Date with Destiny

Dr. Jerome Gilbert believes destiny played a role in his return to the Mountain State as Marshall University’s 37th president.

By Jack Houvouras

Photos by Rick Haye & Rick Lee

Jerome Gilbert

When Jerome Gilbert was a high school student in Jackson, Mississippi, he was one of two outstanding scholars selected to represent the state in the prestigious National Youth Science Camp in Bartow, West Virginia. Students from all 50 states participated in the month-long program held in the fields, streams, rivers and caves of the Mountain State. The experience left a lasting impression on the promising high school senior.

“There were 100 of us, and I can tell you every one of us left with a love for West Virginia,” he recalls. “It was one of the most transformative events of my life. The beauty of the state has been with me ever since. I’ve always had a very warm spot in my heart for West Virginia.”

Some 42 years later, Gilbert has returned to West Virginia. On Jan. 16, he officially assumed his duties as the 37th president of Marshall University. It is a journey that Gilbert feels might have been preordained.

Gilbert and Red Dawson signing books

“I feel like destiny has brought me back to West Virginia,” he explains. “I’m coming back to where I started.”

Dr. Jerome Gilbert, known to all as Jerry, was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi. The middle of three children, he grew up in the 1950s and 1960s in what he describes as the Jim Crow South.

“In many ways it was an idyllic place to grow up,” he says. “It was the capital city so it was large, but with a hometown feel. But at the same time, there was a complete separation of the races and certainly I learned a lot seeing how people were mistreated. I saw firsthand the impact of segregation and how it negatively impacted our society.”

His father worked as an accountant for a furniture factory before going it alone and purchasing his own factory. His mother was a stay-at-home mom.

In school Gilbert was an exceptional student, described by most as gregarious and outgoing. As a young child, he played some sports, including baseball, but notes he was not the athlete his father was.

Gilbert and Red Dawson signing books

“My dad was a very good athlete and even played semi-pro baseball,” he explains. “I think he was a little disappointed that my brother and I weren’t better ballplayers.”

Gilbert loved to read from an early age and found time to bond with his father and brother while hunting and fishing.

Following high school he enrolled at Mississippi State University in nearby Starkville, where he excelled in his study of biological engineering. Just before his graduation from college in 1977, his father, a lifetime smoker, passed away after a short battle with lung cancer.

“That was very traumatic for our family,” he reflects. “I felt like we would always be together as a family and that nothing bad would ever happen to us. It took a while to get over that.”

Unsure of what to do after graduating, Gilbert says he eventually asked himself a simple question: “What would my father want me to do? And then I remembered that he had told me while he was sick that he didn’t want his death to slow me down. So I took his example and just carried on.”

From there, he enrolled at Duke University where he pursued his Ph.D. in biomedical engineering. It was at Duke that he met his future wife, Leigh, a physics major from the College of William & Mary, who was pursuing her master’s degree.

Gilbert and Red Dawson signing books

“She is a brilliant woman, a lot smarter than me,” Gilbert confesses. “We got married after I earned my Ph.D., and then the adventure began.”

What followed was a long line of prestigious teaching posts in engineering and biomedical science at North Carolina State, the University of North Carolina, the University of Mississippi Medical Center and Mississippi State. He also became heavily involved in research and authored dozens of magazine and medical journal articles, most focusing on orthopedic and musculoskeletal injuries and surgery.

At Mississippi State, Gilbert earned numerous awards for his leadership and innovative work, including induction into the school’s Hall of Fame and Engineering Hall of Fame as a student, and was a multi-time recipient of the College of Engineering’s Hearin-Hess Distinguished Faculty award.

In 2010 he was named provost and executive vice president of Mississippi State University. Five years later Marshall University came calling following the sudden death of President Stephen J. Kopp. After a lengthy search that included more than a dozen candidates from around the country, the Board of Governors ultimately chose to offer the post to Gilbert. Local reaction to the hire was universally praised.

“His experience, vision and approach seem to make him an excellent choice as the university’s 37th president,” notes The Herald-Dispatch in an editorial. “Gilbert shows every indication that he fully understands the challenges Marshall faces – from tight state funding to rising tuition costs – and the need for expanded recruiting and enrollment, improved student retention and a viable approach to growing university research.”

The newspaper also notes his interpersonal skills that have impressed students, faculty and community leaders alike.

“He shows an encouraging enthusiasm for the non-academic demands of the job, including fundraising, community connections and government relations. Moreover, those who have met him over the past few weeks have been impressed with his interaction with students, faculty and staff and his approachable, collaborative leadership style.”

Cam Brammer, faculty representative on Marshall’s Board of Governors, says she was “amazed” at how in sync the board was when it came time to vote on the new president.

“Dr. Gilbert was the best choice for where Marshall is now and where we hope to go in the next few years,” Brammer explains. “He won everybody’s minds with his synergy.”

Since taking office on Jan. 16, Gilbert has been logging some long hours. He has visited all of Marshall’s satellite campuses, sat in on classes, chatted with faculty and staff, met with the media and area leaders, been to the most recent legislative session in Charleston and attended a plethora of local sporting and fundraising events.

“My goal is to get to know everyone in Huntington and on campus. I’m quickly learning the culture of the city and the university,” he explains.

He can often be seen around the Huntington campus interacting with students. To help better relate to them and show that he understands the times we live in, he has a Twitter account (@MarshalluPres) and is a regular poster. In fact, he has become quite proficient at taking “selfies” with students and alumni.

Gilbert and Red Dawson signing books

From an administrative standpoint, Gilbert announced early on that his first priority was increasing enrollment.

“We currently have 13,321 students. I am setting an enrollment goal of 15,000 students by the year 2020. What’s more, my commitment to every student that comes on campus is that they will graduate,” he asserts.

And Gilbert already has some ideas on how to bring more students to Marshall.

“The competition for students has never been so intense,” Gilbert explains. “In order to be in the game, you have to be committed to marketing and recruiting students to your university. I want a stronger marketing campaign for Marshall because there are a lot of great things here that should be very attractive to high school students. This is an institution with a strong liberal arts tradition. Then you look at the more recent developments of the medical school growth, biotechnology and engineering, and you have a pretty dynamic package to offer. We can raise the name of Marshall University to new heights.”

His other priorities include improving student retention rates, cultivating donors and raising private funds, improving faculty and staff salaries, developing a shared vision and image to help market the university, growing scholarly research and expanding the offering of doctoral programs.

“I want to attract and keep the best teachers I can, and certainly salaries are going to be important,” Gilbert explains. “We are working on a five-to-10-year salary plan that will allow the university to attract and keep the very best faculty and staff.”

At his first Board of Governors meeting on Feb. 24, Gilbert shared what he had been doing since he assumed his duties, impressing the likes of board chair Michael Sellards.

“Jerry, in five weeks couldn’t you do a little more?” Sellards jokes.

As for the endless array of budget cuts state schools have endured in recent years, Gilbert stands ready to meet those challenges.

“I faced similar budget issues when I was provost at Mississippi State and we worked through it,” Gilbert says. “If we can increase enrollment at Marshall then that will help offset the budget cuts.”

As for his views on athletics, alumni need not worry. Gilbert is a sports fan and sees the Thundering Herd programs as a key part of his marketing efforts.

“Athletics serves as a front door to the university,” Gilbert says. “It really is a marketing arm to the university. And, it ties our alumni back to the school and gives them something to be proud of.”

Looking back on his career to date, Gilbert says he is proud of what he has accomplished. But, he is quick to point out that it takes a back seat to the greatest influence in his life.

“To me, family has always been the most important,” Gilbert says. “I had two wonderful parents, one still with us, who taught me many life lessons. They taught hard work, optimism, perseverance, courage and humility. And when people ask me what I am most proud of in my life, I say ‘my three children.’”

The new Marshall president beams with pride as he talks about daughters Caroline and Sallie and son Peter. And then there’s granddaughter Eliza.

“She’s the new joy of our lives,” say both Gilbert and wife Leigh.

The Gilberts say they are easily settling into life in Huntington.

“We’ve been so impressed with Huntington; we’ve fallen in love with the city and its people,” Gilbert says. “It’s bigger than our former hometown, and there are more restaurants and shopping as well as a vibrant downtown. Everyone has been so welcoming. And we love that it’s situated on the river with the hills nearby.”

In their spare time the couple enjoys reading, gardening and cooking. And both are exercise enthusiasts. Gilbert enjoys cycling, while wife Leigh is an avid runner.

Gilbert is quick to acknowledge the Board of Governors for the opportunity to lead the university in the coming years.

Gilbert and Red Dawson signing books

“I want to say ‘thank you’ to the Board of Governors for their confidence in me. I will give this my best and will always keep the best interest of the university in everything I do. I will try to develop the trust of the faculty, staff, students and alumni. And, as a person of integrity, I will always be open and honest with people.”

As for the future, Gilbert says he wants to not only grow the university but also articulate to students everywhere the importance of higher education.

“I think we haven’t told the story well enough about the value of a college education and what it can do to improve people’s lives,” Gilbert says. “It’s much more than educating the student for a career. Perhaps it sounds a little dramatic, but it’s really about the future of our country and, I think, the future of humanity.”

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