WVU President E. Gordon Gee sat down with The Daily Athenaeum last week to discuss a variety of state and campus issues. He spoke on concealed carry on college campuses, the growing mental health crisis facing students and the University’s ongoing challenges with student enrollment and retention.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
DA: SB 10, the Campus Self-Defense Act, has passed through the state Senate and now awaits further consideration in the House. The bill mentions several provisions where colleges and universities can regulate concealed carry on campus. With that said, does WVU have any plans to implement or update security?
Gee: You know, we have fought this thing for all eight years that I've been here. It has become pervasive around the country. You know, many states have it. So when we saw that they had a supermajority, we made it very clear that the position of the University is that local control is the important component.
We have a great Board of Governors, and they should have the responsibility for being in charge of this. But the Legislature sees that they want to pass a bill. We did a lot of our homework by talking to what happens in other states — Kansas, Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma — and we worked very closely with the sponsors of the bill to carve out all of the onerous issues. And we think that we have been very successful.
If it passes in its present mode in the House and the Governor signs it, we will still have one of the safest campuses in the country. And we take a lot of pride in having negotiated that with the Legislature.
DA: Have there been any discussions of specific security updates on campus?
Gee: Oh, yeah. I mean we obviously are looking very closely at it … One of the things that we did was to make certain it would not become effective until two years from now. So that gives us plenty of time to make certain that any measures that we need to have, that we take, we'll take care of. I was just at Kansas State, and they have … a very robust campus carry bill.
I was talking to them about what they did and to their student body president. They've implemented some things. We'll implement all the right things in order to make certain that we are taking good care of our students and our faculty and staff. I mean, needless to say, we're all concerned about it.
DA: Some SGA senators have expressed concerns over campus carry and how it may impact student enrollment and retention, as well as faculty retention and recruitment. Do you expect the bill to have an impact on these areas?
Gee: Well, I think because we have made it a bill that does not really impact the day-to-day living here … If you take a look at the schools in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, it is neither affected enrollment nor their faculty.
It's one of those kinds of things that you can talk about in that vein. But frankly, one of the reasons that the bill even has got legs is the fact that the experiences in all these other states and all these other campuses, there have been zero problems.
If there had been some significant issue on one of these campuses, that would've been a great catalyst for us to be able to talk about it. And I hope that we never have an issue on this campus. But at the same time, the evidence is clear that if you have the right protocols in place, then everything does work out very well.
DA: President Gee, you and other administrators have expressed recent concerns about declining student enrollment. What strategies does the University currently have to combat this decline?
Gee: We are in a time in which four million students have dropped out of college that were supposed to be here this past year. We're in a state in which 55% of the college-going students have now declined to 45%. There's a lot of angst among students about the worth of college. We have a demographic cliff, which is going to be significant.
So what we're doing for that is we're getting very much into the adult education business. We're getting very much into the online education business. We are widening our swath in terms of recruitment. I just was at George Washington High School. I'll be in Charleston next week, but we recruit nationally.
And one of the things we like about being a member of the Big 12 Conference is the fact that we can tell our story across the swath of those institutions in those states. So, we have every belief that our enrollment will continue to be stable or even start to grow again.
DA: Are there any specific strategies the University has for recruiting in-state students?
Gee: I believe that the role of the University is about education — pre-K through life. And so we have to be very worried about the quality of public education. We have to work very carefully to make certain that our public education programs are robust and that they're creating students who are willing and able to go on to higher education.
Not everyone in this state should come to the University, but everyone should have an educational experience. And so we need to make sure that people understand that in order to have a robust state and to have a great economy, we need to have our young people well educated and staying here and taking those jobs.
That is a very high priority for us. We've created something about seven years ago called the Education Collaborative. Its whole role is to increase college-going rates among students. Obviously, we have had a decline, which we hope to combat over the next period of time.
DA: What strategies does the University have to address the mental health challenges facing students on campus?
Gee: Well, we have added a number of counselors. We have added what we call Healthy Minds University bringing in psychiatrists. We have been training our students and our Student Life staff to be much more aware of these kinds of problems. We're working very directly with students.
In the end, mental health issues are something that is generally identified by those who you're around, not necessarily by the moment or by someone like me seeing you in one moment.
The full interview with President Gee can be heard on U92 The Moose 3-4 p.m. on Feb. 14 during the station’s “Pledge your love to the Moose Marathon.” Tune in to 91.7 FM or listen online at u92themoose.com.