WVU-P’s Gilmer marks his 1st year

PARKERSBURG — In his first year as president of West Virginia University at Parkersburg, Chris Gilmer has worked to make sure people know all about the opportunities available at the school as well as showcase what an integral part of the community it is.

Gilmer officially took over as president on July 1, 2018, succeeding interim president Jane Milley, who was appointed after the departure of President Fletcher Lamkin in the fall of 2017.

During his first year, Gilmer has sought to build a culture of inclusion and transparency as well as reach out more to the local school districts which many of their students come from.

“I think the first year has gone extremely well,” Gilmer said. “It has been amazing.

“There has never been a time in my life that I have been more excited to come to work. There is no other institution I would rather be serving.”

When he first came here someone told him WVU-P was the best kept secret in the area. The person meant it as a great compliment.

“Instead of a compliment, I took it as a charge,” Gilmer said. “I want us to be the best, but I don’t want us to be a secret. I want everyone in the community to know about us and know what we are doing here, the students we are producing and for the community to think of themselves as a co-owner of the university.”

That has involved getting people out to the university to see what they offer.

Early college courses for area high school have been a tremendous focus for Gilmer locally.

“It is an opportunity for students in high school to begin to be accustomed to and thinking of themselves as college students while they are still in high school,” he said of students taking college course work that could help meet general education requirements, especially if they are planning to attend WVU-P, WVU in Morgantown or Marshall University.

Gilmer said many superintendents want to bring the university out to the districts which are geographically remote from Parkersburg to give their students the opportunity to take college level courses.

“We have more than doubled the size of our early college program this year and it continues to grow,” Gilmer said. “We are in the early process of retaining about 20 percent of those students and turning them into WVU-P students.”

During Gilmer’s first year, the university has also focused on redesigning the available space with the needs of the students in mind through the use of numerous grants. This has included a new media studies lab and other changes within the building to better utilize space and create a more productive environment.

Gilmer has also worked at giving students practical work experience at the university, utilizing students in their marketing work.

“Traditionally students go outside the university for internships in businesses which is great,” Gilmer said. “We want to create an opportunity to do internships and active learning right here in the building.

“They aren’t just textbook classes anymore. They are taking the focus of taking on the marketing piece for the college.”

Brooke Buchanan, a junior Strategic Communications major from Parkersburg, is doing a lot of marketing work for the university as part of her education.

“It is nice to have a voice in the college’s marketing program,” she said. “It gives me an opportunity to practice what I am majoring in.

“They don’t have the young perspective I do.”

She has examples of practical experience with her work with the university to show when she is looking for a job.

“When I go out into the real world I will have the experience and the portfolio to show to people,” Buchanan said. “I will feel more confident when I start a job in the real world.”

Gilmer wanted to include students in the marketing efforts of the university which can appeal to people of a similar age.

“I felt we needed a new approach to the branding and marketing of the university and I wanted young minds to be in charge of that,” he said.

Plans are being developed for the computer information technology students to work with the university’s Information Technology Department and the business students working with the school’s business office.

The university held an event in November for the National Institutes for Historically-Underserved Students, which Gilmer co-founded, with people from all over the country and the world coming to WVU-P. The Appalachian area has been historically underserved.

“This will be a national calling card for the university,” he said.

The school’s Foundation is one of the largest and most active of any community/technical college in the state of West Virginia, one that rivals any community college in the country, Gilmer said.

The Foundation has reintroduced Oakland (the Stephenson Mansion) back into the community. It also gives over $250,000 worth of scholarships to students.

WVU-P Proud is doing a campaign to raise $3 million over three years. Gilmer believes they will reach that goal before the three years has passed. The money will go toward additional scholarships for students and faculty and staff development and teaching tools.

The university has secured $1.25 million of competitive grants to enhance workforce development. They are looking at other grant money for other needs. Learn and Earn programs, where students work in local businesses as part of their education, can be a long-term job interview as many end up hired by the companies they work for.

“Everyone needs the experience before hitting the real world,” Buchanan said.

Gilmer wants the business community to view the university as being open and accessible in being able to fill their workforce needs.

“The quality of the students here are just as good as anywhere,” he said.

Gilmer also wants the university to engage with alumni and keep them involved with what is happening at WVU-P as well as sharing their success stories.

Enrollment numbers and their tuition dollars are stabilizing and the university is in good financial shape, he said.

After several years of declining enrollment numbers, which followed many national trends in higher education, WVU-P is seeing a two percent enrollment increase.

Also, students are finding more reasons to be on campus.

When she first started, Buchanan said students came to school, did their work and went home. Now she spends more time on campus with many fellow students.

“We have now become a community within a community,” she said.

The university will be starting Project OPEN (Opening Pathways to Equity Now) as the new school year gets under way. The community will be seeing open signs going up on campus in the coming weeks.

“Those will be visible reminders of the fact we are here,” he said. “Our students are our customers but they are so much more than our customers.

“They choose to come here so we need to demonstrate that not only are doors are open for business but our hearts are open as well.”

In looking back at his first year, Gilmer said there have not been any significant disappointments or challenges. He has had no major surprises and has been able to do what he felt needed to be done.

He credits that to the faculty, staff and students at the university who have worked with him over the last year.

“This institution was not broken when I took it over,” Gilmer said. “It wasn’t in need of repair, rebuilding or fixing. It was in sound fiscal condition and sound academic condition.

“I had the great blessing of coming in and building on a great history of success.”

Gilmer said there was nothing about his first year he would change.

“I can’t say of anything that I wish was different,” he said. “The truth is there is nothing that I wish would have been different.”

Brett Dunlap can be reached at bdunlap@newsandsentinel.com