After the official announcement that Brad D. Smith will become President of Marshall University, there were only two reactions from very different stakeholders surrounding Marshall.
By in large – most of the alumni community and local businesses were overjoyed by Smith’s promises of a Marshall on a global stage and a university looking to innovate in a region often viewed as having anything but innovation to offer.
On the other hand, a small but sizable group of mostly progressive students and faculty members were appalled at the decision – believing that Smith doesn’t have the qualifications or that his donation to the university swayed the Board of Governors to choose him.
I hope to balance the two opinions and offer a reasonable set of goals for our new president, as well as dispel many of the exaggerated claims made about Smith’s selection and the process taken by the Board of Governors.
One of the biggest accusations around Smith being considered for university president surrounds his $25 million gift to Marshall just a few years ago.
The only way this gift could be considered improper however is if Smith knew President Gilbert would step down, which it seems not even Gilbert himself knew he would step down when Smith’s donation was made.
Smith also gave a gift of the same amount to West Virginia University just last year.
Could it be that Smith simply cares about higher education and the future of his home state to donate to the state’s two largest learning institutions?
Accusations have also been thrown at the Board of Governors as if the months-long process that considered over 100 candidates was just a farce.
This would also mean President Gilbert has lied when he ensured the process had been the most ethical and transparent he has seen in his time in higher education.
The BOG has three members that represent students, faculty, and staff.
If there were suspicious happenings within the BOG, it would not be easily concealed.
Just because one may disagree with the decision the board made, does not mean that it was suspicious or unethical.
Smith is bringing in high expectations and big goals – as valuable as it is to have big goals, higher education struggles to achieve even modest goals.
This is often not higher education’s fault, especially in a state like West Virginia with a declining population and an ever-decreasing amount of state funding.
One of the biggest disappointments of Gilbert’s time as President is the failure to reach the goals set for enrollment.
This is not an easy challenge in West Virginia.
Smith has repeatedly mentioned his desire for Marshall to grow through online offerings, which is possible.
But I believe the larger opportunity to be based on tapping into the larger metro areas near Huntington like Columbus, Lexington, and Cincinnati.
WVU has used its location and affordable out-of-state tuition in comparison to many of its surrounding states to recruit out-of-state students in Pennsylvania and New York.
Marshall should be a top destination for those nearby metros who would like to leave home.
To grow enrollment, Marshall has to look outside the state.
Smith has the leverage to work with the state to create a performance-based funding system that ensures higher education is properly motivated, and institutions can receive the funding they need.
Smith’s relationship with the state and local leaders will be objectively strong and is a benefit not many others can offer in this role.
Achieving both goals would be a tremendous foundation as Marshall continues.
Smith brings energy, optimism, and passion into the role as president.
His willingness to learn from President Gilbert to understand the complexities of the role speaks volumes about his character.
Most importantly, Smith will be a good decision maker and someone who will model the practices he preaches – attributes essential to a good leader.
He may not be the most traditionally qualified, but his passion for the university and experience as an effective leader will more than make up for it.