of his $800,000 salary, which, if allocated differently, would cover the pay of about half of the foreign language professors his board will likely fire. (DiBartolomeo, a senior faculty member who also served briefly as an advisor to Gee, was paid just over $74,000 in 2021, according to West Virginia public figures.)
As Gee sheds crocodile tears, his fellow university presidents, who tend to be older gentlemen with questionable priorities, can hardly ignore that national college enrollments have fallen by 15 percent since 2010—the largest peacetime contraction in American history. (WVU claims a 10 percent decline since 2015 and projects further losses.) In 2020, only 45 percent of Americans believed that a college education was essential for success, compared with 95 percent in 1980. A March 2023 Wall Street Journal study showed that a corroborating 56 percent of Americans do not believe a four-year degree is worth the money, a figure that includes 42 percent of respondents who themselves hold four-year degrees. According to Gallup, public confidence in higher education fell more than in any other American institution in the period from 2015 to 2019—a time correlating almost exactly with the aggressive introduction on campuses of woke ideology, identity politics, DEI principles, curtailments of civil rights, and the strict policing of language and behavior by an ever-growing legion of bureaucrats who have nothing to do with the education of students in classrooms.
Even President Gee, who can look forward to a very comfortable retirement pendant le déluge, is under no illusions. “Most universities are like elephants,” he said in 2017. “They’re big, they’re slow, they’re bureaucratic, and they don’t want to change . . . we’re going to have to be like ballerinas, or we’re going to end up like the dinosaurs.” Gee will soon flee the scene with more money than virtually any West Virginia graduate or professor could ever hope to make, but institutions of higher education are already starting to fossilize, starting with his own.