When I was a graduate student at West Virginia University in 2008, many of us were extremely embarrassed of the university.

That was the year a panel rightly decided that WVU had improperly awarded Heather Bresch, the chief operating officer of Mylan Inc, an Executive Masters of Business degree. It turned out that officials had added 22 hours of the needed 48 credit hours to her transcript. 

But while calling the decision to grant her an eMBA in 2007 “seriously flawed,” “defective” and reflecting “poor judgment,” the panel did not find that Bresch’s political connections were behind the degree. Never mind that the founder of Mylan was a major WVU donor, that Bresch was a former lobbying client of then-WVU President Michael S. Garrison or that she is the daughter of then-Gov. Joe Manchin.

My co-workers and I at The Daily Athenaeum heavily covered this. I wrote an editorial, “Garrison, Bresch have tarnished WVU’s reputation,” because every step the administration took to try to justify how it happened was more embarrassing than the one before it.

I thought it was the most embarrassing thing WVU could ever do. They really showed me. WVU administrators heard that and said, “Hold my beer.”

WVU currently has a $45 million budget shortfall. The administration’s response is to cut 32 majors and 169 faculty jobs at the Morgantown campus. 

Now, hold onto your bowties for a minute.

How did WVU get into this mess? No one seems to be sure, but let’s take a look at University President E. Gordon Gee’s career history. 

From 1998 to 2000, Gee was the president of Brown University, and was the second highest paid university chief executive in the country with a purported total compensation package of more than $1.3 million, according to a 2003 article by The Chronicle of Higher Education. 

Students at Brown were distrustful of Gee after he cut the popular residential string quartet at the arts friendly university. Around the same time, he announced plans to sell $80 million in bonds to construct a biomedical sciences building.

After Brown, Gee served as chancellor of Vanderbilt University, where he had a problem with lavish spending. In 2004, Gee was again the second highest paid university head in the U.S. with a salary of more than $1.3 million, and during his tenure more than $6 million — which was never approved by a full board — went into renovating the university-owned mansion where he lived. The university also paid for his frequent parties and a personal chef, which exceeded $700,000 annually.

I may be crazy, but if you’re being paid $1.3 million a year, you should be able to afford your own chef and parties. 

Vanderbilt had a $2.2 billion annual budget, but the full Board of Trust never approved it. The board also didn’t approve most big-ticket spending projects or debt financing between 2000 and 2005. The university was so concerned that the trustees created a special board committee to monitor Gee’s spending. 

In 2007, the bow-tie wearing Gee became the president of Ohio State University. Now, this one here is the one that really got me. It was reported that between 2007 and 2012, “Ohio State has spent more than $64,000 on bow ties, bow tie cookies and O-H and bow tie pins for Gee and others to distribute.”

Sixty. Four. Thousand. Dollars.

Gee announced his retirement on June 4, 2013. 

So imagine my surprise when Gee was named interim president of WVU on Dec. 5, 2013. And I was absolutely shocked when he was named president months later on Feb. 28, 2014.

You might be thinking by now that he had learned to be better with money. But you’d be wrong.

In 2018, the Gazette-Mail reported that Gee spent more than $2.2 million between May 2014 and June 2017 in private air travel that was paid with tuition money. At the time, Gee said using tuition was “perfectly legitimate,” but he told the Gazette-Mail that the university probably will pay future costs out of an account that uses only private donations.

Since 2015, WVU has had a 10% decrease in student enrollment. WVU’s debt has risen more than 50% since 2014, the year Gee was hired, according to a Chronicle of Higher Education analysis. It also found that state appropriations for the university fell nearly 36% from 2013 to 2022. 

In May, Rob Alsop, the university’s vice president for strategic initiatives, said WVU needs to adjust its margin by at least $75 million over the next five to seven years because of a potential enrollment decline of 5,000 students over the next 10 years.

Gee’s main focus as president is to bring money to the university, yet he is refusing to ask the state to help with the $45 million budget shortfall.

Gee told the Washington Post, “If I had gone down and asked for $45 million from the state legislature, they would have thrown me out.” His plan is to make cuts first, then ask the legislature for support. Never mind that the legislature just approved bills to give Marshall University $45 million for a new cyber security program and and $25 million to Pierpont Community and Technical College to build an aviation hangar.

Despite all of this, WVU offered Gee an extension until 2025. He has said he will step down when that extension ends, but he wants a job at the law school. It takes a lot of nerve to make faculty cuts then to say you want a lecturer position.

The fact that WVU is considering cutting its entire foreign language department is short-sighted. Did you know that WVU requires prospective freshmen to have two units of the same foreign language in order to be accepted? So many employers want people who are fluent in multiple languages — it really gives job candidates an upper hand. Suggesting the university replace an entire program with an app? Get out of here. 

Gee may not be the main reason WVU is having money problems, but his history shows that he’s probably at least played some part in it. WVU needs to look closely at his spending and the bonuses he’s been promised before they start cutting faculty and entire programs.

** West Virginia Watch is a nonprofit media source. Articles are shared under creative commons license. Please visit https://westvirginiawatch.com/ for more independent Mountain State news coverage.

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