David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Beware the Thundering Heard from West Virginia

June 5, 2014 (Or, What Is It In The Mountain Air?)

Some blogs write themselves.  Some blogs stumble, stagnate, and stubbornly refuse to be written, bogged down by the absurdity of the topic.  I suspect this blog falls somewhere in between.

On the one hand, two university presidents announced this week a commitment to work together to “improve public higher education” in their state.  My goodness!  Collaboration between universities?  It’s a dream come true, a moment for me to cast aside my helm of cynicism and soak in a new world order.

On the other hand, the two universities are West Virginia University and Marshall University.  Their presidents claim that the only rivalry they want to have “will be in athletics,” but for alumni of both schools that may not be enough.  Mountaineers have lived for years with the healthy belief that Marshall was the state’s junior college, a trade school.  The Thundering Herd (snicker, snicker) have lived for years with the unhealthy belief that WVU was . . .  (well, who knows what they think, and, honestly, do I care?). . . Oh, that’s right, that WVU was arrogant.

Do I cry or do I rejoice?  I am at a loss.  Perhaps, I need to look at this from a different perspective.

A second angle shines a light on the Gee effect.

On the one hand, I have lived in fear of the first public faux pas that Dr. Gee would make as (returned) WVU President.  While he was Ohio State’s President, I found numerous occasions to mock his leadership—the Jim Tressel fiasco a classic example.

So, who would have guessed that his first faux pas would be to extend an olive branch to Marshall?  Good Lord, that is up there with his crack about the Catholics running Notre Dame.  Certainly he learned at Ohio State that there were certain schools beneath his contempt, such as . . . (well, such as, EVERY other school in the nation).

On the other hand, as a state, West Virginia could use some leadership that makes higher education more accessible, affordable and adaptable for its citizens.  If Gee and Marshall President, Stephen Kopp, really can create some kind of “new” higher education landscape in the state, it would do wonders for the people and the economy. 

Do I sing or do I moan?  I am confused.  Perhaps, I need to look at this from a third perspective.

In the long run, there is a classic “big talk” angle.

On the one hand, the two presidents may have all of the best intentions, but the key phrase in the short article announcing this joint venture is “to work closely together on initiatives during the Legislature's 2015 session.”  Hah!  All of these initiatives will be way-laid by the greatest rivalry ever known to man, the one that transcends WVU/Marshall, or Ohio State/Michigan, or Yankees/Red Sox:  Republicans/Democrats. 

Does anyone really believe that in an approaching era of federal money tied to “ratings” (whatever that will mean), such collaboration will be supported?  Everything on the higher education landscape suggests a more competitive realm, as we all chase the federal dollars we need to offset our rising costs and shrinking high school populations (potential tuition revenue).  Both Gee and Kopp are likely to have moved beyond their current presidencies well before we have figured out a way to reward partnerships such as this one.

On the other hand . . . (well, I guess there is no other hand).  What is the plus side with “big talk?”  Good PR, especially for Gee, as he travels around the state doing what he does best.

I truly didn’t want my cynicism to win out for this blog. However, I am a realist. It’s going to be hard to seal this partnership in front of a big crowd at the next WVU vs. Marshall sporting event.  You can’t do a handshake with your hands tied behind your back.