Mental health and WVU’s "party school" label were just a few of the topics WVU President Gordon Gee discussed during his introduction speech to “Behind the Bow Tie: A Student Conversation with President Gee”
“I like to talk with you because I believe it is important for me to understand what you are thinking, what you are feeling, what is important to you and how we can get along and do better and be better,” Gee said.
In his speech, Gee discussed overcoming the obstacles students will likely face in their lives. He said former students like Katherine Johnson, a world-renowned mathematician and one of the first African American students to enroll at WVU, are prime examples of Mountaineers overcoming any obstacles that come their way.
He said persevering and finding value in education is what the University is all about.
“Johnson scaled mountains of oppression by letting curiosity inspire learning, and letting learning fuel her unique purpose,” Gee said. “Purpose is our DNA.”
He said one of the most important things students can do is to not allow themselves to be defined by others.
In the past, WVU has often been labeled as a “party school.” Gee said with honors college enrollment on the rise and sororities and fraternities fostering positive learning environments for students are just a few of the ways WVU has redefined itself.
“You know who you are. You know where your dreams are calling you,” Gee said. “The minute you allow others to define you, you embark on a destructive path leading you away from where you belong.”
Gee also touched on mental health issues on campus. He said treating disorders is one of the greatest challenges facing universities today.
“According to a major survey by Cigna, Generation Z — of which many of you are members —reports higher levels of loneliness than any other age group,” Gee said. “Our University cares about each of you, I care about each of you, and giving you the tools to thrive has never been more important.”
He said the University would be providing budget enhancements for mental health programs at WVU, including a crisis text line and a “stepped care” model. This model would allow students in need to be given increasing levels of assistance based on severity of the condition.
New staff recruitment and retention strategies will also be included under the budget enhancements. One of these positions at the Carruth Center is a behavioral health clinician who will be available for drop-in and emergency situations.
“I want you to remember this, on this campus, you are never truly alone,” Gee said.
Gee lastly touched on the political situation in the United States.
He said universities reflect the “splintered” state of America today. He said he encourages the audience to read Martin Luther King Jr.'s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” He said that King celebrated individuality, and would have abhorred groupthink.
“We need a collision of ideas rather than a narrowing of conversations,” Gee said. “Let’s make West Virginia University a place where hard thought, and therefore strong disagreement, independent judgment and the questioning of stubborn assumptions can flourish in the environment of the greatest freedom.”
Following Gee's prepared speech, questions were asked by a student panel, those in the audience and questions submitted online.
When asked about how the University plans to increase security following the past weekend's shootings, Gee said while the University cannot control these incidents, it will work to manage dorm security as well as work with the Morgantown Police Department.
“We cannot make sure that everyone does the right thing, but we can put things into place to motivate people to do the right thing,” Gee said.
Gee said when incidents like this occur, he takes it very personally. He said one of the hardest things he has had to do while working at universities is having to call parents and explain that something has happened to their child.
He said campus safety is his and the University's top priority.
“We have one of the safest campuses and the safest communities in the country,” Gee said.
Mental health on campus
As mental health issues on college campuses continue to escalate, Gee said WVU is working to ensure students are being properly cared for.
“One size doesn't fit all," Gee said. "We are a unique campus, we have unique issues.
He said because the University is behind the curb in treating these issues, it will take time and many resources to catch up.
“About ten years ago, the data showed that about 5% of students on our campus had some sort of mental health issue. The number now is 40%,” Gee said. “It is just overwhelming.”
Financial aid and tuition
Gee said the University works constantly to keep tuition low and provide scholarships to students.
“We have put a tremendous amount of money and resources into financial aid,” Gee said. “If you take a look at cost to quality in the equation... we have relatively low tuition compared to most institutions.”
He said the cost of tuition is a pressing matter not only for WVU, but for all higher education institutions.
Compared to other universities, Gee said it is actually cheaper for out-of-state students to attend WVU than it is to attend many of the students' in-state schools.
“With the changing demographics, we have to always be competitive,” he said.
Preparedness for Coronavirus at WVU
Gee said the University is well prepared if the coronavirus spreads to WVU.
“We want to be very well prepared, but we also don’t want to panic,” Gee said.
So far, WVU has canceled 13 faculty-led spring break trips and two summer programs. Three students studying abroad in Italy have also made the decision to return home. Gee said J. W. Ruby Memorial Hospital has been an asset in ensuring the University is prepared if the coronavirus makes its way into West Virginia.
Clay Marsh, vice president and executive dean for health sciences, said no cases have been reported in West Virginia. He said the best practices are avoiding touching your face, washing hands frequently and if students are feeling ill they should stay home.
Gee said the University is working to adjust its attendance policy to ensure the coronavirus as well as other illnesses are not spread between students.
Sexual Assault on campus
In a submitted editorial to the DA, Akeya Carter-Bozman, prevention specialist for Title IX & Equity Assurance, said one in three females on campus will be sexually assaulted during their time at WVU.
In response, Gee said, "one out of one is too many.”
He said sexual assault is taken seriously on campus, and is never tolerated.
“Our office is working very consistently to make sure we are very cognizant, that we are developing training,” Gee said. “We also are making very clear that those patterns, those acts of sexual assault, are just not tolerated on campus.”