BUCKHANNON — The 19th president of West Virginia Wesleyan College doesn’t expect any special treatment.
In fact, he’s asked for the opposite: Dr. Joel Thierstein, who started his stint at Wesleyan on July 1, requested that he spend his first week in Buckhannon residing in the least popular dorm on the campus — Benedum.
“I’m spending the week living in Benedum Hall,” Thierstein said during a recent sit-down interview with The Record Delta. “I said, ‘Put me in the dorm that the students like the least.’ I wanted to see what the worst is here.
“And I’ll tell you something,” he said, smiling and lowering his voice. “It’s not so bad.”
Thierstein was tapped to take the reins from former president Dr. Pamela Balch after a nationwide search headed by former Board of Trustees Chair Marc Halbritter. He arrives at the college after serving as executive vice president and provost at Mt. Saint Joseph University in Cinncinnati, Ohio. He’s also held leadership positions at Kentucky State University, Rice University, Oregon State University and Baylor University.
Thierstein, who was born in Newfoundland, Canada, says he’s been all over the world — most recently traveling to Australia with his daughter, Emily. Having visited every continent but Antarctica — “I think that would be amazing though,” he notes — Thierstein was attracted to apply for the top leadership position at Wesleyan because he believes the Mountain State’s beauty surpasses any place he’s ever seen.
“West Virginia’s the most beautiful place on earth,” he said.
While he was delivering a presentation at Marshall University in Huntington in 1998, Thierstein said he fell in love with the mountains and red and gold-tinged trees.
“I was like, ‘Is there any place more beautiful than West Virginia in October?’” Thierstein said. “Why doesn’t everybody live here?’”
The new president was drawn to Wesleyan specifically because he is a product of Methodist education, having attained his Bachelors of Science, Masters of Science and Ph.D. in mass communications from Syracuse University, also a Methodist-affiliated school.
Wesleyan’s uncompromising academic standards likewise enticed Thierstein to Wesleyan.
“The legacy that it has of academic excellence is a big deal,” Thierstein said. “There’s lots of schools who are struggling now financially, struggling academically, but one of the neat parts about Wesleyan is despite the struggle of small liberal arts colleges — lots of them give up their academics first, and Wesleyan hasn’t done that.
“It’s been really nice to historically watch the school maintain its historical standards and not concede those in any way,” Thierstein added. “That’s unusual. That means I don’t have to fix that, and that’s really nice.”
The relatively small class sizes enable professors at Wesleyan to provide students with more one-on-one interaction, he said.
So, what are Thierstein’s first priorities as he takes the helm of Wesleyan?
“One is, I need to get to know the community — both the Wesleyan community and the Buckhannon community and the West Virginia community as well,” he said. “I really like the people of West Virginia; they have a toughness, but a warmth. I also want to build a good working relationship with other private and public universities in West Virginia.”
Another priority will be filling the vacancy left by former chief financial officer Dr. Barry Pritts, who retired in December 2016.
“We’re looking at that now,” Thierstein said of filling the CFO position. “There’s nothing definitive yet, but we’re more than likely going to have a CFO and we’re looking at sooner rather than later.”
When asked about his leadership style, Thierstein described it as “open,” especially when it comes to the flow of accessibility to information.
“I’m not a micromanager,” he said. “If I’m doing your job, what are you doing? So, why do I need you and who’s doing my job? Micromanaging has always mystified me. I’m more of a hands-off manager.”
And Thierstein says he encourages debate — even when it becomes heated.
“Debate is a longstanding tradition in the academy,” he noted. “Sometimes, it makes even academics uncomfortable, but you’re supposed to say stuff that makes people uncomfortable; that’s why we give you tenure, so your job isn’t in jeopardy if you say something someone doesn’t like.”
Thierstein grew up in a household where debate occurred regularly around the dinner table.
“My mother was a research chemist for Proctor and Gamble and a patent lawyer for most of her career, and a federal judge at the end. But all that didn’t matter,” Thierstein said. “What mattered was that she was the captain of her debate team in high school. I can remember sitting around the dinner table and her saying, ‘We’re going to discuss world economics, Joel, what do you think?’ and I was like, ‘I’m 8, I don’t know.’”
Although Thierstein also earned a law degree from Syracuse University — where he could have exercised his debate skills regularly — he decided that lawyering wasn’t for him.
“I worked as a lawyer at a firm for two years when I was in school, and I found it boring as all-get-out,” Thierstein said. “The tedium of law just wasn’t for me.”
He much prefers the outlet for creativity he’s discovered solving problems as he advances his career in educational leadership.
But that’s not quite enough.
In his downtime — when he has it — Thierstein enjoys cooking and baking as a means to relieve stress, express his ingenuity and “burn off frustrations.”
In addition, Thierstein takes four-mile runs with his black Labrador retriever, Violet, his loyal companion, who will be keeping him company while his daughter, Emily, begins her first semester as a physics major at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif.
Thierstein said he’s looking forward to leading the college, and as a bonus, he’s already amassed quite the collection of orange ties to exhibit that Bobcat spirit.
“I have an entirely orange wardrobe from going to Syracuse, because we were the Syracuse Orangemen, so I thought I would fit in here,” Thierstein joked.