About twenty years ago, Olgur Celikbas attended a conference on algebra in Turkey. He and his then girlfriend, Ela Özçağlar, had recently graduated from college in Ankara; both had studied math. At the time, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln had one of the top commutative-algebra programs in the world, and professors at the conference sold Olgur on the idea of going to America for grad school. Ela was less sure. “I was, like, ‘Where’s Nebraska?’ ” she recalled. She asked her father, a geography professor. He said something about a corn ocean.
Ela and Olgur got married, moved to Nebraska, and obtained Ph.D.s in mathematics. They began looking for academic positions, but finding jobs in the same place felt like “the most difficult two-body problem in the world,” Ela said. They got temporary appointments at the University of Missouri, then at the University of Connecticut. In 2016, Olgur got a tenure-track job at West Virginia University. Ela was hired as a research professor. She was promoted to the tenure track in 2019, nearing her fortieth birthday.
Like the other schools where she and Olgur had taught, W.V.U. is a public land-grant university. It’s classified as an R1 doctoral university, meaning that its level of research activity—measured by funding, staff, and available degrees—is equalled by fewer than a hundred and fifty schools in the country. But, for years, the math department, at the direction of the school’s administrators, had hired teaching faculty, with no prospect of tenure, for classes such as calculus and elementary algebra. These teachers specialized in education, rather than mathematics. Eventually, the university created a new department for them: the Institute for Mathematics Learning.
“They were trying to have some kind of system where the ching-ching is happening,” Casian Pantea, a Romanian mathematician who has taught at W.V.U. since 2013, told me. The administration wanted faculty to teach easier classes, he said, because that would lead to greater student satisfaction and higher enrollment. “Students pass their classes, and everyone’s happy, and so on,” Pantea said. Historically, tenured professors didn’t need to worry too much about student evaluations, because their jobs were secure. Teaching faculty don’t have this luxury. “Now we have math courses that are basically sixth-grade math,” Pantea said. “Pre-algebra.”
Then, in December, 2020, the university’s president, Elwood Gordon Gee, announced the start of an “academic transformation.” Gee, who is seventy-nine, has a wry smile and a penchant for bow ties. (He reportedly owns more than two thousand of them.) He served as W.V.U.’s president from 1981 to 1985, then had similarly short stints at the University of Colorado, Brown University, and Vanderbilt University, and two at Ohio State University. His two-year tenure at Brown was controversial—he left abruptly, amid criticism that he had ignored the school’s faculty in some of his decision-making—but he has always been a successful fund-raiser. He returned to W.V.U. in 2014. Gee has long argued that land-grant universities, which were created in 1862 by an act of Congress, are meant to “prioritize their activities based on the needs of the communities they were designed to serve,” as he puts it in the book “Land-Grant Universities for the Future.”
“These are perilous times in higher education,” Gee said, that December. “Across the country, there is a loss of public trust, and the perceived value of higher education has diminished.” Enrollment at W.V.U. had dropped more than ten per cent from eight years before. “We must focus on market-driven majors, create areas of excellence, and be highly relevant to our students and their families,” he said.
After the speech, a group of university staff and outside consultants, led by the school’s provost, Maryanne Reed, set out to quantify departments across various metrics, including cost, popularity, and alignment with “labor-force needs.” Within a year, the math department was combined with the statistics department, and a data-science program was added to this new entity, which is called the School of Mathematical and Data Sciences. A director for the new department was appointed with minimal feedback from faculty members. “That was a big, big warning sign,” said a mathematician at W.V.U. who asked that I not use their name, out of fear that it could put their job at risk. But, they added, mathematicians do much of their work alone, and administrative changes can register as background noise; this was particularly true in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, when teachers were largely isolated. “You can kind of keep on going,” the mathematician added. “You can still have satisfaction with your work, be happy with what you do, right up until the axe falls.”
This past August, W.V.U. announced plans to cut thirty-two programs and lay off a hundred and sixty-nine faculty members. Among the undergraduate majors set to be purged or restructured were music performance, environmental and community planning, art history, German, Russian, Chinese, French, and Spanish. Masters programs in acting, landscape architecture, energy environments, linguistics, and creative writing would go, too. The plans made national headlines, with much of the coverage focussing on what the changes suggested about the state of the humanities. But it wasn’t only humanities courses that were being jettisoned. Also on the way out were doctoral programs in management, higher education, occupational- and environmental-health sciences, and math. (The university was quick to note that fewer than five hundred students would lose their intended program of study.)
The administration held an appeals period, during which faculty could lobby for their programs. Ela became the most outspoken advocate for mathematics. In meetings and on social media, she explained that advanced math is essential for fields including engineering, medicine, and computer science, and also that math teachers in West Virginia often get their master’s or doctorate degrees from W.V.U. She noted that Katherine Johnson, who made critical contributions to the Apollo 11 mission (she was played by Taraji P. Henson in the movie “Hidden Figures”), had been a math graduate student at W.V.U. She pointed out that, if the cuts were made, it would no longer be possible to get a Ph.D. in math in the state of West Virginia.
The administration was receptive to some entreaties—the plan to drop the M.F.A. in creative writing was quickly abandoned, for instance, as was the proposed elimination of majors in Spanish and Chinese. The math faculty prepared an official appeal, arguing that the graduate programs could be preserved but restructured, with an emphasis on math’s connection to other sciences. The university was unmoved. In September, the school’s board of governors voted on the final recommendations: the master’s and Ph.D. programs in math would be discontinued, and sixteen of the department’s forty-eight faculty positions would be eliminated. The undergraduate curriculum would be revised, both to emphasize applied math and also to be more “efficient.”
A few days before, Ela had attended a faculty-senate meeting. During a Q. & A. period, she told Gee, who had joined the session virtually, that the proposal amounted to a “nuclear annihilation” of her department. “We will be the only advanced university without any graduate math programs,” she said. Gee told her that the department could “move to a more modern approach” and still “be very competitive.” The department should emphasize national security and data science, he argued, adding, “We can’t do everything that we’ve been doing, because we’ve lived beyond our means.” Ela raised her finger, trying to get a word in; she stepped back from the microphone and clasped her hands. Gee, sounding final, said, “The fundamental issue is, math is critical, but not every aspect of mathematics, in this state, at this university, is critical. So there we go.”
The W.V.U. campus is burrowed in the hollows of tightly packed mountains adjacent to the Monongahela River. The grounds are webbed with paths that often feel like hiking trails covered with pavement. The math department is in Armstrong Hall, which sits on a ledge about halfway up a steep slope leading to the river.
In October, I went to see Ela at her office there. When I arrived, she was speaking with a third-year Ph.D. student from Turkey. On a board above her desk, she and the student had pinned a list of schools that the student was considering as transfer options. Standing in the doorway, he told me that he was hoping to specialize in geometry and algebra. Students at W.V.U. whose programs are being cut are permitted to finish their degrees, but he didn’t see value in staying. “All the pure mathematicians are planning to leave here in two years,” he said. “The math faculty will just be a teaching college.” A few days before, the university had contacted teachers who were being let go. Ela and Olgur, to their surprise, were not on the list. The unlucky group included four teaching faculty and two tenure-track faculty. Ten other faculty members, most of them senior, had volunteered to leave on their own.