In my judgment, E. Gordon Gee is the dean of American university presidents. If you had visited West Virginia University (WVU) 40 years ago, Gee would have been president. The same is true if you visited today. But in the four-decade interval, Gordon also headed two other flagship state universities: the University of Colorado and Ohio State (twice!), not to mention two prestigious private institutions, Brown and Vanderbilt. I once jokingly asked Gee (full disclosure: he is a friend) whether Plato was an able administrator of his academy, assuming that Gordon had worked there.
President Gee is a visionary expansionist, the quintessential hustling university president who ably expands resources to extend the institution’s mission. He has cajoled state legislatures and governors for appropriations, grown endowments, and raided other schools for able leadership. I have accused Gee of spending the most money on liquor of any Mormon as he pursues friendships and connections indispensable to expansionist governance.
His wit and charisma are legendary as well. At Vanderbilt, he put athletic operations under the provost, saying “If I tried doing that at Ohio State, I would have ended up pumping gas.” Ohio State, where he served the longest, went from a middling midwestern school to a highly regarded, moderately prosperous, nationally recognized institution during his two tenures.
So, it is big news when President Gee starts sending a different, more sobering message: it is time to downsize, to adjust to new realities of American (and, in his case, West Virginian) collegiate life. Describing not only WVU but also much of American academia, Gee notes that colleges and universities have become overextended, too big and costly for a mission that is shrinking more than it is growing. Most American schools will have fewer students in five years. American population growth, which has persisted for over four centuries, may be ending. Institutions’ hubris, high costs, mediocre outcomes, and ideological fixations inconsistent with American values have lowered public support.
[More from Richard Vedder: “Radical, State-Directed Higher Education Reform … In Ohio?”]
Gee told Inside Higher Ed that “we are evaluating everything—from our operations to our academic programs to our services.” While that is painful, I think it is precisely right. To be sure, the top academic cheerleaders don’t like hearing it. They often feel that higher ed has a near-divine right to whatever resources it needs to maintain the status quo—never mind the fact that economic growth is faltering, national indebtedness is dangerously high, fertility is plummeting, etc. Gee, as shrewd of a political observer as I have seen among university administrators, sees all of this and thinks that we need to adapt to it.
To be sure, West Virginia is different than, say, Florida or Arizona. It is a poor state and has been in relative economic decline for decades. The trajectory is far different for Arizona State’s Michael Crow (another distinctively competent university president) or for the University of Florida’s Ben Sasse (another impressive person, in my judgment) than for Gee. But Gee (and others) should start seeking advice from a successful mutual friend, Purdue’s recently retired president Mitch Daniels, who both expanded the university and fervently attacked rising costs and endemic collegiate inefficiencies.
Where can major savings be found in university budgets? Again, institutions vary dramatically, but here are four areas: First, many colleges and universities are administratively bloated. Some big schools now have 100 or more diversity, equity, and inclusion personnel, compared to essentially zero when I began teaching nearly three score years ago. Administrators, who do no teaching or research, usually outnumber the faculty. Layers of bureaucracy can be removed without impairing core academic functions.
Second, faculty do lots of wasteful things—or they work relatively few hours per year, typically on nine-month contracts. Tenure has some virtues, but it imposes costs that may be excessive in an era of falling enrollments. Teaching loads, until very recently, were trending downward, but much of professors’ newfound time for alleged research results in articles for the Journal of Last Resort that nearly no one reads.
[More from Richard Vedder: “From Tenured Professor to Lumpenproletariat: The State of Higher Ed Faculty in America”]
Third, many schools pay for things that have almost nothing to do with higher learning. Most large universities spend big money on intercollegiate athletics, for example. Those costs can be contained, such as by reducing bloated salaries for coaching staffs and athletic administrators. I think college sports do have a place in the American academic pantheon, but a less costly one. Football coaches should be able to eke out living on a high-six-digit salary rather than seven-digit one.
Fourth, there are monumental inefficiencies in capital expenditures and a waste of human resources. Many buildings are only used for about eight months per year. My building, for example, rarely has more than 20 percent of the offices utilized. Three-year bachelor’s degrees are feasible—they can offer as much instruction as four-year degrees do now, with students learning more than they do now, particularly if schools return to high standards (e.g., by cracking down on grade inflation).
Again, the path to efficiency and reform will vary from school to school. Savings can add up, for example, by reducing travel funding for conferences which could be offered online or eliminated, or by contracting out some non-instructional expenses to private entrepreneurs. Some universities operate their own bus systems, for instance. Is that efficient? In my opinion, universities waste too much money hiring consultants, such as those who assist in hiring. Universities used to conduct their own presidential searches, with results at least as good as we are getting today, as college president tenures continue to shorten.
In less than nine months, E. Gordon Gee will join the ranks (headed by Joe Biden) of octogenarian presidents. Like fine red wine, he improves with age.
Image: Adobe Stock
9 thoughts on “Gee Whiz! WVU Confronts the Real World”
I am so happy to read this article. My daughter just completed two years at WVU and is now transferring back home to attend George Mason University due to changing her major which in only offered at the Beckley campus not in Morgantown. I believe all majors should be available no matter what campus you are attending.
My biggest complaint about WVU was quality of education for the cost and not able to get help needed without being directed to 10 different departments.
I wrote an email to Mr Gee office at the beginning of the 2022 – 23 school and of course was directed to several people who ended up not willing to talk to me as a parent. I had major concerns how things were being handled with a summer course and an academic advisor. My daughter was placed with a new academic advisor but the teaching concern was never addressed.
As a parent of a now former WVU student I am happy to see that the school is under review. The out of state tuition is not worth the value in my personal opinion. My daughter loves WVU and is very sad to leave due to a degree change but I am not sad to see more affordable education cost for the next two years.
WVU will always be a part of our lives but I do believe there is a lot of room for improvement. While this will not help our family I hope that future families will reap te rewards of Dr Gee’s efforts.
Gordon Gee is a special and very talented
university administrator . But, even more significant is the undeniable fact that he is a top level educator who truly cares deeply about the students and their teachers. He has clearly demonstrated that taking care of the prime job of all educational institutions starts with care in selecting both faculty and students. Add to that is his wizardry in raising funds for the university and the equation is pretty! Complete. He is, has been and hopefully will continue to be a great educator and superb university president.
Flabby and useless degrees, issued by our schools is a national disgrace. This ludicrous trend is growing and our country is being harmed. Academic rigor is vanishing and being replaced with social activism which lands these kids back into their mothers basements with plenty of time to shop for the “ riot “ costumes.
The positive change in this is many of the pseudo-intellectual disciplines created out of whole cloth in the last 20 years (e.g., womens’ studies, black studies, grievance studies) will be on the chopping block due to lack of students. This is already happening at my college and I am glad to witness it.
Richard is correct that most schools will see diminishing enrollments. There are fewer 18 years olds. The emphasis on DEI has led to lower admission standards and lower course requirements to admit and then retain targeted groups. Unfortunately many individuals in these groups lack the academic qualifications needed for serious scholarly work. This will further erode the academy particularly in STEM disciplines.
I do hope Richard was not implying all octogenarian presidents improve with age but was restricting that remark to E. Gordon Gee.
As Mr. Vedder notes, E. Gordon Gee was president of West Virginia University forty years ago. There seems to be a pattern here. In 1956 Cecil Underwood was elected the youngest governor in West Virginia’s history. Forty years later he resurfaced and was elected the oldest governor in the state’s history.
“Many buildings are only used for about eight months per year. My building, for example, rarely has more than 20 percent of the offices utilized.”
As someone who has participated in the mad dash known as “summer”, I would caution about presumed inefficiencies of only using buildings for 8 months a year.
First, ever notice how shiny the floors are the first day in the fall? That’s the annual floor cleaning which takes at least two coats of stripper, a rinse, and then at least two (preferably three) coats of wax. Heavy machines known as floor buffers are involved, and this usually takes the entire floor (i.e. classrooms, closets, hallways, bathrooms) out of service for about 5-8 days depending on (a) how good a job they do and (b) how big a crew they have.
And it’s not just looks — it’s necessary to seal the floor, particularly if you are in a place where there is mud and snow being tracked in. And then if you have asbestos floor tiles (less than 12″ square) the last thing you want is them breaking up and distributing asbestos into the air… This isn’t just cosmetics…
Then there is all the non-critical maintenance that the classrooms and offices and such need. Everything from the cracked windowpane to the defective light fixture, stuff that ain’t gonna get done around classes being conducted there.
There are elevators that need to be inspected, along with fire alarms, and fire doors, and fire extinguishers and more. Much more. (Some places still wash exterior windows…)
There is also a lot more that you will never see. All large buildings have water, sewer, and (usually) high voltage electricity. It’s not uncommon for a multistory building to have three-phase 408 volt AC and for smaller buildings to share transformers — so you have to turn off the electricity all day (or longer) in multiple buildings to fix some simple (but absolutely necessary) things.
Many campi have a central steam plant which distributes steam to all the campus buildings where it is used for heat, air conditioning (seriously) and laboratory functions such as the production of distilled water. Increasingly, these are “co-generation” plants where the steam is first run through turbines to generate electricity, and then sent to the various campus buildings — and the specification for these pipes is usually “at least 300 degrees Fahrenheit, but safely able to handle 600 degrees, with the related pressures”)
So you want to shut down the steam in a building — you’ve also got to shut down the steam in all the buildings down beyond it as well. And while you can bring in portable boilers to provide steam to individual buildings, these are expensive and often break down.
Far, FAR cheaper to simply have the buildings empty and not have to worry about any of this. And perhaps by accident, Higher Education has evolved into a situation where all the “heavy” maintenance is done in July & August — June to figure out what will be done this summer, and then July & August to do it.
And Christmas Break — at least in the north — that’s when you do emergency heating repairs, knowing that you can let buildings drop to 40 degrees because no one is in them.
Now you COULD do all of this stuff with classes in session, shutting off hot water, heat, electricity, maybe even water completely — while people are teaching, dragging ladders into classrooms while professors are teaching, etc. It’s not a good idea though.
And that’s why I suggest it is a false economy to say that the buildings are only used 8 months a year….
Perhaps malls, factories, office buildings could offer insight into how maintenance is done without four months shutdowns.
Amazing that buildings of other users exist. Office buildings, hospitals, recreation centers, courthouses, etc. etc. etc manage to exist in decent condition despite the need to operste for 12 months a year. A red herring gaslight article if I have ever read one.
Good points! Add summer camps to that list in terms of building usage over summer. Also, I love the word “campi.”