In the past 14 months as the 37th President of our great institution, West Liberty University, I am humbled, honored, and grateful to work collectively with our esteemed students, faculty, staff and the community to continue the rich legacy of serving as a trailblazer and model for many universities and colleges nationwide. We take pride in being known as one of the largest rural serving institutions, and we live by our mission: “West Liberty University, established in 1837, was the first institution of higher education in West Virginia. Today, we are a dynamic, inclusive, student-centered community that cultivates scholarly exploration, experiential learning, creative expression, and global citizenship. WLU is a public university committed to providing students with a comprehensive education from undergraduate to advanced degrees while serving as the region’s leading advocate for the arts, education, research, and economic opportunity.” Indeed, being the first, we serve as a beacon of hope for many.
Recently, our university and I have been in the news and on social media regarding concerning matters. As president, I have listened to concerns raised by some of our employees, and I am taking each concern addressed and presented to me with understanding, empathy, and equity. As a former educator and student from humble beginnings, I understand what it feels like to feel unheard and unseen. Several of our employees and students have shared with me during one-on-one meetings, including our recent Multicultural meeting, poignant testimonies regarding feeling alienated, invisible and/or ostracized as minorities here at West Liberty University.
They have shared incidents where their comments have been ignored; ridicules have become the norm; and a culture of fear and retaliation has become customary practice if anyone speaks up about any form of microaggressions he or she has endured.
nd so, they remain in silence. I can remember the day an employee shared with me in confidentiality that he was assaulted in the past. When I asked why he did not speak up about the matter, he responded, “fear.” On the other hand, upon my arrival to our beautiful campus to assume the duties of president, I was told that although there have been issues on campus, the norm is to remain silent, and do not make any changes, even if they are for the advancement of the institution. The motto, “We’ve always done it this way” became a cliche, one that could continue to keep the institution at a disadvantage when we are aiming to evolve and stay ahead of the curve. And while I also received subtle remarks of, “I don’t think they were ready for a Black President, Dr. Evans,” as not only President but also a Christian minister who felt called to come to West Liberty University to work together to continue uplifting our great legacy, I did not, and will not, allow such challenges and invisible barriers to prevent me from serving, leading, and working together with all stakeholders (faculty, staff, students, alumni, and community supporters) toward continued excellence. Indeed, I developed a love for West Liberty University for many reasons, among them was the fact that I have empathy for our students here on the hilltop who did not come from backgrounds of socioeconomic privilege; and many have worked hard without any handouts to live the dream of earning a college education from one of the greatest institutions in West Virginia.
Our struggles and hope for a brighter future connect us; our family-oriented environment where each student receives one-on-one attention connects us; our dynamic and inclusive mission that we continue to strive for, connects us. I know change is scary; I know fear of the unknown can be uncomfortable; I know differences can lead to hyper scrutiny–I get it. But as our great institution continues to strive and thrive, we must evolve and keep pushing forward. It was the late, great James Baldwin who profoundly stated, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
As an African American born to two loving and supportive parents, I was reared and have spent most of my life in the South; and I am sure you all have heard the term “Southern Hospitality.” I would like you to know that yes, in the South people are cordial, but the South is not much different from my new home here in the Upper Ohio Valley because there is a familiar sense of what David Selby proclaimed, “… family is very important in West Virginia and has long been so because the mountains made travel difficult in the past, and family members had to depend on each other.” Indeed, having that family bond to be able to feel inclusive and depending on one another to build West Liberty University to higher heights while maintaining unity is crucial.
Our legacy; our children; our children’s children depend on what we do today, for it will have an impact on the future of West Liberty University. So once again, I call for unity; unity among our students; unity among our employees; unity among our local communities; unity with our local media and businesses; unity with me. I can’t do this alone; we can’t do this alone. I need every one of us to commit to reuniting; respecting one another; forgiving one another; and dedicating ourselves to the mission of West Liberty University.
You know what makes families so great? Kindness, respect, and remembering the reason family is family are the things that make us great. I remember when you welcomed my two young children and me with open arms. From Principal Stacy Dietz at West Liberty Elementary to the WLU parents I meet shopping at Walmart; to the folks at Glo-Tone Cleaners, I am grateful for how you all have greeted me. I want to share this because, frankly, I was not sure how I was going to be received here. Why? Well, if you have not noticed, I am Black with a culture that I take great pride in. However, there is so much more to me than the color of my skin. I am easy to recognize in a crowd here, and I say that with a smile. I remember.
On the hilltop and the campus of WLU, my reception has been a different story. Frankly, it has not been as nice or welcoming as some would expect. I want you to know that this is not surprising to me. This week the Charleston Gazette-Mail shared an article that originated with leaked survey results from the university’s faculty senate. I am currently in the second year of a two-year contract serving as president of WLU. Its Board of Governors, led by Chairman Rich Lucas, is facilitating an annual assessment, per WLU Board policy, and a decision about my contract renewal will take place over the next couple of months. Our faculty senate chose to conduct its own unsolicited survey, which I believe, and expressed as such to Mr. Ryan Quinn of the Charleston Gazette-Mail, was structured in a way that was indeed biased. I also shared with Mr. Quinn that I have experienced instances of microaggressions here, which I referred to as “instances of subtle, unintentional discrimination, racist actions and behaviors.” As many are familiar with our rich history at WLU, I have 36 predecessors who served as president prior to me, but they did not look like me, for they were White men. Now it’s easy to say, “race does not matter.” However, it’s unavoidable to acknowledge that my presidency presents a very new and different reality for the University’s leadership. I want you to know that I am learning from this experience, and I hope members of the WLU community are as well.
This is not the first time a Black person has faced challenges directly related to his race in a leadership role in this nation, and it won’t be the last. Mrs. Coretta Scott King serves as a conscious reminder that “It doesn’t matter how strong your opinions are. If you don’t use your power for positive change, you are indeed part of the problem.” Let us no longer focus on the problems but instead move together in unity towards solutions.
We have the skills and the background knowledge to do so, for our past track record speaks for itself. In closing, my sincere wish is that we all continue to learn from this unique experience and turn our focus to the true mission of West Liberty University–our students, for we stand boldly because of them. There are many threats facing higher education today. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated challenges in funding, enrollment, competition, curriculum delivery and more. However, West Liberty University continues to stand unshakable. Allow me to remind you that WLU is in a strong position to not only survive the coming decade, but to thrive.
We have proudly accomplished the following this academic year:
- Our undergraduate applications are up 5% from this time last year.
- The WLU Foundation is experiencing a record year highlighted by our recent “Day of Giving”, where we raised over $280,000.
- We received a $924,000 grant from the state of West Virginia to help in the state’s effort to graduate more nursing students.
- We will begin to construct a new $1.5 million, grant-funded, Aquatic Conservation Center.
- We have updated the mission and vision of the university. We have enhanced our strategic plan.
- We have introduced many new Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives including the inaugural student focused, “Multicultural Celebration”
- We have established new partnerships with local businesses, school systems, and agencies to provide practical hands-on experiences and opportunities for our students.
- We are working on a plan to re-vision the WLU Highlands Center, transforming it from a satellite classroom space to a space that will engage and support a new community focused vision of The Highlands.
- We are approaching having 500 students in our 13-year-old graduate studies unit.
- We are currently in the process of seeking approval of our first ever doctoral program in Education.
- We enrolled over 500 student-athletes, the largest in our history, who are not only making national news with wins on the fields, courts, and mats, but they are excelling in the classroom as well.
All of the above mentioned accomplishments are attributable to the amazing team of hard-working professionals that I have the opportunity to work with every day. What warms my heart about these accomplishments is that they were made possible through a unified, team effort. My wish is that, with your support, we can continue to move forward in a spirit of unity. Let us continue to excel in record breaking numbers to continue to serve as the model for many.