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President of West Virginia University seeks change of culture

The president of West Virginia University is calling for a change in culture, especially around alcohol use, in the wake of the Nov. 14 death of Nolan Burch, an Amherst resident and Canisius High School graduate.

In a letter to the university community posted on the school’s website, E. Gordon Gee wrote about the tragedy and what he hoped might come of it.

“In many ways, I feel the loss of Nolan as if he were my own son. As president of this university, I am deeply passionate about my responsibility for all 33,000 of our students. Nolan should be going to class today and eating pizza with his friends. But sometimes, bad decisions are made. We all have had those moments. And it is when we look back on those moments, that we pause, reflect and perhaps gain a new perspective,” Gee wrote.

Burch, 18, of Williamsville, died about 36 hours after he lapsed into unconsciousness during an underage drinking party at a fraternity house near West Virginia University in Morgantown, where he was a freshman.

Burch’s family donated his organs, and three people are alive today as a result. As such, Gee noted, his death “brought the Mountaineer family both sorrow and hope.”

“And hope is what I continue to have for the future of West Virginia University. I am an optimist. And despite the series of events surrounding our students that we have experienced this fall, I am optimistic that this institution – and our students – will rise to the call and address the issues at hand,” Gee wrote.

Two of those issues include alcohol and what Gee described as “the irresponsible and reckless behaviors” that often follow.

“It is a culture we must change at West Virginia University. Indeed, it is a culture that needs to be changed at nearly every institution of higher education across this country,” he wrote.

How can this be accomplished?

Gee cited a Robert Kennedy quote: “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total, of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.

“This generation has the power and the ability to change the trajectory of this nation. I believe that if we invite our students to the table, they will work with us to create solutions and outcomes that truly matter to them. And I believe that if you treat students as the young adults they are, they will inspire us – and sometimes even surprise us – with their ingenuity,” the letter stated.

Gee said the university will bring in experts to facilitate discussions among students, faculty, staff, alumni and community leaders to consider solutions.

A cause of death has not been announced, but The Buffalo News reported earlier that police are conducting an investigation to determine whether excessive drinking by minors at the Kappa Sigma fraternity house contributed to the student’s death. The legal drinking age in West Virginia is 21.

Burch’s death prompted the university to suspend all social and pledging activities for all campus fraternities and sororities at the school. The school also announced last week that Beta Theta Pi fraternity’s national office revoked that organization’s charter based on past behavior issues.