Cabell County leadership … yikes!

Government officials have a difficult job, particularly in the era of COVID-19.  Even matters which are only tangentially related to public health need consideration before decisions are made.  In their best decisions, most public officials will still upset at least a third of their constituents.  That’s the nature of politics in most places, let alone a nation with such a variety of views and opinions.  With that stated, some of the decision making in Cabell County lately has been frustrating.  

The Huntington City Council Drama 

Let’s start with the July 22nd meeting of the Huntington City Council to fill a vacancy on the council.  Some really fantastic local reporting by McKenna Horsley at the Herald-Dispatch details a strange incident where members of the council were actively being lobbied on which person they should select to replace outgoing Jennifer Wheeler.   

House of Delegates member Daniel Linville (R-16) and Marshall University Board of Governors member Chris Miller both texted Huntington City Council Chairman Mike Shockley to inform him that Brad Smith (former Intuit CEO and major Marshall University benefactor) liked Jim Rorrer for that open seat on the council.  Linville and Miller worked the texting lines to other members on the council, actively pushing for Rorrer.  

Perhaps the most concerning text came from political strategist Michael Dillon (who apparently worked for Rorrer) to Shockley, stating, “Dude. Rorrer is the key for you to have your own slate of votes. What are you doing? … And backing of Miller and Brad smith for your future endeavors.”  It doesn’t amount to anything illegal or a quid pro quo of some kind, but an implication is there that Shockley should pick Rorrer if to benefit his own political career.

Also intriguing is that Dale Anderson, another council member, stated he didn’t do much texting, but did communicate with Miller via Signal App, which allows users to send encrypted messages which permanently delete after a set time.  He did not remember specifically what he and Miller discussed.

For his part, Brad Smith stated he had not supported anyone for the City Council’s vacancy, nor was he aware there was a vacancy.  He also expressed disappointment that his name was being used to make any such implications.

Miller defended his lobbying of the members of the City Council, claiming he was tired of ‘sitting on the sidelines.’  While I can appreciate the notion of wanting to become engaged in politics and push for your preferred candidate to fill a vacancy, I think lobbying members of City Council during a meeting goes beyond jumping in the game.  Moreover, name-dropping Brad Smith (who seems to want no part of this matter) to add pressure on multiple council members doesn’t seem very like a civic duty.  It’s more along the lines of putting your finger in the scales.  I also don’t understand Miller’s sentiment about ‘sitting on the sidelines,’ as if he has been doing that.  To say he’s politically active is more than fair.  He sits on Marshall University’s Board of Governors, which is a political appointment from the governor.  He donates to numerous political candidates for many different races (including $1,500 to Linville and more than $30,000 in total to different candidates).  His mother is a member of the United States House of Representatives.  His Facebook post explaining his actions reads like a man who’s running for office himself.  

Delegate Linville attempted to explain away his texts, noting, “Anytime that you’re making a … decision that you want to have the best information, you know, possible and available.”  So, what’s the best information in this situation?  Telling council members that Brad Smith wanted a particular person?  Smith doesn’t seem to care.  Linville further leaned into that explanation, stating, “… if Mr. [Brad] Smith, you know, made a recommendation to me of someone for something … I would take that quite seriously and do my own due diligence, but I would take that quite seriously because, you know, he clearly has an eye for talent.”   

Why do these council members care about Brad Smith’s not real recommendation?  Why are Linville, Miller, and Dillon pushing the issue?  It’s pretty clear Dillon, as a political strategist, believed it could help his client.  Linville and Miller?  I don’t know.  Did they think Smith would somehow be pleased with them?  Would he donate to their future political endeavors?  Would he donate to the city?  More money to Marshall University?   Did they simply want to influence who sat on the City Council?  

Cabell County Schools and masks

Let’s fast forward to an August 19th meeting of the Cabell County Board of Education.  The administration for the Board started the year with a policy of masks being recommended, but not required.  Initially, this policy was well received and seen as somewhat of a relief.  However, the increasing number of positive COVID cases in Cabell County and appeals from medical professionals prompted an emergency meeting of the Board to reconsider the matter.  

During the meeting, dozens of local citizens and health care professionals spoke about their feelings regarding a potential change to the mask-optional policy.  The five members of the Board had a difficult decision to make.  Health care professionals implored the Board to mandate masks for students and all employees.  The parents at the meeting mostly advocated for the mask only policy.  I don’t think I would have faulted the Board for their decision either way, but my complaint is more about the process of the decision making.

Interestingly, Delegate John Mandt (R-16) showed up as one of the ‘delegations to be heard.’  Why was he at the meeting?  I suppose he took on the mantra of a politician never letting a crisis go to waste.  He took a few moments to speak his mind how he believed mask mandates were unconstitutional, pandering to a swath of his voting base.  

If you were not aware, Mandt is leaving the House of Delegates and running for Cabell County Commissioner.  (My theory on this move is that Mandt might have some insider information on redistricting in the Cabell County area and realize he might end up in a district against some very popular candidates.  Maybe time for him to try to make a move to a more winnable election.) Most of the people attending the August 19th meeting were part of Mandt’s tribe.  Not a bad way to score some votes.

After an hour of listening to the various delegations, the five Board members had to consider if they would change their decision.  Before they cast a vote, each Board member had an opportunity to make a statement.  This was the moment where the meeting went off the rails.  

When Board member Alyssa Bond spoke, she read a prepared statement, coming down on the side of mask-optional policy.  But, regardless of what side she landed on, a prepared statement says she already made up her mind coming into this meeting and the entire delegation of parents, health care professionals, and other speakers was pro forma, window dressing for the public. 

She was followed up by Skip Parsons, who also voted for the mask-optional policy.  This came to thunderous applause from the audience, particularly as he yelled “Freedom!  I am for freedom!”  Again, I’m not faulting the vote, but I look at this type of action and I see someone influenced by the audience.  

Bond and Parsons were joined by Board President Mary Neely, who constituted the three person majority necessary to continue a mask-optional policy for the school year.  Perhaps I’m wrong about the Board and the decision making process, but as fate would have it, we’re going to have an opportunity to see how that decision making process will play out this week.

Due to the increased COVID-19 infections in Cabell County Schools, along with the number of students who must quarantine as a result of being in proximity to students who tested positive.  As a result, the Cabell County Board of Education’s agenda for this Thursday (September 2nd) includes a piece about reconsideration of the mask policy.  

Rhonda Smalley and the Reverend Chris Shaw were the two votes for a mask mandate and they are unlikely to change that position.  It will be more than interesting to see if any of the three in the majority cracks under the pressure from the health care community.  What might also be interesting to Cabell County citizens is the fact that the school system has a doctor on staff as the chief medical officer, who recommended a mask mandate.  Why are we even paying a six figure salary to a doctor if we don’t have any real intention of listening to this person?  

I truly don’t know if any of the three members in the majority will have it in them to swallow their pride and change their vote on a mask mandate just two weeks into the school year.  A change this quickly would definitely inflame the opinions of a number of citizens, and these folks are likely to turn out again for the meeting Thursday night.  That would be an exercise in leadership, without question.

The Huntington divide continues …

A few months ago, I wrote about the strange shakeup of administrators at Marshall University and the odd timing of it all.  Part of my contention then was that there’s a clash of ideologies between the outgoing Dr. Jerry Gilbert and the Marshall Board of Governors.  But I want to tweak that thought.

I believe that Huntington, and Cabell County as a whole is in the midst of an identity crisis.  Who are we and what do we believe?  Historically, this is a county like many others in West Virginia.  The older generations of this area are white, conservative, and want to preserve the status quo.  But, Huntington is a college town, and it has a younger vibe, a more liberal persona that wants to influence what the city and county are like in the future.  If you live in Huntington, you can feel the influence of the university already.  The real question now is if the liberal vibe will extend to the rest of the county.  It would appear that the conservative camp is equally determined to make its presence felt.  We are seeing this war for Cabell County transpire in some poor leadership decisions from our most important public institutions and it’s not healthy for any of us.  

Regardless of a person’s political leanings, or their feelings on masks, we should all strive for leadership at every level who makes good choices based on what is the right thing to do for the community. We don’t want individuals on Huntington City Council or the Board of Education who are thinking about their political future or not considering the needs and wants of their constituents. Public officials have a difficult task in front of them and the people entrusted them to do a job. Please do that job and not be swayed by big names or the fear of losing a future election because you made an unpopular choice.

Marshall, Interrupted: A brief follow-up

So, my last post pertaining to the exit of Marshall University’s key administrators received more attention than I thought it might.  However, I was pleasantly surprised when Patrick Farrell, Chair of Marshall’s Board of Governors, reached out to ask if I would like to have coffee and discuss the changes coming to Huntington.  Yesterday, I had the opportunity to sit and chat with Farrell for a few hours. I came away with a few conclusions, about him, and the situation at Marshall.

Patrick Farrell is a genuinely nice guy who cares about Marshall University and Huntington

I say this with the caveat that I realize he isn’t perfect (nor are any of us), but in talking to him for a few hours, several things were apparent that led me to this conclusion.  First, at a time when people react, rather than respond, this man took time to discuss complex issues rather than just ignoring a critique.  He stated that my questions about what happened at Marshall held validity and were worth asking.  Farrell freely addressed my concerns, and the only questions he did not answer related to privacy of personnel involved. 

Mr. Farrell currently serves as the Chair of the Marshall Board of Governors

Additionally, Farrell has invested his time, energy, and finances into the Huntington region.  His educational background and resumé demonstrate that he could leave the area and succeed wherever he would go.  Farrell also brought up various issues pertaining to the integrity of the Marshall Creed (I had honestly forgotten the school had one) and appears to have a sincere desire to uphold these values.

Our discussion also revealed that he had not tried to assess who I was based on one article.  It was clear he had taken time to learn as much as he could about who I was coming into this conversation.  (I would swear he’s read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People — and that’s not a critique.)  I know that skeptical individuals might take this as Farrell possibly being complimentary to assuage criticism, but that was not my read on the man.  Farrell cares about doing what’s right. 

If the Board of Governors held an ideological grudge against Gilbert, I am convinced it did not come from Farrell.  He did emphasize that the Board of Governors gave Dr. Gilbert a very positive evaluation in the months leading up to his announcement that he would not seek a contract renewal.  The entirety of the conversation greatly diminished concerns I had about the Board of Governors.

The ideological divide in the Huntington area is more of a generational gap

The exit of Dr. Jerome Gilbert, former Athletic Director Mike Hamrick, and former Provost Dr. Jaime Taylor represents an unfortunate loss for the Marshall community. Though I am convinced that Farrell cares about doing what’s right for Marshall, I would still contend that an ideological divide does exist in the Huntington area, and that may bleed over into the next decision (which will become more apparent in a moment).  To be more specific, I believe the area faces issues connected largely towards a generational gap. 

The Silent Generation and Baby Boomers view the world differently than younger generations, in both social and economic issues.  The Stewart’s Hot Dogs fiasco, the Black Lives Matter march in May of 2020, and the development of an annual Pride Festival in the city would have been unthinkable even a decade ago.  Walk around the city and ask younger adults what they think about universal health care.  Yes, these are generalizations.  I am aware that some people do not neatly fall into these categories.  But the generalizations do demonstrate a pattern and it matters, for the university and the city of Huntington.

The Search Committee Presents an Opportunity

The search for the next President of Marshall University will incorporate a more diverse search committee and transparent process than ever.  The search committee for the next president includes five women in the seven members, racial minorities, a student representative, a retired U.S. Army general, and a range of life experiences. 

The search committee also wants input from students, parents, alumni, staff, faculty, and other community members.  This is an opportunity for the people in this region or individuals with connections to the Marshall community to influence who will be the next president of Marshall University.  The committee’s timeline also scheduled listening sessions during the summer for constituents to voice their ideas and concerns.  No, I don’t expect the committee will make their decisions based only on what the people want, nor should they.  However, when can any of us say that we had a chance to provide input on the president of the school?  I also am curious about what the community will say about their priorities for a new administrator for the area’s central institution.

Unanswered Questions

I mentioned earlier that the only questions Farrell did not answer pertained to privacy matters regarding personnel.  Unfortunately, we will not know the specifics about the departure of Gilbert or Hamrick unless they want to us know.  I suspect they do not, or they would have done so already. 

As human beings, unanswered questions bother us.  Information and answers are more accessible than at any point in history.  Perhaps our society has come to a point where we believe we are entitled to information, and this is problematic.  We must live with the fact that sometimes we are not going to be privy to all the information.

Marshall, Interrupted: Death Does Come in Threes

Marshall University is the second largest institution of higher learning in West Virginia, with a rich tradition dating back to 1837.  The school originated as a private school, and soon transformed to a public school for teacher preparation.  In the early 20th century, Marshall became a college with expansive programs and in 1961, the state granted it with university status.  Since obtaining university status, and particularly in the 21st century, Marshall administration sought to expand its programs and elevate its profile.  

Since 2000, the school constructed or renovated over a dozen new buildings for academics, residence, and athletics.  The Dot Hicks Softball Stadium is a fantastic place to watch a game.  The Hoops Family Field is recently constructed home to the 2021 National Champion Men’s Soccer Team.  The Herd Baseball team finally has a blueprint and land for a long overdue stadium.  The facilities have become an amazing part of campus.

Marshall continually expands its offerings in programs and facilities, including a new physician’s assistant program, a nationally recognized digital forensics program, a flight school in Charleston, and a new school of pharmacy.  The university was elevated to the ‘R2’ status as a research facility, meaning more high level research occurs in Huntington.

Marshall has also more fully embraced traditions involving its namesake, the Chief Justice John Marshall.  Annual celebrations with cake and quoits tournaments are the norm.  The new Rec Center offers first class fitness equipment and programs.  I am genuinely sad that these developments for Marshall occurred after I finished my education there.  It’s a great place for students to learn and become better people.  

Huntington is home to an ever expanding Marshall University

Currently, Dr. Jerome ‘Jerry’ Gilbert occupies the presidency of Marshall University and he deserves some of the credit for recent successes of the school.  Undoubtedly, there are numerous administrators, professors, and financial supporters of the school who deserve credit for the big moves in Huntington.  However, we know if the school didn’t succeed, Gilbert would take the blame.  The success or failure of the school falls at his feet.

Gilbert’s office has not only helped to expand the infrastructure of the school, but also has plans in place to increase the school’s national image, increase enrollment, increase freshmen retention rates, increase graduation rates, integrate the university with local businesses and non-profits, develop more graduate degree programs, and create more job training for the people in this area.  His plans and achievements seem to fall in line with the university’s institutional priorities (published in 2015, prior to Gilbert’s arrival).  

I like the trajectory of Marshall University.  So, it came as a surprise to me that Dr. Gilbert announced in late April that he would not seek to extend his contract as president beyond its current end date of July 2022.  His decision stated that would part with Marshall for “a variety of personal and professional reasons.” 

Dr. Jerome Gilbert has led Marshall during the past five years

On June 4th, we saw another strange announcement, this time from the athletic department.  Athletic Director Mike Hamrick announced he was stepping down from his position and would still serve the university in a fundraising capacity.  This seemed like peculiar decision, considering the school had only recently won the national title in men’s soccer.  Hamrick also (presumably) played a role in bringing the Herd’s new football coach, Charles Huff, to town.  The longtime AD also played a pivotal role in massive development of athletic facilities since his arrival in 2009.  Moreover, someone has to get credit for bringing Men’s Soccer Coach Chris Grassie to Huntington, where Grassie turned the Herd into a national champion in less than five years.

Just four days after Hamrick’s resignation, Dr. Jaime Taylor, school provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, announced his resignation.  He will become the new president at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas.  While this represents a step up for Dr. Taylor’s career, I have to pause at the timing of this development.  Three prominent administrators leave the university within five weeks of one another and these men occupied the three most significant positions at the school. 

Marshall University, in terms of its athletics and academics, is in a good place.  I would hope that people in the Huntington region would want to know what the reasons are for the departure of successful administrators, particularly when Dr. Gilbert cited professional reasons for his decision not to seek a contract extension.  What’s going on in Huntington?

Marshall University’s Board of Governors are displeased with the administration.  Why does the Board of Governors have a problem with a successful administrative team?  

There is a clash of ideologies from Marshall’s Board of Governors and Dr. Gilbert

Key members of the Board of Governors hold conservative beliefs, and three of these individuals have donated directly to Governor Jim Justice’s campaign (this will become more pertinent in a moment), including Chairman Patrick Farrell.  

If you have questions about Dr. Gilbert’s liberal bona fides, he has pursued a number of liberal policies in his tenure, including 

  • Supporting a student led effort to rename Jenkins Hall, the namesake of which served as a general in the Confederate Army during the Civil War and was a slaveowner.  After the Board of Governors voted 9-7 to keep the name in 2019, they unanimously voted to change it in 2020.
  • Targeting racism on campus, endorsing the Black Lives Matter movement, and encouraging students to engage in programs such as a voluntary book study of Just Mercy.
  • Influencing the end of Stewart’s Hot Dogs contract as a food vendor at Marshall football games, after Stewart’s owner and legislator John Mandt (R) made negative comments about Muslims and homosexuals.  
  • An outspoken stance opposing bills in the state legislature that would have permitted the carrying of firearms on college campuses.

The tenuous relationship between Gilbert and the Board of Governors reached a new level of strain this winter, when the president and the athletic director made a bilateral decision regarding the head football coach, the crown jewel position of Marshall University.  The Huntington Herald-Dispatch reported in January of this year that Chairman of the Board of Governors, Patrick Ferrell, lamented the decision not to renew Doc Holliday’s (former Marshall football coach) contract, saying, “The Marshall president made this decision after consulting with Mike Hamrick.”  Ferrell also noted that Gilbert informed the Board of his decision, but the Board had no say in the matter.  

Speculation from a number of Huntington natives believed the more conservative crowd from the Board of Governors (and Governor Justice) wanted Brad Lambert (defensive coordinator under Holliday) to land the vacant head coaching position.  Regardless of who they wanted for the position, it seems clear they were not thrilled about being kept out of the loop.

There’s a serious disconnect between Governor Jim Justice and Dr. Gilbert

The nature of the relationship between these two hit a strange snag in 2017, when allegations surfaced that the governor was attempting to meddle in the affairs of Marshall’s football program.  According to The Charleston Gazette-Mail, the governor sought to have then head coach Doc Holliday fired and replaced with his old friend (and former head coach) Bob Pruett.

At one point, Justice stated he did meet with five members of the school’s Board of Governors, but claims he did nothing to pressure them to do fire Holliday.  The report was so bizarre, it drew the ire of The Washington Post.  After Marshall had a difficult 3-9 season, Justice’s chief of staff, Nick Casey stated, “It was not a meeting to say, ‘Fire the coach and hire Pruett,’ … “It was a meeting to say, ‘Ratchet up your game and do something to get yourself back to greatness.’ ”

The sports angle encompassed a significant portion of Justice’s complaints, but the governor also pontificated about stagnant enrollment at Marshall and wondered aloud why the number of students in Huntington had not increased in the same manner as West Virginia University.  (Maybe someone should tell him that it’s cheaper for New Jersey citizens to pay out of state tuition at WVU than in-state tuition at their public schools.)

A serious instance of the beef between Justice and Gilbert surfaced in February of this year, as the Marshall president told members of the state legislature that he had been asked to stay quiet about the budget shortfall for the year that would have impacted the Promise Scholarship program.  This was prior to the 2020 Elections, which could have negatively affected Justice’s chances at re-election.  Moreover, both Marshall and West Virginia University had expressed frustration at the state’s failure to send payments totaling approximately $5.65 million.

It’s also worth noting that Jim Justice, as governor, has the responsibility to appoint the members of Marshall University’s Board of Governors.  I’m sure that Big Jim did not appreciate having budgetary problems aired in front of the state legislature, let alone the entire state.  

West Virginia puts the squeeze on higher education 

West Virginia’s government has slowly, but steadily reduced its commitment of tax dollars to higher education, and of course, this includes Marshall University.  As recently as Fiscal Year 2013, the state appropriated $54 million to Marshall, but for Fiscal Year 2020, that figure dwindled to $44 million.

With the reduction in state funds, difficult budget decisions must be made, and often this means reducing salaries, changing job descriptions, and more notably, raising costs of tuition and housing.  It is no secret that rising costs in higher education is an issue across the nation, but the lack of any effort from the state to correct this problem might have been too much for Gilbert to continue fighting.  

West Virginia appropriations to Marshall University trends downward

West Virginia also has a peculiar attitude towards higher education.  Currently, only 20.6% of West Virginians hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, which is well below the national average of 32.1%.  Do people here shun higher education?  To some degree, yes.  Many West Virginians hold a perception that individuals with higher education believe they are better than those without an education.  It’s as if those highly educated folks sit up in their ivory towers and have no idea what normal West Virginians experience.  And those without higher education sit in judgement of their fellow citizens, questioning their expertise and usefulness.  (Side note:  In case you’re wondering, West Virginia ranks lowest in percentage of citizens with a bachelor’s degree in the United States, and this includes Puerto Rico.)

The lack of higher education is somewhat attributed to the fact that many young college graduates leave the state.  However, I believe the disregard for higher education and expertise among the citizens bleeds into the government, as well.  For instance, here in West Virginia, I marveled at the 2018 Republican Primary (for the 3rd District House seat) when candidate Conrad Lucas was criticized for earning a degree from Harvard University (read about it here).  Lucas’ opponents clearly understood that criticism would resonate with Republican primary voters.

Maybe Dr. Gilbert, Dr. Taylor, and Hamrick grew tired of fighting against the legislature, the governor, the school’s board, and a state that didn’t appreciate them.  Did their ideological views always represent the majority of West Virginians?  No.  But this is no reason to discard a team that has a positive net effect.

What now?  

With Gilbert’s contract expiring in 13 months, and the two other positions lacking a permanent replacement, one has to wonder what the future of Marshall University will be and, what is the Board of Governors doing to remedy the situation?  How will we attract quality administrators to these positions if they lack the freedom to do their jobs? 

I’m not alone in questioning this set of decisions.  In the June 16th edition of The Charleston Gazette-Mail, an opinion piece from Marshall football alum Martin Palazeti outlines the odd circumstances of Mike Hamrick’s departure.  Palazeti’s piece rightly questions why Marshall would part ways with an employee with such a successful resumé.  

I want to be wrong about three resignations occurring within a five week period.  I hope it’s merely a coincidence.  But, the older I become, the less I believe in coincidences.  If there’s information we aren’t seeing, please, someone, tell us.  But I think the Huntington community may also want answers with respect to why these changes occurred, and they deserve these answers.