Sunday Sit-Down: West Liberty University President Robin Capehart

Editor’s note: Robin Capehart this summer passed the five-year mark as president of West Liberty University. He talks higher education, college athletics, state finances and the university’s future as he joins us in the Sunday Sit-Down.

— You’ve been president of West Liberty University for about 5 1/2 years now. First, how would you assess your tenure to date and the changes that have taken place at West Liberty University?

Capehart: I think in 5 1/2 years we’ve seen a lot of changes on campus. We’d like to think those changes have been for the better. I think moving from a state college to a university has been a tremendous benefit in terms of moving into graduate education, which is where a lot of our focus will move in the next few years. I’d like to think opening The Highlands Center, having a venue that’s a little more accessible, has been a success. Obviously, I think the one signature program that we’ve developed, our physician’s assistants program, has not only helped the school but has helped the region, the people of the Ohio Valley when we start graduating our students from that program next June. I think the strategic plan that we put together back in 2007-08, it’s addressed the economic needs of the people of West Virginia, it’s raised standards, it’s provided increased compensation for our faculty and our staff. We’ve been very fortunate … to have the people around us who’ve really made it happen. You don’t go anywhere unless you have a good team, good people. West Liberty has always had a lot of dedicated individuals who work hard and are dedicated to making the school better.

— What changes have you seen in higher education during your tenure, both good and bad?

Capehart: I think some of the good changes have been a recognition that not only are you training students for a specific profession, such as a physician’s assistant, like our broadcasting program … but there’s also the recognition that all of these students need a good liberal arts foundation. We’re not just putting out graduates to do a specific task -we want to produce graduates that are well-rounded and become leaders so that they can be good citizens, so they can communicate effectively, both through the written word and orally, that they learn to think critically. If there’s been a benefit, I think it’s been the emphasis in moving toward competency. In the long run, this is going to be a major plus for higher education.

One of the down sides is there’s been a wavering of commitment to higher education. The state has been very prudent, and we have been very fortunate in terms of receiving a lot of support from the state – the rehabilitation of Shaw Hall, the development and construction of Campbell Hall, the expansion of The Highlands Center. … What I’m seeing in certain quarters of state government is this idea that higher education is going to be treated just like another government agency. … We probably generate somewhere between 75 percent and 80 percent of our own revenue. Not a lot of state agencies do that. … When support begins to decline from the state, you’re going to see increases in tuition and fees. That’s just a political decision that has to be made. I’m not advocating it one way or the other, it’s just that they’ve got to understand that the cost of higher education is going up. It’s something that at some point there’s got to be the resources there to maintain the quality.

— Speaking of finances, does higher education remain a good value?

Capehart: You said it, the key word is value. We’ve got to start looking at higher education in terms of value.

If the state is going to make an investment through state appropriations, through higher education grant programs, through the PROMISE Scholarship, they’ve got to start looking at making sure they get value in return.

Right now, if you’re a good student coming out of high school … you’ve got good grades and do well on the ACT … the resources are available for you to go to college.

If you struggled in high school and you don’t do so well on the ACT, the community college system is there, and its purpose is to provide that type of remedial education to perhaps prepare you to go on to a four-year college.

… When we talk about it in terms of public policy, you’ve got to start looking at the value. The average individual who gets a bachelor’s degree will make about $1.3 million more over the course of their lifetime than they would have if they had just a high school education.

To use an example, when we’re talking about a college education we’re talking about investment. If you’re a student coming out of Wheeling Park High School and you’ve got two choices you can make – I can either buy a brand new Ford F-150 pickup truck or I can go to West Liberty, write a check for either of them – what you’re going to do is if you buy the pickup truck, you’re probably going to have some fun … and at the end of four years you’re probably going to have about 60,000 miles on it and it’s going to have a (reduced) value. If you take that same money and invest it in a college education at West Liberty, you’re going to have a college degree, you’re going to make $1.3 million more over the course of your lifetime, and you’re going to have about $1,700 left over because that’s how much less expensive four years of tuition and fees is at West Liberty compared to the pickup truck. … We need to begin to look at higher education as an investment, because we’re talking about developing … our human resources that’s really going to provide the leadership for the future.

— You’ve started several new programs over the past few years, with the physician’s assistants program being the most notable. Do these type of specialty programs help West Liberty create its niche in the higher education market?

Capehart: If you go back 20 years … there was a time when West Liberty, as well as other institutions in West Virginia, you went up there in August and you opened up the doors and 500-600 new students showed up as freshmen, and you had about 2,000 total students. Those days are gone. There’s so much more competition in higher education right now. When I got out of high school, you either went to WVU, which was about a two-hour trip from Moundsville because of the back roads you had to take, or you went to West Liberty, and it depended on whether you wanted to go to a big school or a small school. Marshall was too far to drive, and going to Fairmont or other schools, it was just difficult.

Now, not only is it (easier) to get to those other schools, but there’s more of them, and you can take classes online. You can sit at home, take classes online and work at the same time. So the competition in higher education has become so much greater than it was just a number of years ago. That being said, I think the future of institutions such as West Liberty University is in finding its niche programs. We’ve done that, for example, in areas of teacher education. We’ve got a number of teacher education tracks coming out that can’t be found anywhere else in West Virginia. Our dean, Keely Camden, has done an outstanding job of identifying those areas and building those programs so that we can attract students.

And we’re not at a time when we’re just going to attract a lot of students from one small eight-county area. First of all, (locally) the number of students has declined. We have seen an uptick in the last couple years because of the growth of the natural gas industry, but for the most part, the trend is downwards. So one of the things we did is hire two recruiters – one that lives in southern West Virginia and one that lives in the Eastern Panhandle – so that instead of us getting in the van and going over and setting up a table at Musselman High School, the recruiter actually lives near the high school, goes to the National Honor Society induction, goes to the basketball game, walks around Kroger with a West Liberty T-shirt, that makes us visible. That’s what we’ve had to do, we’re doing that to recruit for these niche programs.

Broadcasting’s another program that’s starting to bring in people regionally … because No. 1, we have one of the best facilities around, and No. 2, we provide a real opportunity for talented students coming out of high school … to go right on the air. They can get right behind the camera, they don’t have to take a number of introductory classes. … We’ve got first-class equipment, first-class instructors and a first-class facility. That type of program will draw in from more than just the local area.

— When you talk about a regional draw, recruiters are one thing, sports is another. West Liberty University is seeing tremendous success in many of its sports. What benefit does that provide the university?

Capehart: First of all, the actual program provides a benefit because it’s an attraction for the students themselves. We probably have 280 athletes, but we don’t give out nearly that many scholarships. The NCAA Division II model basically focuses on the partial scholarship. This isn’t an instance where every athlete we’re bringing in is on a full ride – in fact, most of our athletes receive only a partial scholarship. … Our student-athletes traditionally have higher GPAs, have certain leadership skills, it brings a great diversity to our campus by being able to attract athletes.

In regard to the image that it provides of the university, what the basketball team has done in the last few years, and the football team has done, and what a lot of other sports have done, that’s advertisement you just can’t buy. And one thing people forget is that (sports) brings attachment. Alumni have a reason to come back and get attached to their alma mater. People in the community have known forever that West Liberty is 10 miles up the hill, but they’ve never had that attachment. Being able to have this type of success is a tremendous benefit because it creates a relationship between people in the community, the alumni, it raises your profile in regard to potential students. It’s had tremendous benefit.

— Let’s stick with sports. You see the changes that are occurring in NCAA Division I sports with schools moving from conference to conference. You currently serve as the Region 1 representative to the NCAA’s Division II Presidents Council. Being in that post and also serving as a university president at a school with several successful sports, do you believe sports has too much influence at the college level?

Capehart: The theme of Division II is “Life in the Balance,” and we spend a great deal of time as a council and as Division II of the NCAA assuring that you have a true student-athlete who is able to balance his or her athletic life with being a student. I think part of the misperception that’s been created is that athletics on a Division II campus is the same as it is at Division I. That’s just a misperception. … I remember we had a game one night, it was a big game, we had a student recover a fumble and it won the ballgame for us. Well the next day, which I believe was a Sunday, I get up, go to church, come home and I’m walking across campus and I see the student who recovered the fumble with his books in his arms, going to the library. He had his athletic experience, and now it’s back to being a student. … If you look at the number of students that come on our campus to play athletics, many of them pay their own room and board, many of them pay their own tuition. Those 280 students we have right now who are athletes – if we didn’t have athletics, they wouldn’t be on our campus. They like athletics, just the same reason we have people who want to work on the television crew during football games, or they want to be in student government. You take away some of those types of programs, you’re not going to attract students.

— West Liberty did join with a number of other regional schools earlier this year in announcing its intentions to leave the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. How does that decision – which caused plenty of angst for some of the schools that were left out – fit in with the NCAA Division II’s mission of “Life in the Balance?”

Capehart: Our sole focus is the student-athlete’s experience. There were certain institutions we were playing within our conference, which they were not having a good experience. … We had schools show up here at times with only five basketball players, we played schools that had softball players playing basketball because they needed to put the team together. When our teams joined the NCAA Division II, it elevated the level of play – it elevated what eventually would be a very good student athletic experience. … We were trying to bring other schools in (to the WVIAC) and we were being opposed. All we were trying to do is focus on the student’s athletic experience. For a number of the private schools, they felt there’s a great benefit to expanding, and that’s what we’ve tried to do.

— The Highlands Center. How would you rate its effectiveness for the university over the past few years?

Capehart: The Highlands Center has been everything that we’d hoped it would be. The year prior to our opening The Highlands Center, we were probably around 200-300 students attending summer school. We’re now up around 800. It’s been a great venue for our Community University, which is basically non-credited, free classes taught and geared toward individuals 55 and over, many of them retired. I don’t know if we could have done that successfully at West Liberty without being able to do it at The Highlands. … The Highlands has made the school more accessible, has made a tremendous impact and it’s poised to grow even further.

— There has been talk that West Liberty University is looking to possibly open an office or a branch campus in downtown Wheeling. Is that true, and if so, how would that impact West Virginia Northern Community College’s mission?

Capehart: There are considerations (downtown). The one thing we have to look at if we open a facility downtown, we want to make sure it’s economically feasible. That’s extremely important. As you know, we’re a very affordable school, a great value, and part of keeping costs down is being careful with how we use the resources that we have. … The Highlands has become financially feasible because of the increase in summer school and graduate school enrollment we’ve had. We have several programs that we think would be a tremendous benefit and be strategically located downtown. The fact is, we’ve got to make sure those programs are financially stable, that they can support such a move. … We’ve had discussions (with West Virginia Northern) and already have an articulation agreement with them. They’re doing a great job and are growing very fast.

— Last question: You previously served as secretary of Tax and Revenue in West Virginia. The state is looking at some major budget issues over the next few years. As a college president, how concerned are you with the state’s future finances and how challenging the next several years could be?

Capehart: It’s going to be very difficult and we certainly understand some of the proposals put forth by Gov. Tomblin and the administration. First of all I think they’re showing great foresight in recognizing that health care costs, because of the changes at the federal level, could have a significant impact on us and that’s dollars that are probably going to be mandated and not discretionary. That’s a tremendous problem. The other problem we have is even though we’ve had a big boom in the natural gas industry, the real long-term economic benefit we could get from that industry is if the economy can recover to the point that natural gas can be produced again. There’s a real concern there because we just don’t see the economy turning around nationally. … I would say the inability to drag ourselves out of this recession and some of the costs that are being imposed upon our state government by our federal government are two things that cause concern.