Aug 30, 2023 - Podcasts

WVU language cuts stoke fears nationwide

West Virginia University announced this month it would eliminate 32 of 338 majors, or about 9% of its course catalog. While WVU is staring down a $45 million budget deficit, some of the biggest proposed cuts are to the languages program. And humanities scholars and others are worried this could be a blueprint for attacks on higher education.

Guests: Axios' Jennifer Kingson and Hope King.

Credits: Axios Today was produced by Niala Boodhoo, Alexandra Botti, Fonda Mwangi, Lydia McMullen-Laird and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can send questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.


NIALA BOODHOO: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It's Wednesday, August 30.

I'm Niala Boodhoo.

Today on the show: inside the new business boom of 2023. Plus, the latest on Hurricane Idalia.

And, our one big thing: Foreign language cuts at one university stoke nationwide fears.

We start this morning in Florida, where 22 counties are under evacuation orders from Hurricane Idalia which, as forecast, overnight has gone from a Category 1 to a Category 4 storm.

The major worries for this system are its storm surge, with forecasts of water as high as 12 to 16 feet, and what forecasters are calling "life threatening" winds of 130 mph or higher. Idalia is expected to make landfall later this morning in Florida's Big Bend region — that's where the Florida panhandle curves into the peninsula — and where no major hurricane has ever been recorded to hit.

The 5 a.m. advisory from the National Hurricane Center said that hurricane warnings are also now in effect for parts of eastern Georgia and Southeastern South Carolina. Please visit for the latest info on Idalia, and hoping everyone in its path can stay safe today.

West Virginia University announced this month it would eliminate 32 of 338 majors, or about 9% of its course catalog. While WVU is staring down a $45 million budget deficit, some of the biggest proposed cuts are to the languages program. And humanities scholars and others are worried this could be a blueprint for attacks on higher education.

Axios's Jennifer Kingson has been following this story. Hi, Jennifer.


NIALA: First off, why is West Virginia University doing this? Is it all about the money?

JENNIFER: The university says that this is a dollars-driven decision that's based on declining enrollments in specific language majors, but professors in the department and academics more broadly tell a very different story about liberal arts and languages being a convenient target for cuts from educators who want to steer their universities toward bigger classes that are more vocationally oriented. They say that languages make a very convenient target for cuts. In fact, at West Virginia University, the program was making $800,000 in revenue each year. It's very cheap to run a language department as opposed to, say, the STEM courses that administrators are happier to keep.

A Wall Street Journal investigation into this topic found that at public universities, spending has been fairly profligate at a lot of big schools with building big edifices, elaborate programs that they didn't have the enrollment to back up. And that's led to an unfortunate feedback loop in which they're raising tuitions and going back to their state legislatures to ask for more money. And it gives a big black eye to public education, unfortunately. The situation at West Virginia University seems to be one obvious manifestation of how this is playing out.

NIALA: And so I imagine when WVU announced this, there was quite an outcry from faculty about this?

JENNIFER: Oh, faculty, students, and families have all been up in arms about this, and it's generated such heat that, more broadly, petitions online have been circulating. The Modern Language Association and the American Federation of Teachers have all spoken out about it. It's become a real national cause celebre because of the dramatic nature of the announcement that all foreign languages would be eliminated at the state's premier university, which is also a top research institute. It's got an R1 designation, meaning that it's got the highest research designation in all the land. And, some people who oppose this move feared that it might bring down that designation, which would limit opportunities for people in the socioeconomically depressed state of West Virginia.

NIALA: Jennifer, what has the university said in response to this uproar?

JENNIFER: Late Tuesday, the university put out a release saying that in response to an appeals hearing on Friday, it was going to recommend to the board of trustees of the university not that they eliminate all languages wholesale, which was the original proposal, but that they keep instruction in Spanish and Chinese, and retain five professors out of the, uh, 18 or so in the global languages department.

Originally, they were going to eliminate all the professors and all the languages. But they're still recommending that the language requirement for all undergraduates be scrapped entirely. So it's, not good news for language education writ large, but it's not the wholesale elimination that had originally been planned.

NIALA: Can you place this in context for us? How dramatic a move is this for a university?

JENNIFER: It's been known for decades that American students are less interested in taking languages, seeing less value in language education. These declines are not new, it's been a death by a thousand cuts at various schools that have pared back their language offerings. What the head of the Modern Language Association told me is that schools that are investing in these programs see their enrollments thrive. And language apps, which are often used as a fig leaf for why we don't need to learn languages face to face, can only go so far. You can't really learn a culture or to speak a language from doing 15 minutes on an app every day. It just doesn't work that way, as all of us know.

So, there's still a vital place for language education, and those who are involved in it tell me that this is a wake-up call for the fact that they need to do a better job communicating their value and letting people know that, studying the liberal arts still leads to good career and earning prospects.

NIALA: Axios is Jennifer Kingson. Thanks, Jennifer.

JENNIFER: Thank you, Niala.

NIALA: In a moment: What's behind the current business boom.

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today. I'm Niala Boodhoo.

Business in the U.S. is booming. New openings have exceeded pre-pandemic 2019 levels every month this year and according to a new report published yesterday by Yelp, new listings of shops and services on Yelp are on track to beat 2022's all-time high.

Axios' senior business reporter Hope King has been reporting on this. Hope, obviously, a lot of businesses are doing better than they were during the pandemic, but why is this new business boom even bigger than it was pre-pandemic?

HOPE KING: I think that we're still seeing the effects of the excess savings that we've talked about here in the past and of the return of travel. And that's certainly reflected in the types of businesses that are opening and if you look at some of the biggest categories of businesses that are driving these openings, it's RV rentals, it's travel agents. So that's really where you're still seeing demand coming from the consumer market.

NIALA: And last week, we talked about the boom we've seen, for example, in concert ticket sales. Does that also play into this events category of business growth?

HOPE: It does, and get-togethers. The beverage and snack industry has said that based on their research, the rise in the sales of salty snacks and snacks in general, it's because we're having more parties at home. We're entertaining. So, you know, for people who weren't able to travel to see friends and family, maybe even last year, I think they're finally feeling the confidence now to get together and have these social events. So we're still seeing the leftover demands of that.

NIALA: And are we seeing business growth in other areas apart from things where it's people socializing or traveling and spending money in that arena?

HOPE: Based on the data that Yelp has published this week, we're seeing the home services business still continue to grow, particularly in the Northeast. And if you think about the macro trend there, people who have been lucky to buy homes when interest rates were low, they're now seeing the home values appreciate. They're also maybe staying home more because of remote work and so they're spending money on sprucing up their places. Um, there's wear and tear if you're working from home a lot. So those are examples where they might need home improvement experts to come in to refinish, to renovate. So again, those are some of the lasting effects of the pandemic we're still seeing play out.

NIALA: What kinds of growth are we seeing in minority-owned business, Hope?

HOPE: So this was really promising. Based on Yelp's data, LGBTQ-owned businesses, they have been opening up at a rate of about 33 percent. Black-owned businesses have been opening up at a rate of about 28 percent. Latin-owned businesses up 28 percent. And those are all above that national average of 25 percent. So we're seeing that optimism continue to spread more evenly, potentially, throughout the economy versus being just concentrated maybe with folks who already had the means to start businesses in the past.

NIALA: How does this type of growth fit into the bigger picture of what's going on with the broader economy right now?

HOPE: So one of the things that Neil and Courtney have been reporting on is just how resilient the economy has been and that's largely due to this consumer spending and what that really reveals is that while interest rate hikes have been hurting certain parts of the economy, you know, last year tech was hit hard, we know that banking was hit hard. Because again of the excess savings and because of the demand that was pent up from the pandemic, you know, services, businesses, continue to see spending come through because those businesses were not as impacted by those interest rate hikes. So I think that's one thing that we can tie in together with what we're seeing the consumers, uh, do, at a very micro level and how that bubbles up to the macro level.

NIALA: Hope King is author of the Daily Closer newsletter and a senior business reporter at Axios. Thanks, Hope.

HOPE: Thanks, Niala.

NIALA: That's it for us today! You can reach our team at podcasts at or text me at (202) 918-4893.

I'm Niala Boodhoo. Thanks for listening. Stay safe and we'll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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