He tucks himself away in a small office uncharacteristic of a university president, even if he is an interim; that’s because he refuses to use much of the presidential suite in the renovated Shaw Hall, one of the oldest structures on West Liberty University’s campus.
“I don’t need all of that room and all of that luxury. I’d probably get lost in there,” joked Dr. John McCullough. “And this way it will be all ready for when Dr. (Stephen) Greiner arrives and gets started as the next permanent president of West Liberty University.
“As the interim president my duties do not call for the use of such a beautiful space, and it is very beautiful, and I am positive Dr. Greiner is going to enjoy it very much,” he continued. “But I’m happy here until then, and I’ll continue working through what I have to do to prepare this office for his arrival in a little more than a month.”
When McCullough’s teaching career began on this hilltop in 1971, Shaw Hall was, in fact, a female dormitory, but 45 years and a massive renovation project later his colleagues and visitors can finally find him in Room 202 and always partially hidden behind stacks of papers. This is McCullough’s third tenure as West Liberty’s interim president, and he returned to full-time status after partially retiring two years ago.
McCullough follows former university president Robin Capehart this time, after Capehart resigned amid the fallout over a state ethics investigation and a, “No Confidence” vote rendered by the Faculty Senate.
On Oct. 29, the West Liberty University Board of Governors named Greiner as the institution’s next president, and he will begin in January. Greiner resides in Hazard, Ky., where he currently serves as the president and CEO of Hazard Community and Technical College, a comprehensive multiple campus public degree-granting institution serving approximately 4,000 students in seven eastern Kentucky counties. Greiner also has served as president at Brunswick Community College (three locations in N.C.), from 2005 – 2010, and was president of Virginia Intermont College, (Bristol, Va.) from 2001 – 2005.
Greiner was one of 40 applicants who expressed interest in the presidential position at West Liberty, but McCullough was not one of them.
“I just don’t know if I am a good fit to be a permanent president of a university because there are a couple aspects of that position that you must do, and I’m not sure I would be the best person to do those things,” McCullough admitted. “I don’t look at myself as a fundraiser. That’s not necessarily a strength of mine, and it’s something that I do not really enjoy.
“I am not good at asking for money and other things,” he continued. “Plus, in that position you are farther removed from the academic side of things and a bit farther removed from the students and the faculty members. And I was a teacher. I was in the classroom for almost 30 years because I always loved working with the students and never wanted to get too far from that part of the job.”
West Liberty State College became West Liberty University in 2009, as the campus swelled with record enrollment numbers; but the declining population throughout the Upper Ohio Valley, the controversy surrounding the end of Capehart’s tenure, and the rising costs of higher education have led to an enrollment decline.
McCullough immediately confronted these factors when he assumed the interim duties one final time.
“It is the most difficult time, without question. This is more challenging than the previous two times, and that’s because of the investigation, student enrollment, and the budget situation,” McCullough said. “But I certainly believe that we are very strong at this time with our academics, our faculty, and our programs. Our finances, because of the enrollment decline and the cuts in the state budget, make some things more challenging.
“We have orchestrated some consolidations and realignments with both faculty and administrative positions, and some positions were eliminated altogether,” he said. “And there will be some others eliminated in more attempts to become more efficient and become better stewards of the state’s dollars. It’s not been radical. It’s been more surgical in nature, and I think we have done a better job with efficiency but not damaging the education of our students at all.
“I know we have turned the corner, and now we’re on the right path, and when Dr. Greiner takes his position as president in a few weeks, that’s going to be very good for West Liberty University. It is invigorating for a university to welcome a new president.”
The decisions have been difficult, McCullough admitted, but he insisted the, “bones are good,” and he truly believes that when an institution encounters such obstacles, the fixes rest with across-the-board improvement.
“We are blessed with a very strong foundation of top-quality faculty and staff members, and we have a very strong alumni base, and we have expanding graduate programs,” McCullough said. “We have increased our marketing budget to make sure we get the word out about all of the good things that we have going on at this time.
“One thing we have realized is a declining high school enrollment in the Valley over the past ten years, but we do see that beginning to change, and that will certainly help us in the years to come,” the educator explained. “Financially, we are in a stable position, and we are continuing to stabilize across the board. And we are expanding our student support services. For example, our veteran support services are much improved now, and that’s a big plus for us.”
McCullough also has worked diligently to deliver a very specific message to the plethora of West Liberty alumni throughout the country if not the world: “Come. Back.”
“What we hope is that the thousands of West Liberty graduates carry a banner of sorts for their university when they leave here and start their life out in the world,” McCullough said. “We not only want our alumni to come back and visit, we need our alumni to be proud of their university and to express that pride.
“I would love to see members of our alumni come back to the campus and serve as a guest lecturers because what better role model could our students have than our successful graduates? I believe that would benefit this university in a great way,” he continued. “I’m a big believer in that, and I hope to see that become the norm here in the future.”
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A Personal Experience
Many changes have taken place here during the four-plus decades McCullough has been reporting to work, including changes with the physical campus, the evolution of the faculty, and with academic programs. McCullough taught business classes at a time when West Liberty State College was known primarily as a teacher’s college that also featured a fine dental hygiene program.
There was a pub with pool tables and bowling alleys where faculty and students interacted, the athletic facilities were average at best, and the student population was comprised of just as many commuters as dorm residents.
Oh, and the college was often referred to as, “Harvard on the Hill” through the 1970s, ’80s, and the ’90s.
“I never took ‘Harvard on the Hill’ as an insult, but I did take ‘high school on the hill’ personally. I didn’t like that because we have always worked very hard to do what we do here, and we’re not even close to a high school,” McCullough said. “So I’m OK with, ‘Harvard on the Hill.’ I’ll take that any day, and that will be just fine. We are West Liberty University, a community of people who are dedicated to what they do every single day.
“Back when I first came here, the very best job offer I had was from West Liberty State College, plus my wife, who was a teacher at the time, was able to get a special education position with Ohio County Schools. Plus, I had not been around hills and terrain that you find here, so I really enjoyed the environment here,” he recalled. “I was also very impressed with the people here. There were a lot of good people who had a good feel for what they were doing,” he said. “But at first I thought we would stay here only a couple of years, but 45 years later here I am.”
Today, though, West Liberty University features five colleges and a School of Professional Studies; they offer more than 60 majors and 30 programs that are nationally recognized or accredited. Graduate programs include the Master of Arts in Education, the Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies, and the Master of Professional Studies degrees.
Through all the advancements and additional academic opportunities, McCullough has witnessed an evolution about which he warns future students and instructors.
“Technology has changed a lot of things during my career. It has had an impact on everything, and that includes higher education,” McCullough said. “It’s my opinion that what were once those one-on-one relationships, those bonding experiences between a student and a faculty member, are not the same as they used to be.
“These days I can walk around with a small piece of technology in my hand or in my pocket, and that means I don’t have to interact with others the way I used to. Once we had to spend the time to get to know someone, and I think that has diminished because of technology,” he continued. “One thing I miss personally is not being as close to the students and the faculty as I used to be. Anyone who has been in a classroom as a teacher and then doesn’t do it anymore misses it, and I do.”
That is because educating others has always been a mission of McCullough’s, one that he has taken very seriously during his distinguished and decorated career.
“I have always taken working here personally, and it had better be personal to every single person who works here because we’re a school with a teaching and learning environment. We’d better make it personal,” McCullough said. “The day we de-personalize it is the day we’ve lost something as an institution of learning.
“We have great academic programs and we have great athletic programs, and that’s why I hope everybody here takes it very personally and very seriously. Something’s amiss if we step away from that,” he said. “If that happens, then we are not engaged and not involved the way we should be, and I hope never to see that happen.”
The Next Off-Ramp
Officially his final day on the payroll is Dec. 31, but he plans to pack his belongings shortly after the students and the faculty and staff members depart campus for the annual Christmas break.
But McCullough will stay behind just a little longer than most, and he will wait until this oft-assiduous plateau goes silent for a change.
“On that last day I am going to take a walk around this campus, and it won’t matter if there’s a blizzard,” he insisted. “The students won’t be here when I take that walk, so it will be quiet here, and I am going to take my time, stroll around, and walk into most of the buildings.
“I know I will be back here for several functions in the future, but I want to take that walk one last time as an employee of the university. It’s become a home for me, so I just want to take it all in one last time.”
McCullough served as interim president on two other occasions, one in 2001 and again from 2005-2007, and he also has served as provost and vice president of academic affairs for 11 years. He was dean of the School of Business Administration for 15 years and was a professor of business management, so when he was called to duty for a third time, this Illinois native did what his university needed him to do.
“Well, of course I did,” he said. “You do not spend this amount of time in the same place and with the same people and not care. When the Board of Governors called on me, it wasn’t a difficult decision.”
But now this graduate of both Illinois State University and the University of North Dakota enters his final month as an employee of this hilltop institution, and this time he does not plan to retain part-time status of any style.
“I’ve been here a long time, maybe even too long,” he said. “But now it’s almost time for me to move on, and I am blessed because my son and my daughter and their families are in the area. I’ll get to spend more time with them, and then we’ll see what else the next stage brings to my life.
“I’m going to continue that walk down life’s highway because that’s what it is, a journey, and now we’ll see where the next off-ramp takes us,” he added. “But I will miss it. I love West Liberty University and the people here. I wouldn’t have stayed here for 45 years if I did not believe in this institution and the people who make it what it is today.”
(Photos by Maureen Zambito, West Liberty University)