WVU President Gordon Gee told the campus community in a letter Monday that his energies will remain deep in the heart of Morgantown – even if he has been tapped for an advisory post at a school in Texas that is still in the planning stage.
The leader of the Mountain State’s flagship institution is among 31 marquee names from the worlds of education and the arts now on the board of advisors of the University of Austin, in the Lone Star State’s capital city.
While the private liberal arts institution is currently seeking both accreditation and real estate to build – backers say it is already standing on a firm foundation against what they call an ever-growing climate of censorship on college campuses across the nation.
Gee said he can get behind that mission. It will just be from the seat behind his desk at Stewart Hall.
“First and foremost, let me state unequivocally that I am fully committed to West Virginia University,” he wrote.
“Our mission as a land-grant, flagship institution that serves our state and its people is – and will always be – my only priority,” he continued. “I am devoted to this University and to all of you who share in its past, present and future. I have no intentions of placing my energies elsewhere.”
Serving on the board in Austin, though, he said, means advancing the mission for the school in Morgantown and other schools elsewhere.
“I have never been shy in sharing my thoughts on how higher education can, and must, improve if we are to have a positive impact on people’s lives,” he wrote.
“I have always stated that we need to improve quality while reducing costs, and that we must always be a place of free expression and dialogue.”
Pano Kanelos, who most recently served as president of St. John’s College, resigned that post to become the incoming leader of the school in Austin, he wrote in a letter of his own.
In his letter, the incoming president name-checked colleagues he says have been the targets of out-and-out retribution for ideas and lesson plans running counter to what is perceived as the prevailing norm in the places where students and professors gather.
“On our quads, faculty are being treated like thought criminals,” he said.
University of Austin advisor Dorian Abbot, a research scientist at the University of Chicago, had his invitation to speak at a prominent seminar on climate change revoked because of his views, Kanelos said.
Peter Boghassion and Kathleen Stock, who are founding faculty fellows at the new school, out-and-out resigned their posts at their previous schools for their research and public stands on issues, the new president said.
Boghassion, Kanelos said, was a philosophy professor who regularly clashed with the administration of Portland State University.
And Stock, he said, was literally run off campus at the University of Sussex from disagreements over her work on the politics and particulars of sex and gender.
“So much is broken in America. But higher education might be the most fractured institution of all,” Kanelos penned.
Defending the thesis – from Morgantown
Not so at WVU, Gee said.
“We have also reaffirmed our commitment to create an inclusive, educational environment where there is the space to learn from each other – even those with whom we may fundamentally disagree,” Gee told the university community.
“I have always strongly felt that every campus must be a haven where all ideas can be exchanged freely in a civil and thoughtful manner. This is the very tenant of academic freedom. I have spoken to this point frequently and remain committed to this ideal.”
Along with Gee and the aforementioned, other advisors to the school include former ACLU president Nadine Strossen and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet, along with various other academics and business leaders.
Critics, however, have already charged the University of Austin embodies the very philosophy of thought-tamping it said it doesn’t.
‘Then imagine … being led by that president’
Scott Crichlow, a political science professor at WVU, said the Austin school that is still seeking accreditation and won’t launch its first undergraduate classes until 2024, will be propped up by pillars of bigotry.
“When it comes to those participating in the ‘University’ of Austin grift,” he wrote in a tweet, “let’s not forget that they’re not only fanning the flames of a ‘culture war’ – their actions contribute to putting those who work at and attend universities in all too real physical danger.”
There’s also the idea, he said of a sitting president – Gee is the only one – sitting on such a board.
“Imagine being the president of flagship, R1 (research) university and choosing to be part of ‘unaccredited Racism U.,’” he wrote in another tweet.
“Then imagine being staff, faculty and students at the university led by that president.”