The immediate future of Marshall University is in Gov. Jim Justice’s hands. Will he resist the temptation to remake the school’s governance to reward his friends, or will he use this opportunity to move Marshall forward in ways that would make its peer institutions envious?
The answer will come in the next few months, as Justice fills the three top positions at Marshall.
President Jerome Gilbert gave notice in April that he will not ask that his contract be extended when it expires a year from now. Former provost Jaime Taylor has left to become president of Lamar University, in Texas. The athletic director’s position has been vacant since Mike Hamrick decided to “step down” at the end of June and become special assistant to the president for facilities and fundraising.
How those positions are filled and who fills them will play a large role in Marshall’s future.
In theory, Justice won’t be the one to make those decisions. Those are the responsibility of the Board of Governors. But the governor appoints the board’s members, and governors are known to leave their marks on state universities. Remember how then-Gov. Joe Manchin had the West Virginia University Board of Governors appoint his friend Mike Garrison, who had no academic administrative experience, as president? That was a short-lived presidency that was — let’s face it — a mistake.
Justice appoints members of the Marshall Board of Governors, subject to the state Senate’s approval. A public university’s board of governors is a great place for the governor to reward his friends and donors. That’s not how it should be, but that’s how it is.
Gilbert became president of Marshall in January 2016, succeeding Stephen Kopp, who died unexpectedly. Under Gilbert, the university has established the School of Aviation, set to have students this fall, renovated the Memorial Student Center, built a new School of Pharmacy and graduate apartments along Hal Greer Boulevard and began plans to construct a new College of Business. The long-awaited baseball stadium also picked up momentum before the pandemic.
The university was given the prestigious R2 research institution designation by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education under Gilbert. He also has overseen the addition of multiple high-demand programs, such as biomedical engineering, aviation, physician assistant and specialty agriculture, as well as early assurance programs in the health professions.
Gilbert also navigated declining enrollment and state budget cuts.
So what’s the problem?
Gilbert and Justice are oil and water. The Marshall president is an engineer, a scholar and an experienced administrator who treads political waters with few public complaints. That temperament suits the highest-ranking administrator of a public university whose state support has not always been reliable.
The governor, on the other hand, is a person who inherited his wealth, who speaks in a folksy manner that embarrasses some people and who sometimes relies on cringe-worthy stunts to get attention. It’s hard to imagine Gilbert standing before Marshall faculty and answering their concerns by lifting the lid of a silver platter to reveal a pile of cow manure.
There were published reports in 2017 that, shortly after Justice was elected in November 2016, he summoned Gilbert to The Greenbrier resort, where he told Gilbert to fire football coach Doc Holliday and replace him with former coach Bobby Pruett, a friend of Justice’s. That was an amateur move. Gilbert refused. In March 2017, Justice approached five members of the Marshall Board of Governors and told them to fire Holliday, Gilbert and Hamrick. The four members refused. None of the five are on the board now.
So does Justice want a yes man in the president’s office at Old Main? That would be a disaster for Marshall.
It’s clear that the next president of Marshall must be someone who can get along with Justice and with the Republican-controlled Legislature. It also must be someone who recognizes that college education is falling out of favor in a state where degrees do not always correlate with earning power. And it must be someone strong enough to resist the political pressures that come with the job.
The Board of Governors has announced plans to seek input from various constituencies of the Marshall community as to what they want in the next president. To assume that Justice will have no input in the selection of the next president at Marshall is naive and foolish. For all anyone knows, Justice already might have chosen who the next president will be. If that’s the case, these community meetings will be mere charades.
No one outside Justice’s inner circle knows what his endgame is, assuming he has one. The Marshall community has its endgame, though. It needs a strong president who will fight for the university’s interest in Charleston, who has the ideas and force of will to do what’s necessary so Marshall can grow in enrollment, financial stability and prestige.
Directly or indirectly, Jim Justice will play a huge role in Marshall’s immediate future. He needs to step away from politics and self-interest and consider what is in the best interest of the university, this region and the state as a whole as his appointees work through the process of finding a president, a provost and an athletic director.
Can he do that? For the public’s good, he must.