At first glance, it might seem obvious that college and university presidents should make students their top priority. That has never been more true than today, with the cost of higher education spiraling upward and graduates who have enormous debts accompanied by uncertainty over whether they can find jobs.
But major universities are exceedingly complex. Consider West Virginia University, our state's flagship institution of higher learning. In addition to that role, it also is the premier research center in the state and a key health care provider. WVU officials must balance a variety of roles ranging from the university Extension Service to a network of experimental farms and forests.
E. Gordon Gee was aware of all that when he came back to West Virginia to become president of WVU after a stint at Ohio State. The Mountain State appeals to him in part because he previously served as WVU's president from 1981-85.
Gee is quite popular, in large measure because his career has shown him to be one of the most innovative, energetic, capable higher education leaders in the nation.
But he is becoming well-liked among the WVU student body because of his philosophy, which he outlined in a recent interview.
Students are among Gee's top priorities. "We have to understand that without their success, without this place being affordable and available to them, without them finding an intellectual, social and cultural atmosphere that is really helpful to them, we will not be successful," he said.
It would be difficult to find a better one-sentence summation of what WVU needs to mean to West Virginians.
Gee's strategy is two-pronged: He wants to ensure a WVU education is valuable in terms of what students want and need. He also wants to hold down the cost of higher education.
That is easier said than done. Consider this: Of the $18,375 estimated cost of attending WVU as an undergraduate for one year, only $6,456 is for tuition and fees. The rest is for room and board, books, transportation and personal expenses. Trimming the total cost of a year at WVU by 10 percent would require slashing tuition and fees by 28.5 percent.
Clearly, Gee has his work cut out for him. But he has some aces up his sleeve, including better use of technology.
Gee certainly has the right idea. As he pursues it, West Virginians young and old will be cheering him on.