In his first year back as president of West Virginia University, Gordon Gee faced shrinking state funding and a high-profile student death on campus. He spoke recently with us about those challenges, and about his time serving on the board of directors for coal company Massey Energy.
Gee served as chairman of the Safety, Environmental and Public Policy Committee of Massey Energy's board of directors before he resigned in 2009. Less than a year later, an explosion killed 29 men at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine.
Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship has been indicted on federal charges associated with Upper Big Branch and is awaiting trial. Gee declined to comment on the indictment.
“During my service on the Massey Board, that was clearly the focus on our board, was on safety and safety measures,” Gee said. “Saying that, it is probably inappropriate for me to comment on the indictment itself because I’m not engaged in it, I’m not familiar with it. I think this is a matter for the federal courts and a matter for them to resolve.”
Violations at Upper Big Branch were routine and widespread, according to Governor Tomblin's independent investigation panel.
Its report says, “Massey Energy engaged in a process of 'normalization of deviance' that, in the push to produce coal, made allowances for a faulty ventilation system, inadequate rock-dusting and poorly maintained equipment.”
Gee said that safety was "always our number one concern" during his time on the board, and that they were "working very hard to solve the problems we had," he said.
"These are large companies. I ran Ohio State University, which is the largest university in the country, and West Virginia University, which is one of the very large, complex institutions, and I don’t know everything that goes on there. So you have to have that sort of trusting relationship of having good people doing good things," Gee said.
Changing the Campus Culture
Gee also said he was working with students to change a campus culture that focuses too much on binge drinking.
Earlier this week, WVU student Richard Schwartz was charged with conspiracy to commit hazing in connection with the death of another student, 18-year-old Nolan Burch.
Burch died from apparent alcohol poisoning after a fraternity party last fall. Schwartz was his so-called “big brother” at the Kappa Sigma fraternity.
Gee said the problem is not unique to WVU.
"This is not a West Virginia issue. This is a national issue," he said, citing a study showing more than 1,800 college students die nationwide from alcohol-related causes every year.
"We cannot condemn the many because of the excesses of the few. And all too many institutions do that, so they come down with these hammer-like rules."
He says his administration is having a healthier conversation around the issue with students: “You’re adults, this is your university, you develop strategies to make it the kind of place you want it to be.”
WVU's Freedom Agenda
WVU and other universities face another round of cuts in this year's state budget-- although less than the last two years.
Gee said he's found "strong receptivity to funding higher ed" in the new Republican-controlled Legislature, and hopes the cuts will come to an end.
This year, another priority is what Gee called the school's "Freedom Agenda." He is seeking increased flexibility in purchasing, the state's PEIA health insurance plan, and other state rules.
“Let us do good things with the limited resources that we have. Right now, we are very limited in our ability to be creative,” Gee said.
"West Virginians love West Virginia"
Gee spent part of the last year traveling to all 55 West Virginia counties. He said he learned something important: "West Virginians love West Virginia."
"I’ve never seen anything like this. That, of course, is a great strength, our people.
"Whether they find themselves in Singapore or Shanghai or Keokuk, Iowa, they want to return or they want to stay here. So we have to build on that," Gee said.
He said WVU has a role in not just educating students, but developing the sort of economy, social and cultural opportunities that make them want to stay in West Virginia.