MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia University president Gordon Gee, reacting to the alcohol-related death of freshman Nolan Burch, said students alone cannot change the tendency toward “irresponsible and reckless behaviors” linked to college drinking.

In a letter released Friday, Gee called on parents, faculty and community leaders to help fix “a culture that needs to be changed at nearly every institution of higher education across this country.”

Burch, 18, died last week after an alcohol-related incident at a fraternity house on WVU’s downtown campus. Morgantown police continue to investigate his death.

The complete letter from Gee:

Dear Mountaineer Family:

Nolan Burch was an 18-year-old freshman full of energy and enthusiasm. Those who knew him well spoke of his love for life, his positive attitude and his passion for West Virginia University. His parents shared with me the excitement they all felt as he unpacked his belongings at Summit Hall this past August. That excitement turned to grief last week, when on Friday, Nov. 14, Nolan Burch passed away.

It is never easy to lose one of our own.

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.

When I spoke to Nolan’s father, I learned that three people are alive today due to Nolan. His organs were donated through Ruby Memorial Hospital to patients in need. This tragic loss brought our 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.

Two of those issues needing to be addressed are alcohol and 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.

So, how do we go about changing a culture in which the participation of a small percentage affects the whole?

Robert Kennedy once said, “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.”

I believe 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.

But this is not just a student issue for us to solve. It is not just a University issue. It is an issue that will take the support of our entire Mountaineer community — parents, families, faculty, staff, alumni and community leaders. We are bringing in national facilitators to assist our students in thoughtful solutions. We are partnering with alumni who bring ideas. We are reaching out to the community to ask the necessary, hard questions that may not always have easy answers.

However, together with our students, we will implement solutions that allow us to soar, not suppress. That connect people not divide them. That in the end, demonstrate that a culture is not dictated by your past but can be positively transformed by your present. And that is what our University is all about: translating ideas into actions that make a difference in our lives.

And it is in those actions that West Virginia University will rise to a better calling — a higher calling.

E. Gordon Gee

President, West Virginia University

Burch was found unresponsive at the Kappa Sigma house on Nov. 12, two days after the fraternity had its charter revoked by the national office.

The WVU chapter of Beta Theta Pi fraternity also lost its charter this week for behavioral issues.

Six Sigma Chi fraternity members were cited for hazing this week for underage drinking that occurred when 19 pledges were taken from a bar and left in a South Park neighborhood as part of a so-called team-building exercise.

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Comments

  • Samantha

    Lip service. Unless Gee is willing to implement radical changes (& that's honestly what it's going to take), then press statements & minor actions equate to a band aid on a severed limb.

  • Robert

    Gee whiz

  • Robert Chapman

    Anyone who has been to college, visited a campus or knows someone who has, knows that college students drink. Although recent surveys have suggested that two-thirds of students drink one-quarter of the alcohol on campus, the remaining third consume three-quarters of the beer, wine, and liquor consumed on American campuses. With these students consuming this much alcohol, it would seem the question is how come we do not see more events like these? And why do college students, in many cases America's best and brightest, continue to engage in high risk drinking? How can students intelligent enough to be honors students in high school and admitted college do something as apparently foolish as drink themselves to death?

    My 25+ years of experience working with collegians regarding high-risk behaviors has taught me that too many students believe they are immune to the consequences of heavy drinking. Students tell me that tragedies like these result because of "bad luck" or because the students involved were "stupid." In short, they cannot conceive of themselves as ever being in a similar situation, that is, until it happens. When a student would see me following an alcohol induced crisis, she or he would invariably use this same reasoning to explain her/his experience, "I have the worst luck" or "I was just stupid."

    This attitude is similar to a phenomenon reported in social psychology called the "just world hypothesis." This hypothesis suggests that "good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people." If something bad happens to someone, the tendency is to think, "she got what she deserved" or "he must be really stupid." When applied to college students, this phenomenon can suggest immunity when engaging in high-risk behavior because all students "know" they are good people so how can anything bad happen to "me"? So even when research shows us we have done an excellent job educating students about the risks of alcohol use, it comes as no surprise that those same students experience tragic consequences when they drink excessively. As we all know, bad things do happen to good people.

    Another phenomenon that may help us understand these tragedies likewise comes from the research of social psychology. "Groupthink," as it is called, is an explanation of a particular type of group decision making. When the leadership of a cohesive group influences the group, isolated from a main stream of thinking on a particular issue--think a fraternity, sports team, or other group to which novices aspire to join--poor decisions tend to result when the group is placed under stress. The hallmarks of such flawed decision making include a group's belief that it is invincible and has a moral responsibility to act in a particular fashion. There is also a tendency to view individuals outside the group as "others" and to justify this by using stereotypes. When the group employs a buffer that insulates it from outside influence, a buffer that censors contrary or alternative view to those expressed by the group and its leadership, individual members are pressured to "fall into step" and go along with the decision of the group. Drinking to intoxication with an obvious elevation in the risk that negative consequences will occur can further muddle this entire process of group decision making. In this situation, the normal checks and balances employed in decision making are no longer in force.

    These phenomena not only explain why individuals students ignore the facts regarding collegiate drinking, believing they do not apply to them, personally, they also offer a likely explanation for why hazing and other similar group behaviors also appear so intractable on college and university campuses.

    What if there was an objective--that is to say, "from outside the campus community--investigative "board" to look into incidents like those reported here, much like the National Traffic Safety Board investigates air tragedies? What could we learn if the victims’ friends were interviewed about the situation? What could be learned from the collateral present at the event? What could come from an objective analysis of the environment in which the tragedy occurred? How did the confluence of agent (alcohol), environment (fraternity/party/game/dance/etc.), and a host (the drinker) affect the out come?

    Unfortunately we Americans tend to look at tragedy and ask, "who’s responsible"? rather than try to understand what happened so as to prevent it from happening again. The Onondaga Indians of Upstate NY used to make their decisions governing the tribe by considering the law’s impact on the seventh generation. I wonder what would happen if we looked at the issue of collegiate drinking, listened to student perspectives, and initiated programs/policies based on their impact on the seventh generation?

    • The bookman

      You make a lot of great points, but I can't help but return to the same truth. This young man, like most other young adults, engaged in risky behavior. Tragedies like this will happen. All we can do is all we have ever done. Try our best to prepare our children for that time when they will be on their own making their own decisions as adults. No amount of prohibition, activist awareness campaigns, hand wringing in an inclusive committee, or outreach to student populations will ever eradicate these tragedies from occurring.

      We live in a free society, where we have choices and different paths to take. The downside of that is the fact that some choices are better than others, and some paths are dead ends or worse. Say a prayer for Mr Burch's family, tell his story to attempt use it as a tool to impress upon young people the dangers of such behavior, and realize that we can't prevent life from dealing its consequences.

  • John VanTromp

    Set an example by stopping the sale of beer at WVU athletic events. You can't say you oppose drinking if you sell it during games.
    What is the message you send to students?
    Do you really want culture change or is this just the politically correct thing to say?

  • R Johnson

    WVU is becoming known for too many negative incidents.

    Looting/burning/trashing/rioting/etc. after wins and fraternities that cannot abide by their own rules.

    Gee's letter really doesn't put the blame where it belongs - STUDENTS.

    If this was another WV school the media and legislature would be talking about more drastic action but WVU has gotten a pass for too long for their bad behavior.

  • WVU fan in Boston

    Are the fraternities and sororities on WVU owned properties? If so I would suggest that the
    fraternities and sororities need to have the WVU University Police as 'hired details' at all functions. And if they are on WVU property they should be considered 'residences' like Boreman/Arnold Halls and have the right to do un-annouced walk throughs like the can in other 'residences'. While not covering all the activities this would tone down this section of 'frat row'.

  • WVUman1973

    WVU should look at their own internal policies including selling beer at football games. If they are serious about a culture change that would be a very good start and show they are leading by example. I suspect the power of the all-mighty dollar will sway them from making that leap.

    • ViennaGuy

      Why are people blaming beer at football games for this problem? The fact remains that issues with alcohol on campus existed LONG BEFORE beer was sold at football games. Indeed, the problem with alcohol at football games was WORSE because people could leave the stadium at halftime, get drunk, and come back. They can't do that now. And it needs to be pointed out that Nolan Burch's death, as tragic as it is, has NOTHING to do with beer being sold at a football game.

      I don't drink beer, but this thing of blaming beer at football games for these problems on campus is ridiculous.

      • Hillboy

        I don't think anyone is blaming beer at football games in particular. The fact remains though that several times per year the university sponsors what amounts to a mass alcohol binge. It is hard to take seriously anyone talking about party culture change while WVU continues to turn the blind eye to what goes on during home football games.

        I took my son to a couple football games in the past few years and we won't go to another because of the alcohol-fueled misbehavior that takes place. WVU home football games are part of the party culture even if they had nothing to do with Nolan Burch's unfortunate death.

      • Fred

        Alcohol and disgusting behavior go hand-in-hand at WVU football games and this year is the worst. Thursday night's game was a ridiculous drunken mess in which my wife was hit with a bottle thrown from somewhere behind us. The fans, well you know how WVU fans are...

    • Aaron

      What if students are not purchasing the majority of the beer at the stadium? The truth is that in society alcohol is as destructive as a drug as there is but it is legal because of the revenue it brings in. Despite the fact that Prohibition worked as supporters said it would,the 21st Amendment was passed, repealing the 18th Amendment to provide revenue for government. Why stop at WVU and the stadium, why not address a societal problem and repeal the 21st Amendment?

  • Embarrassed Student

    Maybe if President Gee didn't go to house parties and bars for Facebook and Instagram photo opps with students, people would take his requests for a culture change more seriously...there are much more appropriate ways for the president of a university to get involved with the student body.

  • wv gal

    Pres.Gee cannot be blamed...it has been happening for years and not just at WVU..my son attends Potomac State of WVU and for a small school..alcohol is a big problem along with other things...parents have to accept some responsibility also and i do believe WVU and Potomac State needs to quit recruiting the trash from out of state..Once a proud Potomac State Alumni..not anymore..

  • WV Grad

    Responsible leadership seeking a better way:
    thank you Pres. Gee.

    • wvrefugee

      It takes more than a bow tie and photo opts to be a leader.....ask Ohio State!

  • alwaysfree

    1. Do many WVU students know how to have fun without alcohol ? For many these days, it's not cool to smoke - it needs to become not cool to drink or ,at the least, to get dead
    drunk. Changing behavior must offer rewards.
    2. How much booze are their parents buying? What I see in the grocery store lines these days blows the mind.
    3. I believe Dr. Gee is sincere and trust that the brain bank at WVU will get started right away.

    • rose

      A mother I know said it is a 'liberating' day when you realize you don't have to drink to excess.
      I know when we have been to bowl games that the club tier is FILLED with drunk WV adults.

      A' liberating' day does not just apply to young people. The boozers always make allowances for themselves and excuse their excesses.
      Responsible drinking is just part of becoming a responsible adult. Or they can stay in the 'Peter Pan' mentality all of their lives and prove that nothing is worse than watching old drunk people in their altered state of consciousness.

    • J the C

      Always cool to drink Not in this state if excess.

  • cb

    He says that while they voted to sell alcoholic beverages at sporting events.

    • J the C

      Are you really that stupid?

    • tom

      exactly correct sell at the stadium to make money
      "pursuit of money is root of all evil"

      • Aaron

        4 out of 5 college students nationwide drink alcohol. To label this a WVU problem is ludicrous. It is a societal problem.

    • ViennaGuy

      Gee was not the school president when the decision to sell alcohol at the stadium was made.

      Are you going to blame Gee for the cold weather at late-season football games, too?

  • Rod

    Gee is a bigger joke then the whole state of WV. His man was run out of not only OSU but the whole state. This crook is a lawyer plus sat on the board of Massey Energy. He and Oliver Luck both need kicked out of not only WVU but the whole state. WVU will only be a party school that is it nothing less.

    • English Teacher

      Rod..."then" the whole state of WV? Come back when you can spell and know your grammar. Or so you'll understand ... Come back whin ewe can spill and no you're grammer.

      Good grief, who is "his" man who was run out of OSU anyhow and why wasn't this covered in this story? Your last line isn't even coherent. That being said, I'm going to have to give you an "F" on your post. But I'm sure being a failure is nothing new to you. As they say, it's probably just "water off a duck's back" to you.

      • Stupid Hillbillies

        ^^^^^ **GRAMMER NAZI** Alert ^^^^^^ Such a shame she was able to comprehend the point of the comment, but isn't smart enough to over look the spelling errors.

        English Teacher - HERE'S YOUR SIGN! "I'm a stupid Union Member and a LIBERAL Loon!"

    • An Observer

      I'll bet you're one of those in-bred idiots that are sometimes shown in movies and documentaries as a typical West Virginian.

    • WVUproud

      It's "than" not "then". Also, you don't know your ass from a hole in the ground.

    • Charles

      Typical red-neck thinking, Rod. You are exactly what President Gee says needs changing.

    • Harley

      Gee is a class act. Have you ever talked to the man?

    • ViennaGuy

      WVU was a party school before Gee and Luck arrived on campus. Try again.

  • Stupid Hillbillies

    Make your checks payable to the GEE - THROW MORE MONEY AT IT FUND. Status Quo to remain. I'd bet money on it.

  • J the C

    I like this. No knee-jerk reaction or vows to clamp down on this or that. Thoughtful. An invitation to the community as a whole to evaluate the situation and come up with meaningful solutions. I'm glad he recognizes something that is critical. This isn't just a WVU problem, but a national problem.