There was nothing new in the disparate State of the University addresses given by WVU’s President Gordon Gee and by the West Virginia United Students’ Union on Monday. The stark division between the two outlooks made one thing clear: West Virginia University has badly damaged — if not completely broken — the trust of its students, faculty and staff, as well as the trust of the wider community and alumni.
Trust is a fragile thing. While it can be built fairly easily, it is harder to maintain and extremely difficult to rebuild once broken.
No matter how many times the university justifies its actions and its timeline, its protestations don’t change the fact that those who are most directly impacted feel ignored and betrayed. It doesn’t change the fact they feel blindsided and perhaps gaslit.
One thing that has come up over and over again is that, nationally, the public’s confidence (i.e., trust) in public institutions — including higher education — is declining. That may very well be true. But the students, faculty and staff who are already part of an institution of higher education trust it: Students wouldn’t attend a university if they didn’t trust it to provide the education they need; faculty wouldn’t teach there if they didn’t have faith in its mission; staff wouldn’t work there if they didn’t trust it to provide a safe and stable work environment.
The students, faculty and staff at WVU — even university alumni — have made it clear that this specific institution that they trusted enough to be part of has broken their trust. And they are understandably grieving that loss.
In his State of the University address, Gee reiterated that the university community needs to band together to move forward: “If we have the will, we can become the modern land grant university that our state and country needs. It will take all of us, individually and collectively. … You must decide if you believe in the future of West Virginia University.”
When asked how he would get the community to rally around the administration’s vision, Gee responded, “We all have to recommit ourselves to the university.”
It would be a mistake to put the onus on those who feel betrayed to “recommit” themselves to the very entity by which they feel betrayed. That is a demand for renewed loyalty without any effort to repair the damaged relationship.
Without some kind of olive branch offered by the university, the very people who are the university — the students, the educators, the researchers and the staff that keep it all running — may choose to turn their backs on the whole enterprise.
WVU cannot rekindle national confidence in higher education if it cannot regain — and maintain — the confidence of its own community.