CHARLESTON, W.Va. — With an initial contract almost up for Fairmont State University President Mirta Martin, eyes are focused on a special meeting set for this Monday.
The meeting has gotten attention because the next regularly scheduled gathering of Fairmont State’s governing board is in mid-October.
The official description of the special meeting says “actions emanating from Executive Session, if any, include possible discussion and potential action relating to the contract renewal for the president of the University.”
So far, there’s been little elaboration on what that means.
“We’re just going to have a special meeting that we’re going to discuss some items we need to take care of,” said Deborah Prezioso, secretary of the board of governors. “We’re going to go in and have discussion and then we’ll see.”
The board’s president, Dixie Yann, wasn’t available last week to discuss the focus of the meeting.
The closed meeting is enough to concern Fairmont Mayor Brad Merrifield, who says he has gotten along well with Martin.
“They go into executive session, so you really don’t know how it’s going,” Merrifield said. “We just make sure our support is known for the job she’s doing.”
Merrifield said most of his contact with Martin has come through his role with Main Street Fairmont. Martin has been active and supportive, Merrfield said, and he would like that to continue.
“With her contract coming up at the end of the year and with no movement on that, we just wanted to show our support for her,” Merrifield said. “She plays such an integral part of the relationship that is building between the city, the county and the university.”
Martin’s prior job at Fort Hays State University in Kansas ended after just a little more than two years after a clash with faculty.
Martin was named president of Fairmont in October, 2017, and officially started on Jan. 1, 2018. Her letter of appointment set her state-funded pay at $270,000 a year, although there are financial incentives for reaching certain goals.
The initial contract ends this Dec. 28.
The 4,830 students at Fairmont make it West Virginia’s fourth largest four-year college by enrollment, behind West Virginia University (33,265), Marshall (17,211) and Shepherd (4,962).
Fairmont State’s Student Government Association wrote an open letter supporting Martin. It is dated Oct. 17, because that’s when the next regular board of governors meeting was supposed to be, but the letter has been circulating in recent days.
The letter cites financial recovery for the university, which like many in West Virginia has had to tighten its belt. In Fairmont’s case, the letter describes going from a $2.86 million deficit to a $1.9 million positive.
The letter also describes an enrollment increase this past year for the first time since 2010. That was on the strength of an incoming freshman class of 855 students.
“When we drafted this letter, we just wanted our board of governors to know change can be hard, but students are seeing the tangible results of those changes,” said student government President Tyler Keller, a senior from Moundsville who is studying political science.
“There’s a noticeable difference of excitement and optimism on campus.”
One of those who is worried about what might happen at Monday’s meeting is Paul Smith, a Fairmont State graduate and donor. Smith is also the father of two students at Fairmont.
“None of this should be taking place,” Smith said. “Her contract should have easily been renewed. They’re creating an uproar for really no apparent reason.”
Smith cited a $4.8 million financial turnaround for the university.
“Anyone else who would have accomplished that would have had their contract renewed for a minimum of three years,” he said.
“On numbers alone, she has done everything she’s been asked to do. Now, are you going to step on some toes and make people mad sometimes? Absolutely.”
Lack of clarity about Monday’s meeting has Smith concerned.
“Anything less than a three-year contract is kind of a disgrace. If they give her a one-year contract, we’re going to sit here for 12 more months of this animosity again,” he said.
“Maybe the board has decided to give her a three-year contract or a five-year. I have no idea. But I just know the community needed to get proactive in this situation.”