CHARLESTON, W.Va. — From governors essentially running university board meetings to laws that blocked lucrative federal research funding, the state’s continued efforts to control West Virginia University has hampered the school’s goals, West Virginia’s historian laureate argues.
As state funding has slid from 50 percent of the university’s operating budget in 1970 to 20 percent, the university has been forced to increase tuition and fees and seek more private funding. In tandem, WVU has seen an increasing trend of commercialization — including career-track curricula, straightforward efforts to attract money through research and athletics and the exaltation of science, technology, engineering and mathematics at the expense of humanities disciplines.
That’s the argument Ronald L. Lewis, West Virginia’s historian laureate and a WVU professor emeritus, made in a lecture Sunday concerning his 2013 book “Aspiring to Greatness: West Virginia University Since World War II.” The talk, hosted at the West Virginia Humanities Council headquarters in Charleston, was the third in the council’s 2014 Little Lecture Series.
The “greatness” in his book’s title, is the university’s efforts to achieve its “rightful place” among the country’s great research universities: those with both great scholarship and excellent and accessible education.
“There is also the notion that, of course, there have been innumerable barriers to achieving that greatness,” Lewis said. Many of those barriers are from a lack of independence from the state, he argued.
He said WVU presidents have had to divert time from leading the institution to defending it from micro-managing politicians.
“Historically, no university matter has been too small to be overlooked by one political faction or the other,” Lewis said.
Governors have removed members of the board of governors and put pressure on the university, for instance, to hire more Democrats, he said. And while federal science and technology research funding helped institutions like Ohio State and Penn State “leapfrog” WVU during the Cold War, the university was shut out.