Chris Schulz Published

New Student Organization Opposes WVU Program Cuts

Two people stand wearing red shirts. One holds the speaker of a megaphone while the other speaks into the detached mouthpiece of the same megaphone. Behind them are arrayed more individuals, many also wearing red.
Matthew Kolb, right, speaks into a megaphone being held by Mailyn Stadler during a student walkout against proposed program cuts organized by the West Virginia United Students Union Aug. 21, 2023.
Chris Schulz/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

The West Virginia University Board of Governors will vote Friday on proposed cuts to programs at the university’s Morgantown campus. Campus opposition to the cuts – including a student walkout and demonstrations at university meetings – has been led by the recently formed West Virginia United Student Union. 

Reporter Chris Schulz sat down with two of the union’s founding members, Matthew Kolb and Christian Adams, to talk about their efforts.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Schulz: Mathew, I’ll start with you. What exactly is the West Virginia University Student Union?

Kolb: The West Virginia United Students Union, it’s a union of students and student organizations on WVU’s Morgantown campus. We’ve been working to advocate for student voices in a way that let’s say, for example, the student government hasn’t been able to do. We’ve been organizing for only a few months now, we’ve got over 350 members, we’re looking at possibly having over 500 within the next week or two. We’re growing pretty rapidly. We’ve gotten a lot of support from the community. Right now our goal is making sure that we build a strong foundation for organizing students on the campus this year, and next year, and every year following. 

Schulz: So Christian, can you add to that a little bit? Can you tell me a little bit more about what it is the organization is capable of doing that more traditional entities like the SGA can’t?

Adams: Yeah, so ultimately, the Student Union provides a much more participatory platform for students to engage with local politics, whether that be on the level of SGA, or the Board of Governors or even within the state politics, because ultimately it serves as a platform and a voice for a large quantity of students to be capable of engaging in.

Schulz: Christian, I’ll continue with you. Can you tell me a little bit about the history?

Adams: We announced it, I believe it was July 20 of this year. We had definitely started thinking about it all the way back at the end of April, and kind of how to create it. Originally, it was just an idea for a simple newsletter. But as time progressed, and as we found out more and more about the cuts, we understood that to organize effectively, we had to move beyond that, and create something that allowed students to engage much more thoroughly than just a newsletter.

Schulz: Matthew, would you say that it’s accurate that the cuts kind of motivated the creation of this organization?

Kolb: Completely accurate. In general, having a student union like ours that can represent students the way it does is important, no matter the time, or place, but the fact that the cuts were so, the proposals were so widespread, affecting so many students, it really motivated them to get in, get involved in a way that they might not have at any other time. We’re hoping that we are going to be able to build solidarity right now that will continue past this issue. A lot of organizing happens based around issues, and it’s hard to get students and really anyone involved in a unionization effort if there’s not an apparent issue directly in front of them.

Schulz: So tell me Christian a little bit more about what organizing actually looks like on the ground right now.

Adams: Around this issue in general, most of what we do is research, essentially combating the current narrative that the administration has been putting forth. A lot of what we’ve been doing has been working towards allowing the faculty and the students to have a voice. But in terms of concretely how we do that a lot of it is fliers, showing up to meetings, it is reading articles, it is poring over the data and trying to establish a concrete and coherent narrative around what is going on.

Schulz: Matthew, anything to add to that?

Kolb: One of the important things about the student union is the way that it brings students from across the university together to advocate for themselves and for their peers. We’re able to bring in a bunch of decentralized information, centralize it and then distribute it to everybody in that organization. That’s one of the more important things that we have been doing was making sure that we’re informing our members and other students of these events going on, that they need to show up to, they need to ask questions, give comments, give their thoughts, tell administration, student government, the Board of Governors, how these recommendations are going to affect them.

Schulz: What do you feel has been the impact of organizing so far Matthew?

Kolb: I’m an undergraduate senior, this is my fourth year I’m going into right now. The three, four years I have been here, I have not seen a campus culture at WVU like I see it today. I fully believe that this student union has altered the way that students relate to each other, the way they relate to faculty and staff and how they understand the power dynamics at this university. We’re hoping that that cultural change is a permanent change at this campus.

Adams: Well, I would definitely agree with Matthew that the culture on the WVU campus has shifted dramatically, but we’ve also seen the faculty be emboldened significantly, and we’ve seen the relationship between the administration and the students and the faculty changed dramatically as the power imbalance has…it’s been pushing towards being more level. The administration is starting to get scared. We are concretely creating long term institutional power that will be able to affect change on campus and across our community. 

Schulz: More broadly, what other issues is the union concerned with, beyond the immediacy of the cuts, Matthew?

Kolb: There have been discussions about accessibility on campus to speaking about tuition, making sure that tuition is affordable. The cost of housing on campus, making sure you know that everybody in West Virginia has the opportunity to go to WVU. Making sure that college athletes are adequately compensated for their work. Discussions about holding administration accountable, holding the Board of Governors accountable, things of that nature. Especially right now, when the administration holds such power, building a sort of democratic power at the university that does not exist right now. But people have been trying to make it exist. We don’t want to try to make it exist, we want it to exist, and we’re going to make it exist.

Schulz: Do you feel like what your organization, what your union has done so far will have a meaningful impact come Friday?
Kolb: Friday will come and Friday will go. We may succeed, we may not. But what is maybe even more important is how our union succeeds at cementing itself as a legitimate and credible fighting force on this campus, for students and by students. So whenever the time comes that they might think about doing what they have done and are trying to do now, maybe they will think otherwise. Because they know that there will be a reaction from the students. They know that they can’t hide it like they used to, they know that they can’t peddle a narrative to the press like they used to, because the faculty, staff and students have been working to try to meet them where they’re at power wise with manufacturing a narrative, to make sure that our stories get out there, that our research gets out there so that everything people read is not just what the administration wants them to read.