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It’s been three years since WVU set about forming a new culture. What’s changed? Everything.


I

n 2014, West Virginia University was struggling with an identity crisis. Rioting following a big football win caused thousands of dollars in damages to city property and resulted in numerous arrests and several expulsions. More than a dozen fraternity pledges were cited for underage drinking during an off-campus hazing incident. And later that fall, a student died as a result of alcohol poisoning.

WVU is not alone in facing the collision of independence, youth and temptation on college campuses. But it led its leaders to consider these questions: Who are we as an institution? Do the headlines truly reflect the faculty, staff and students of WVU? And can we change our culture?

At the time, President E. Gordon Gee said: “I am optimistic that this institution — and our students — will rise to the call and address the issues at hand. It is a culture that needs to be changed.”

So what’s changed? Almost everything.

Students First

It all started with some honest talks, beginning with the students. 

Greek leaders came to the table to discuss local and national events and tragedies, including sexual assaults, alcohol and drug abuse and hazing incidents. They discussed perceptions of fraternities and sororities, expectations for members and goals for their organizations.

In the end, they acknowledged that it was up to them to be leaders of that transformation. So they got to work. 

Fraternities now require stricter intake criteria for new and current members — grade point averages and leadership activities among them (sororities already had those in place). Fall recruitment was moved back six weeks to allow for a smoother transition to academic life, and freshmen recruitment for the 2016–17 recruitment year and beyond was deferred until spring semester. Social activities were limited, and more service and philanthropic events are being held. 

In addition, chapter bylaws have been strengthened and more educational programming related to sexual assault prevention, as well as alcohol and drug abuse is being held. There also is a greater emphasis being placed on scholarship, and more information about the positive aspects of Greek life is being shared.

WVU reorganized Greek life to report to the dean of students, and a director of Greek life was hired to ensure a safe and positive environment for the Greek community and promote academic success.

Welcome Week service

A barrage of new Welcome Week activities have been implemented at WVU including service, adventure trips and orientation. Photo by M.G. Ellis.


WVU also established a medical amnesty policy that encourages students and student organizations to seek prompt medical assistance for friends and classmates facing serious life-threatening situations that may have resulted from alcohol or drug poisoning. Students who call for help won’t be subject to a student conduct hearing if they stay with the affected person until help arrives, identify themselves and cooperate by providing relevant information to responders. 

WVU’s new director of student conduct, Stacy Vander Velde, said the policy is meant to save lives — and it has. Over the past year or so, more than 20 cases have gone through the medical amnesty process. 

“We are being more intentional in our interventions,” she said. “Yes, the accountability piece is key, but we don’t want to just give them their punishment — we truly want to help them be safer and more responsible.” 

And because every student brings a different set of circumstances to a misconduct situation, the staff has broadened the disciplinary options — and found that by involving the individual in the decision-making process, they are more likely to follow through. The new approach has helped facilitate many more resolutions to student conduct issues, decreasing the number of hearings from approximately 70 a year to 20.

Another step forward in improving the campus culture is an agreement between WVU and the City of Morgantown that allows University Police to patrol an area of town that borders downtown and is home to some 22 fraternity and sorority houses. This community policing model is building stronger relations with the Greek community and helping ensure a safer environment for those living there, according to University Police Chief Bob Roberts.

And while there has been no significant change in DUIs or binge drinking (rates of binge drinking hover around the national average), Roberts reports that campus public intoxication statistics are down considerably along with underage drinking offenses and arrests. 

Morgantown Police Chief Ed Preston also reported a decrease in related offenses within the city limits, which surround WVU’s campus. While calls for service were up due to the hiring of five additional police officers, the number of citations issued declined by 16 percent, arrests were down by 22 percent and underage consumption citations were down by 30 percent.

“That’s moving in the right direction,” Preston said.

Roberts and Student Life officials credit increased alcohol education efforts for some of that movement. The University also offers safe, non-alcoholic alternatives to the party scene such as WVUpAll Night activities on weekends.

In addition, an AlcoholEdu course for new students is mandatory, and officials are having frank discussions with freshmen at New Student Orientation and during Freshman Seminar about the consequences of excessive drug and alcohol use.

Joseph Carbone, a senior sport and exercise psychology major from Yorktown Heights, N.Y., said he has noticed a shift in students’ attitudes and behaviors from his freshman year. As a former vice president of the Residence Hall Association and a resident assistant for almost two years, he had a front-row seat to the riotous behavior that occurred in fall 2014. 

“I believe those incidents led to the start of an important turning point in student attitude and behavior,” Carbone said. 

Blurry Peeps 2

Photo by Raymond Thompson Jr.


He saw students doing better and calling their peers to do better. And he witnessed the effects of moving fraternity and sorority rush back six weeks. 

“What a difference that made in the residence halls,” he said. “It gave students, particularly freshmen, a chance to settle in and concentrate on their classwork — rather than some of the social aspects of Greek life.

“I see students who are more serious about their studies and their future careers,” he added. 

In addition to his involvement in residence hall life, Carbone is president of the Sport and Exercise Psychology Club, student manager of the varsity baseball team and a teaching assistant with the Office of Service Learning. He has also studied abroad and is a former ambassador with New Student Orientation. He wants a career in Major League Baseball someday. 

“All these experiences have broadened my horizons, helped me budget my time and given me tremendous experiences as a leader. I see so many other students taking advantage of all there is to offer here, too. There are some incredible stories. That is one thing the University should continue to do — lift up these student success stories in order to attract more high-level students. Let us be the face of the change that’s happening at our University.” 

Dean of Students Corey Farris agrees. 

“Our students are embracing the opportunity to rehabilitate the campus climate and be better citizens,” he said. “But we all know culture change doesn’t happen overnight. However, with the students’ peer-to-peer ideas and solutions and a more concerted effort by WVU and the community, we’ve noticed a significant improvement in attitude and unfortunate incidents — as well as less negative media coverage.” 

“It is a philosophy that our President, Gordon Gee, likes to call ‘work smart, play smart.’ In other words, have fun, but be responsible. The bottom line is we’re seeing a stronger and more positive student body and campus/community climate.”

Hitting the Books

The cultural changes have helped create a stronger, more prepared academic class. This fall, the University welcomed its largest and most academically talented freshman class. Just over 5,240 first-day, first-time freshmen are sporting 3.56 grade point averages. Those who took the SAT had an average score of 1054 — an increase of 15 points over the previous year.

Included in those numbers is the largest Honors College class in history, with 906 students — or 18 percent of the Class of 2021. That is more than ever before, said Ken Blemings, dean of the Honors College, despite raising academic standards from a 3.5 grade point average to a 3.7 and from a 25 ACT score to a 26. 

Once on campus, all students can choose from Living-Learning Communities in the residence halls — the premise being that learning doesn’t stop when you leave the classroom. The possibilities are vast — from academic areas like engineering and the arts to safe, comfortable environments for first-generation students and those seeking gender-inclusive environments.

“These are students who are dreaming big,” said Provost Joyce McConnell. “They want to become neurosurgeons and biomedical engineers...they want to discover new planets and stars. They want to do extraordinary things with their lives. It is very exciting to meet and talk with them.”

After School

If you add all the hours in a week, you have 168. If students are in class 18 hours a week, what do they do with the remaining 150 hours? Enter WVU’s Project 168.

“Project 168 is a roadmap to maximize those four years from entering the University to graduation,” McConnell said. “It’s about using one’s time and talents to reach your goals.” 

WVU has always had many ways to learn and form character outside of class. Within the Project 168 framework, those opportunities and programs work together. Students can choose from student organizations, club sports, study abroad opportunities and internships that truly fit their career path.  

There is also the LaunchLab, where students are mentored in starting their own businesses. 

The LaunchLab is part of a centralized, collaborative approach to broaden the entrepreneurial mindset across disciplinary lines, said Mindy Walls, assistant vice president for entrepreneurship and innovation. 

“We call the overall approach IDEA — or Innovation, Design and Entrepreneurship Applied — because it offers multiple resources for students, faculty, staff and the community to think, learn and succeed creatively,” she said. Those pathways are possible through the Brickstreet Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, the Media Innovation Center, the Health Sciences Innovation Center, courses taught by the IDEA faculty fellows and the College of Law Legal Clinics.

Launch Lab

IDEA Faculty Fellows meet and students use resources in the LaunchLab at Evansdale Crossing. Photo by M.G. Ellis.


It goes along with a philosophy of encouraging promising undergraduate students to engage in research with top-notch faculty. Michelle Richards-Babb directs the new Office of Undergraduate Research, established in fall 2015. 

In the spring of 2016, WVU was named a university with highest research activity classification — or R1 — by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Learning, a rank shared by only 114 other universities, including Yale, Duke and Johns Hopkins.

Richards-Babb is quick to point out that undergraduate research covers all the bases from science, engineering and math topics to the diversity of dialects in West Virginia, to the effects of dietary counseling on weight management.

Undergraduates are encouraged to participate in research. And for Honors students, participating in undergraduate research is part of the program. 

More than 100 students presented posters at the 2017 Summer Undergraduate Research Symposium on campus, and 40 others represented WVU at Undergraduate Research Day at the Capitol. Others are carrying out research in the competitive National Institute of Standards and Technology Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program and presenting at national and regional conferences. 

A new Undergraduate Research Club also brings research-minded undergrads together to share their experiences and introduce others to the benefits of pursuing solutions and discoveries. 

Aside from the personal successes of students who are more prepared for careers, there’s a payoff from these changes in retention. WVU saw a 1 percent uptick in retention over each of the last two years — considered in the educational community as a “very positive outcome.” 

“Of course a 2-percent increase in the retention rate is not enough (it now stands around 80 percent) but as an initial effort, we count this as a real success story,” McConnell said. 

Behind the Scenes

Anyone in corporate America knows that when you want to change how an organization operates, you start with the team. 

Last spring the campus community came together to create a new mission, vision and values statement that embodies the direction the University is now taking. The statement can be found at about.wvu.edu/mission.

“What we created together will inspire the University community to re-imagine the future for years to come while remaining true to the institution’s time-honored traditions and purpose,” said President Gee. 

Gee Welcome Week   

Move-in help from President Gee and his merry band of volunteers. Photo by M.G. Ellis.


This vision has brought a renewed spirit of cooperation and growth among leaders at the divisional campuses, WVU Medicine, Athletics, the Alumni Association and the WVU Foundation.

At the WVU Alumni Association, President and CEO Sean Frisbee has introduced Pioneer Sessions — an opportunity for current students to learn from the professional experiences of successful alumni and prepare for their own careers. Topics range from “How to Build a Network” to “The Job Search: How to Stand Out.”  

“We are continually looking for successful alumni to volunteer their time to our ‘Got 30’ series,” Frisbee said, noting that this is an opportunity for a student to spend 30 minutes with an alumnus in their field for career advice, résumé building or networking.

WVU Connect is another way the Alumni Association is making connections. The program includes a jobs board, a list of alumni willing to help and important University news. 

‘One WVU’ Becomes A Rallying Cry

WVU is thinking beyond campus when it comes to creating change. And when it comes to outreach, there is one effort that stands above the rest. After devastating floods tore through several southern West Virginia counties in June 2016, WVU students and the Center for Service and Learning were among the first to step in.

Students set up and managed collection sites, loaded donations and drove vehicles to areas in need. The football team collected much-needed water, while the basketball team volunteered at a food bank. Journalism students helped a high school rebuild its award-winning journalism program with cameras, memory cards, equipment and training sessions. And a pharmacy student even wrote and produced a song to aid flood victims.  

In fall 2016, WVU opened a new Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer inclusive Center that offers a welcoming physical space on campus and also sends a clear and positive message of inclusivity to the entire community. And as some international students faced visa challenges this spring with changes in U.S. government policy, University officials worked with the students to understand policies and offer advice. 

Monday Night Lights Photo by Brian Persinger

That spirit of engagement and cooperation is also the focus of a new collaborative effort called West Virginia Forward. This partnership between WVU, the State’s Department of Commerce and Marshall University will identify new business opportunities for West Virginia, as well as strengthen the current opportunities.

According to State Commerce officials, West Virginia has many robust industries that can afford to grow — aerospace maintenance, automotive parts manufacturing, metals manufacturing and higher-end tourism among them. New business sectors also exist where the state could potentially benefit — cybersecurity, cloud services and data centers are possibilities. A summary of findings, as well as next steps, can be found at wvforward.wvu.edu.

“The summary is only as valuable as the action we take,” President Gee told state business leaders at their annual meeting in August. “We are committed to moving these efforts forward with leaders across West Virginia in the coming months and years.”

Although there is still progress to be made, Gee said that everyone working together has allowed the University to create a culture of accountability and celebration of successes. “We are one University working tirelessly on behalf of all 1.8 million West Virginians,” he added. “It is a spirit called One WVU.” 

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