By Stephen Smoot
Incoming Potomac State College President Chris Gilmer faced his first challenge even before heading to Keyser.
West Virginia University had implemented a “low mow” policy across much of its network of campuses, including Potomac State College. As the Mineral Daily News Tribune reported, the policy was meant to “decrease fossil fuel consumption, increase biodiversity and drought tolerance, and to improve storm water filtration.”
As the grass grew taller, residents complained of the ragged appearance of the grass along one of the main streets of town. The City of Keyser weighed in, stating that the high grass violated city ordinances.
“I made it really clear that I wanted to hear what everyone had to say,” Gilmer explained. In response to city concerns, the program was dropped for the remainder of the year and alternatives explored.
Understanding small city and town concerns is nothing new to Gilmer, whose first job was reporting for his hometown paper, the Scott County Times in Mississippi. His understanding of rural areas, in particular the “gown versus town” divide has shaped his approach to implementing new ideas on a campus.
“It would be arrogant and foolish to bring a vision with me.” Gilmer explained, “Just because something worked in one context doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s right for another.” He went on to say that, “We have to form a vision with stakeholders – all of them.”
Gilmer plans to take the first 90 days to meet with the communities served by the college, as well as students, faculty, and staff, to put together a vision of how to move forward with Potomac State. He says, “It will be a vision that we form together and people sense the sincerity of that.”
Engaging with the community the right way, according to Gilmer, takes an “old fashioned” approach. He says, “I go out and speak to the Rotary Club and go to the junior high baseball games, go and read to the kids at the elementary school. The next thing you know, you’re not an outsider in the community.”
Gilmer explained that he and his team have “visited some of the counties that are a little more outlying, trying to demonstrate that we are not just a college for Keyser.”
Part of his plan is to try to shorten the perceived distance between areas like Pendleton County and the campus, saying “I am trying to get the message out that it’s really not that far.” For students who prefer to not commute, “we are a residential campus” with a “fully engaged residence life.”
The main appeal, however, comes from programs that are relevant to living, working, and growing in Pendleton County.
“We attract a good many students to our sustainable agriculture program” from Pendleton County, Gilmer says. “And one of our goals is to make a national model of our sustainable agriculture programs. We have both associates and bachelor’s degrees that are very high quality and very affordable and we have 800 acres of working farms here.” “Hands on” instruction comes from both academically trained plant scientists and farmers who teach from their practical experience.
He added, “We are trying to create programs that are relevant to the communities.”
Gilmer described plans to double the size of the nursing program in the near future, as well as building programs in surgical technology, mental health and addiction studies. He explained that “Pendleton County needs as many high quality health care professionals as we can turn out. We’re trying to be responsive to those needs.”
Also, the new Bachelor of Integrated Studies serves rural residents by letting them design a program that meets their specific situation.
A student-centered focus serves as the “guiding principle” of Gilmer’s approach. In an op-ed, he shared concerns about the “arrogance of American higher education, that we leave students out.”
Gilmer added that the most important question lies in “what is best for students.” Doing “both the talk and the walk” of putting students first, for Gilmer, involved adding the president of the student body to the campus leadership team. This ensures that the “student vision is represented at the table.”
A background of growing up in an impoverished Mississippi community also guides Gilmer. He explained that not many believed he could go to college and tells students “There’s nothing special about me. If I can do it, you can do it.” Gilmer’s service in Historically Black Colleges and Universities also fuels a passion for including all, no matter who they are or where they may be.
Gilmer issued a challenge to those receiving his message, “Reach out to me and let me know what we could do.” He adds “you can be apart from the community or a part of a community,” elaborating that, “We make much more informed decisions about the programs that we offer when we have input from the communities that we serve.”