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A brief history of WVU-P

March 30, 2011
Michael Erb

PARKERSBURG - For half a decade West Virginia University at Parkersburg has been a significant presence in the Mid-Ohio Valley.

But the college we know today has been both a slow evolution and a labor of love for the community it serves.

In 1999 the college commissioned local historian and professor emeritus Bernie Allen to write a history of the school. In March of 2000 Allen finished a 200-page manuscript called "Four Diamonds in the Rough: West Virginia University at Parkersburg and Its Three Predecessors: The WVU Parkersburg Branch, The WVU Parkersburg Center and Parkersburg Community College." The manuscript offered an exhaustive history of the institution through Oct. 1, 1999.

Article Photos

Though Allen's manuscript was never published, it did gather together some of the most important moments in the development of Wood County's first and foremost community-based college.

The college officially opened in 1961 as a branch campus of West Virginia University. The college was housed in the abandoned Emerson School, which actually was two buildings: A brick school building and an adjacent metal structure.

The first class was 104 students.

Newspaper clippings from that time period describe a busy school with a close-knit faculty and student body. The community college was a new concept for the area and gave residents the opportunity to take college classes without the travel and expense of attending another state institution.

The original building no longer exists. Where it stood, the Parkersburg-Wood County Public Library now stands.

The only surviving piece of that original school is a bell, cast in1902 by the Meneely Bell Co. of Troy, N.Y. Several years ago the bell was discovered in storage and was restored to its original condition.

The bell is used today at various events, including the college's commencement ceremonies and 9/11 tribute. The bell resides in the main campus hallway near the president's office.

The bell also appears in the college's official seal.

As the future of the college was being debated in the state legislature and in the pages of the newspaper, community members began asking residents to consider the creation of a new school building. The old school was not large enough to house the rapidly growing student population and was showing its age.

Charles Casto, former president of BB&T, was among the first people to advocate the creation of a new college building. In addition to students taking classes at the college, other community groups often used the facility as a meeting place, including the metal building that was styled like a quonset hut.

"I remember that building being so hot you couldn't have meetings in there during the summer," Casto said. "Something needed to be done."

Casto said community members rallied to seek funding for a new building, asking the voters to pass a $3.6 million bond issue. The groups also secured matching funds from the state for construction of a new college.

"Myself and the late Bob Burke, who was a state senator at the time, participated in the Speakers Bureau," Casto said. "We spoke to service clubs, PTAs, community groups, all of those kinds of organizations, trying to press upon them the need to get out and vote for the levy - and get it passed.

"I felt deeply about education, felt it needed to be done," he said. "Why ask someone else to do something when we could do it ourselves?"

Casto said the response was almost entirely positive.

"In all my meetings, I can only remember hearing negative comments maybe five times," he said.

The site of the new school was land granted for use by the Wood County Court off West Virginia 47, east of Parkersburg. The location was the former county Poor Farm. In the early 1900s the place had been used as a housing area for poor as well as inmates. An infirmary stood on the grounds, and the land literally acted as a farm for the community to grow its own food.

A small family cemetery stood next to a pauper's cemetery for the indigent, the only remnants of the Poor Farm today. The pauper's cemetery remains behind the current campus and is still in use.

In 1965 the bond issue was passed and in 1967 officials broke ground on the new facility.

In 1966, amid excitement over the creation of a new facility, the college's name changed to West Virginia University-Parkersburg Center. According to Allen's manuscript, the name change was to bring the college more in line with its place in WVU's Center for Appalachian Studies and Development.

By then the student body numbered around 400 and was continuing to grow. Officials were predicting enrollment numbers to top 5,000 by 1980, with about 1,000-2,000 of those being part-time students.

In 1966 the college also established its first two-year nursing program, which became an important program in the college and remains a prominent program today. The first nursing graduates received diplomas in 1969.

In 1969 construction was completed on the new college facility. The original facility was a two-story, yellow brick building. The new building was dedicated Nov. 7, 1969.

In 1971 the college underwent yet another name change, this time becoming Parkersburg Community College. The name change came about as state legislation in April 1971 reclassified the state's branch colleges as community colleges.

When the bill became law the Parkersburg Center became the state's first community college, effectively becoming independent of West Virginia University.

When classes began at Parkersburg Community College in September 1971, the college employed about 40 faculty members, including a full-time librarian. Tuition cost about $9 a credit hour for in-state students and $17 a credit hour for out-of-state enrollments. However, no fee was charged for students enrolled in 3-hours-or-less of credit courses and was pro-rated to about $6 an hour for for students with 4-6 credit hours of enrollment.

Still the school saw a jump in enrollment, about 51.3 percent higher than the previous year, with a total of about 2,256 full-time students.

In the mid-1970s the college's population swelled to more than 5,000 due to the closure of the FMC plant. Both as part of the college's natural growth and due to student demand, the college began to increase and diversify its program offerings. The college began to offer career, academic and transfer programs as well as some four-year programs made available through agreements with other colleges.

However a variety of factors led to unrest on the campus and steadily declining enrollment in the late 1970s.

In 1978 then-President Jerry Lee Jones resigned amid student protests concerning his performance and the college's administration. Funding for the college also dropped, leading to a loss of some teaching positions and course offerings.

Slowly the college began to see its numbers again grow and student relations improve. By the early 1980s, enrollment was about 3,500 students.

For a community college that already had seen more than its share of changes and drama during the past several decades, 1989 proved to be one of its most pivotal years.

On April 8, 1989, the state Legislature approved the Higher Education Reorganization Bill, which effectively placed Parkersburg Community College back under the stewardship of West Virginia University.

On July 1 of that year, PCC was again renamed, this time as West Virginia University at Parkersburg.

The newly cemented relationship allowed WVU-P to work more closely with WVU, creating new course offerings, speeding up the transfer process for students moving between the colleges and helping the local community college to develop a more statewide persona.

As the college continued to grow, the need to offer 4-year degrees became more readily apparent. In 1991 the college became accredited to offer baccalaureate degrees in business administration and elementary education, becoming the only state community college in West Virginia accredited to offer bachelor's degrees.

In 2001 the college developed a Bachelor of Applied Technology degree, the first such degree offered in the state.

In 2006 the college was hailed for its affordability, boasting the second-lowest in-state tuition in the country.

In what seemed to some like a repeat of 1971, the state Legislature in 2008 changed the governance structure for community colleges, effectively again severing the local college's ties with the university.

Local and state officials negotiated for months with WVU administrators to come to an agreement maintaining the relationship between the two institutions. The West Virginia University at Parkersburg Board of Governors held town meetings to discuss the issue with community members, even offering people a chance to vote on possible name changes for the college if a deal with WVU could not be reached.

The two colleges eventually reached an agreement, and in 2009 WVU-P celebrated its 20th year as a regional campus of WVU.

In 2010, WVU-P reported record enrollment. The college continues to grow, both physically in its facilities and academically in enrollment and course offerings.

WVU-P is now the largest community college in West Virginia and the fourth largest public college in the state, with an enrollment of more than 4,500 students. The college also is one of only 34 public institutions in the country classified as a Baccalaureate/Associate's College.

 
 

 

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