West Virginia University President Gordon Gee claims that WVU is the economic engine for the state of West Virginia. If that is the case, perhaps a closer scrutiny of the performance of the individual at the wheel of that economic engine, Gee himself, is in order.
When Gee took office in Morgantown in 2014, he boasted that he would make WVU a 40,000-student university, system-wide, by 2020. According to the 2018 Higher Education Policy Commission Enrollment Report, the full-time equivalent enrollment (FTE) for colleges in the WVU system has consistently shifted in reverse during his tenure. The present enrollment for the Morgantown campus is 25,553, a loss of 1,894 students since 2014.
The WVU economic engine in Keyser, Potomac State, is also moving in reverse. The 2018 FTE enrollment for that WVU campus, 1,141, presents a 12.9 percent decrease since Gee took office.
The WVU economic engine is moving in the same direction in Beckley. Present enrollment on the Beckley campus is less than the baccalaureate enrollment was on the Montgomery campus, before Tech became a divisional affiliate of WVU. The 2018 enrollment for the Beckley campus, 1,362, is not even half of the 3,000 that Gee predicted for the 2017 year.
The total enrollment for the three aforementioned WVU campuses, 28,056, falls seriously short of Gee’s 40,000-student projection. Since enrollment seems to be decreasing, the enrollment projected for 2020 seems well out of reach.
Moving WVU Tech from Montgomery to Beckley illustrates Gee’s failure to assess data objectively and plan thoughtfully. WVU has invested more than $42 million on the Beckley campus (with a $20 million dormitory on the way, and a new house for the president) and will be compelled to invest more and more, in order to make a true college campus from the hodgepodge of houses and other buildings (approximately 30) on the properties surrounding a former public school building, Carter Hall.
By the time Gee’s campus in Beckley is fully equipped with needed facilities, the cost will certainly exceed the amount that was needed for a thorough renovation and modernization of the Montgomery campus.
Before relocating the assets of the Montgomery campus to Beckley in 2015, WVU leaders stressed that Tech in Montgomery had to achieve and maintain an enrollment of 1,800 to be self-sustaining. By that standard, the Beckley campus enrollment of 1,362 misses the mark.
Gee’s enrollment projections for Beckley have been revealed as unrealistic. When he projected an enrollment of 5,000 by 2020, Gee overlooked two painfully obvious factors: the declining population of Southern West Virginia and the declining number of college-ready students graduating from high schools in Southern West Virginia.
Maybe Gee thought that students would flock to Beckley from other states just so they could attend a branch of WVU. Wishful thinking is no substitute for realistic assessment and thoughtful planning.
The future of the Montgomery campus that Gee abandoned forces Montgomery and the Upper Kanawha Valley to face troublesome economic issues.
The Montgomery campus has at least 11 vacant buildings. The students for Riverbend, a college envisioned for young adults transitioning out of foster care, were to take residency on that campus in July 2018, using a few of the buildings. To date, no students have arrived. According to a Nov. 11, 2018, news release, plans for Riverbend have reached a financial roadblock.
On July 2, 2018, Gov. Jim Justice signed an executive order creating the Blue Ribbon Commission, to explore the adequacy of current funding levels for higher education in our state, to explore the current governance structure of higher education and to explore the role of the Higher Education Policy Commission. Gee was named co-chairman of the commission.
A week later, in a move orchestrated by Gee, Carolyn Long, president of WVU Beckley, was installed as interim chancellor of the HEPC. A previously announced search for a new chancellor was suspended.
Gee has a conflict of interest with the HEPC, the body that develops and oversees a public policy agenda for West Virginia’s four-year colleges and universities and is intended, partly, to prevent an institution from wasting public money by adding major programs when a similar program is available at another institution. Gee is opposing a proposed HEPC funding formula that would increase funding for other colleges but cost WVU $12.5 million — $9.2 million for the Morgantown campus, and $3.3 million for the Beckley campus.
Accountability matters. Taxpayers in West Virginia deserve honest answers to the following questions:
Based on Gee’s staunch dissatisfaction with the HEPC, should he be playing such a vital role in determining the future of that body? Probably not.
Based on his performance at the wheel of what he calls the economic engine of West Virginia, should Gee be acting chairman of the Blue Ribbon Commission, helping to chart the course of higher education in West Virginia? Probably not.