West Virginia University president E. Gordon Gee has long been a well-known figure within the nation’s higher education circles.
He has also a become prominent voice on the media circuit the last few of weeks, providing answer to many of today’s questions, especially for those in the Big 12 Conference, when it comes to the plans for colleges and their athletic departments to try to reopen in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Recently President Gee was a guest on the “MetroNews Statewide Sportsline,” joining myself, Tony Caridi and Brad Howe, to discuss WVU’s strategy this coming fall with the hope to restart in-person classes on campus and hold football games at Mountaineer Field.
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Q – First of all, we have to give you credit for punctuality. Like a good university president, you were right on time.
President Gee – “That’s because I was scared to death to be on the ‘Sportsline’ (chuckles). I had to get my courage up. That noise you hear in the back is Shane Lyons (WVU’s director of athletics) afraid I’m going to say something stupid.”
Q – You shouldn’t be scared of us. You went on with Paul Finebaum (for his SEC Network show), and that’s who you should be nervous about. He can throw knives. We’re vanilla compared to Finebaum.
President Gee – “I’ve known Paul for a long time. I have compromising pictures of him (laughs).”
Q – It’s been a very busy time for you. You’ve been doing a lot of media and answering a lot of questions. There are bunch of different directions we will go with our interview, but let’s begin with this – in the last few days you’re starting to see universities announce that they are going to an expedited fall semester schedule, which end the semester around Thanksgiving. What are your thoughts about that? Is that under consideration at WVU?
President Gee – “It is, and the reason for that is that once we send students off to 55 counties and 50 states and 118 countries, once they come back, they may be carrying a lot of baggage, so to speak. I think it’s one of the things we need to consider.
“Obviously the safety of our students, our faculty and our staff is paramount, but also getting the University open in a way that allows us to provide the really wonderful educational experience that we all expect out of West Virginia is important, and the University is committed to that.
“That includes, of course, the sports programs we are all dedicated to.”
Q – What will it will look like around campus when things do open again? How will that operate?
President Gee – “First, I’m looking forward to that, because then I’ll have a chance to have a prison break. (chuckles) They’ve got me locked down here right now.
“There are going to be differences. A study just came out that showed that if 80 percent of the people would wear masks during this particular time, the coronavirus, COVID-19, would basically just disappear. So that’s one of the things we will need to do on the campus. That will be particularly true with the young people who may not feel vulnerable. Statistics show those below 30 (years of age) may have it but never know it. Very few have died in that age range from the virus. It’s my age-range and above who are most vulnerable. Cleaning resident halls and our buildings will be important. How we are distributing our food will be important. The size of our classes is one thing we will look at. If we put 150 students in a 150-seat class, we’re obviously opening ourselves up to some problems. So, we’re going to look at those class configurations. We’ll keep them smaller and have people sit in a checkerboard pattern.
“Again, we’re doing this out of an abundance of caution, and also the realization that we need to get back to the business we have. As my friend, Rob Alsop (WVU’s vice president), has said to me a couple of times, and that’s the fact we have a hammer and a dance. The hammer is that we as a nation decided we had to shut down. Now we realize we have to dance with this virus, because it’s going to be with us forever, whether we find a vaccine or not. We have to learn to deal with the risk. We almost all take flu shots, but 88,000 people died of the flu this year. We all drive cars, but 55,000 people died in car wrecks. This is the time we have to learn to dance with this disease, so we can control it and it doesn’t control us.”
Q – You also said something on Finebaum that seemed to go right to the heart of the matter. You said, “It’s not IF someone is going to get this coronavirus when we return to campus, but HOW we deal with it.” Is that where the discussions have gone now?
President Gee – “There are two ways to deal with this. If someone gets the coronavirus – and they are, because this is a large institution with 33,000 students and thousands of faculty and staff – the question is what do we do. Do we panic and shut everything down? Or do we isolate and find ways to put people in quarantine and do things I think are very important?
“Remember, we are not just 18- to 22-year-olds. We are also 76-year-old university presidents, we are faculty of many ages, we are staff of many ages. So we have to be very careful. It’s not simply about the young people, but it’s also about how we manage to deal with it for all of us.
“I also think the world of higher education is upside down right now. It will right itself but in a much different way. The things we were thinking about doing 10 years from now have accelerated and we’re doing 10 weeks from now. I’m talking about online classes; I’m talking about hybrid models where you do some online and some in-person. I’m even talking about the ways we conduct our business. Many people are discovering that they are much more effective working from home. I hope people don’t discover that about me (chuckles). There are so many different things this has taught us that we need to take to heart for the University to thrive.”
Q – Dr. Gee, in terms of collegiate sports, the NCAA has recently announced that starting June 1 it is going to allow football and men’s and women’s basketball to start voluntary workouts on campus. What are thoughts on that? (Editor’s Note – Shortly after this interview, the Big 12 announced that on-campus workouts for football teams could restart on June 15.)
President Gee – “I don’t want to rush into anything. Dr. (Clay) Marsh is in charge of the coronavirus in the state – he’s not spreading it, (chuckles) he’s in charge of it – and of course, he is our vice president (for WVU health sciences) and I consult with him and our other fine health folks regularly.
“The debate (on restarting voluntary workouts) among Big 12 presidents is whether we do it June 1 or do it June 15 or do it July 1. We know this, if we are going to play football in the fall – which we are – then sort of the latest we can open up to our student-athletes is about July 15. So, anywhere between those. I think I would compromise and bring our student-athletes in around June 15. Again, Shane Lyons and his team are going to make that call.”
Q – On a typical day, how is the communication among Big 12 presidents and chancellors? How often are you all talking to get a sense and feel with what direction you are going?
President Gee – “There is a tremendous amount of conversation, and we actually meet by Zoom every other week for a couple of hours. Then our athletic directors are meeting all the time, and also as you know, Shane Lyons chairs the (NCAA’s) Division I Football Oversight Committee. So, we’re heavily engaged from a number of levels.
“Fortunately in the Big 12 we have near consensus both among the athletic directors and among the presidents. There may be a little tweaking, but I think every one of our schools is determined to open (to in-person classes this fall) and to play football. Every one of our schools is determined we are going to follow some very strict protocols in terms of the safety of our athletes and fans and others. I sit on the College Football Management Committee right now, and I was on that Zoom call the other day. It seems to me we are all, in terms of the Power 5 schools, fairly close together. As you know, we don’t have a quote/unquote ‘czar’ for college football, and in this instance that might be helpful, because we want to make certain that the 64 or 65 Power 5 institutions are pretty much aligned on how we conduct our sports programs this year.”
Q – This question is hypothetical and hard to answer, but if football returns in the fall, which you seem confident it will in some form or fashion, what is the likelihood that we will see games with some fans in the stands, even if it is not full capacity?
President Gee – “Well, I’ll be there. I’ve always wanted people to play football for just me. (chuckles)
“I’ve noticed where Texas has said they are going to 30 or 40 percent (capacity). We have to think about that. We’ve been very effect in this state, starting with our governor and our leaders and certainly the University’s health system, with flattening the curve. The coronavirus optics around us are very red states and we’re light pink. So, we’ve started off with a relative advantage in terms of the virus. Secondly, our stadium is configured in a very good way. We are cheek to jowl, but it’s not like Ohio Stadium, where I was for a very long time (as president of Ohio State from 1990-98 and 2007-13). Fans there were really on top of one another, and they don’t have the type of openness we enjoy (at Mountaineer Field).
“I will say, this is stepping to the side, that it would be nice to make masks cool, so people can understand that they can watch football from the stands if they use commonsense.
“I don’t know how it will be configured, but hopefully we’ll have at least some fan support and be able to allow a certain number of fans in, if not all of them. I just don’t know right now.”
Q – This is also sort of an unknown, but it seems the best-case scenario is that both the University and its athletic department are going to take an economic hit this year. Are both able to sustain this?
President Gee – “As you know, football is the golden goose. Our basketball programs are self-supporting, but football supports the Olympic sports and we think that’s important. We are one of the few athletic departments that is completely self-supporting. By that I mean that we receive no money from state resources and no money from university resources.
“Shane Lyons has been very adept at moving swiftly to make sure we do not run into tremendously difficult financial problems. As you noticed, we have furloughed (one-third of athletic department employees), a number of our people are taking salary reductions, and we’re doing a number of things to sustain ourselves.
“We’re very fortunate to be in the Big 12, which I think has the second or third largest payout of any of the conferences. We’re grateful of that. We want to be on television and make sure our television contracts are met.
“We are all going to take an economic hit. The University is going to take a significant economic hit. We don’t quite know what it will be yet, but we know it is coming, and we’re planning. That’s why we furloughed 900 people (from the general University staff). It’s not because I wanted to or anyone wanted to. We needed to insure we could start up in the fall and bring people back in a way to sustain the economics of the University.”
Q – Last question for you, Jack Swarbrick, Notre Dame’s athletic director, said recently, “We’re going to lose institutions. We’ll have a number of them that won’t be involved in college education in three or four years.” He’s not talking college athletics but college education. Big picture, do you think we’re going to see academic institutions start to shutter?
President Gee – “I think that’s the sad reality of where we are right now. About seven years ago, I chaired a commission for the American Council of Education on the future of the American university, which included everyone – public and private, small and large. At that time it became readily apparent to me after seeing all the data that the small tuition-drive institutions, both public and private, were facing serious challenges.
“The estimate now is there could be up to 1,000 institutions (out of the 5,300 currently operating in the U.S.) that will not survive this period. They won’t all close down at once, but I think that Jack is right, over the next two to three to four years, their models just are not sustainable. Their numbers will suffer, because as you know, we have a demographic problem and then secondly, many institutions, particularly the privates, have outcharged themselves. They have raised their tuitions to the point where parents and families cannot sustain that. That is sad, because the strength of the American higher education system is its diversity. You have a lot of choices in terms of public and private, large and small, Mormon and Catholic. When we start to diminish that, when we start to become more like a federal system, we lose a lot of our ability to become competitive on the international stage.”