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2017 State of the University Address

President E. Gordon Gee
March 22, 2017

On February 7, 1867, America’s newest state created a land-grant university. The federal government provided the resources, and the people of West Virginia — still recovering from the Civil War — dared to imagine a better world for their children.

This year as we observe our sesquicentennial, we are given the opportunity to reflect on the past, celebrate the present and prepare for the future. Ours is a storied history — rich with groundbreaking discoveries, academic achievements, athletic pride and a love for the gold and blue that beats strong around the world.

One constant that has held true throughout our 150 years — through wars, economic fluctuations and incredible technological advancements — West Virginia University has been a polar star guiding West Virginians toward that brighter tomorrow.

We have always held the mission as a land-grant institution close to our hearts. It is the driving force for everything we do under our three pillars of education, healthcare and prosperity. And those pillars have never been more important to West Virginia than they are today.

Our state is at a tipping point. Economic shifts have triggered a  half-billion-dollar budget crisis — one that we have faced for the past several years. I, however, do not see a crisis. I see an opportunity. And today, we can either stack hands to create new solutions – or we can stand in political silos and continue to struggle. I choose stacking hands.

That is why we are working so diligently in partnership with our Governor and legislative leaders to invest in higher education. In the past three years, West Virginia University has dealt with a nearly $30 million dollar reduction in state funding. In January, the governor proposed an additional 4.4 percent reduction – and we are prepared should that occur. However, last week when legislative leaders suggested an even further reduction to higher education, it became imperative that we lead the charge to change the state’s strategy from “cut” to “invest.”

Let us consider some facts: Employment in manufacturing has declined by about one-third since 1990. Today, the financial gap only widens  between middle- and upper-income households. Meanwhile, state spending on public two- and four-year colleges is at its lowest point  in a decade.  

And while funding has decreased in the past few years, the need for  higher education is at an all-time high. Consider this statistic from the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University. Since 2008, 11.8 million jobs have emerged in this country. But only 80,000 of those jobs required only a high-school education. The rest required either a college degree  or substantial post-secondary training.

Think about that for a minute: 80,000 of 11.8 million jobs required only a  high-school diploma. We have often said that higher education provides more opportunities — and it is never more evident than today.

As a land-grant institution, we are a powerful catalyst for changing  lives. The pathway to success is an educated citizenry. And if we are not the architects of change, we will become its victims. My observation is that change is debilitating when done to us , but exhilarating when done by us . So let us lead this University and this state to a mentality of abundance and a position of prosperity.

What does that mean exactly? It means together we must move swiftly and with urgency. We can no longer function like the university that was established in 1867. We must operate like a modern-day university that is nimble and insightful enough to meet the demands of an ever-changing society. It is time to break down these ivy-covered walls that keep us stagnant in the past.

It means we must be consistent and exemplary in execution. Every action we take must be made with the best interest of the university — and the state — in mind. We also must continue to integrate so that our structure is wholly aligned — from academics to athletics to alumni to health care. We must stand confidently in the One West Virginia University we have become.

We must move our transformation agenda forward with both thoughtfulness and trust. Because without trust, we have nothing. Abraham Lincoln once said he would rather trust and be disappointed than distrust and be miserable all of the time. If we cannot come to the table with our partners and peers with an agenda of open dialogue and good intentions, then we should not come to the table at all.

So as we move forward, we must fix our gaze on our own polar star — our mission to advance education, healthcare and prosperity for all by providing access and opportunity; by advancing new, life-changing research; and by leading transformation in West Virginia and around the world.

Those words from our new mission statement inspire us to re-imagine our future while remaining true to our time-honored purpose. Our new mission, vision and values grew from a collaborative process involving  students, faculty and staff. All voices contributed to craft a refrain that  we can exult together in chorus.

You know by now that I am not a fan of strategic plans. They are often created in a vacuum, and then placed in a binder that is shelved. That may have worked for higher education 50 — or even 20 — years ago — but no more.

Today we will be strategic and malleable to meet the needs of our world. And we will do so by implementing a strategic vision based on our core Mountaineer values. These values form a framework for the decisions we make — and the actions we take. And the best decision will always be the one that reflects our core values: Service, Curiosity, Respect, Accountability and Appreciation.

So, let us begin with Service. This is at the very heart of our existence. We demonstrate this value in the programs provided by our Extension Service, to the health care we administer in rural areas and to the assistance we delivered after last summer’s flood. Our faculty, staff and students stand ready to lend a helping hand or partner on a new program. And we always look for new ways in which to serve.

For example, the School of Medicine is launching three new physician-training programs on the Morgantown campus. The residency programs in radiation oncology and plastic surgery, as well as a fellowship program in vascular surgery, addresses known needs in our state. All three programs anticipate having their first resident physician on board by July.

WVU Medicine, which is now the state’s largest private employer, served 800,000 outpatients and treated more than 37,000 in the hospital in 2016.

And in January, the WVU Heart and Vascular Institute opened its new doors on the Morgantown campus to serve patients from around the country. In the first two months, there were more than 700 clinic visits in the new facility. Another 5,600 patients were seen in WVU Heart and Vascular Institute clinics around the state and region.

In addition to advancing health care, we also serve to grow West Virginia’s economy. Energy is an important industry in the state, and our faculty and staff members are advancing efficient, sustainable energy production.

For example, we have joined a national effort to turn natural gas into valuable products — and do it at the wellhead. This serves a real-world need for many production locations in West Virginia, where some shale gas resources are stranded without pipeline infrastructure, which affects access and price.

There also is no better example of meeting the needs of our state than by those who serve at our divisional campuses. As we complete the move of our Montgomery campus to Beckley this summer, we are opening new opportunities to students in southern West Virginia and  the surrounding region. And our campus in Keyser provides access  and affordability to students in the eastern panhandle and metro areas of Maryland and Virginia. These, as well as our health sciences campuses in Martinsburg and Charleston, provide the academic programming and supportive environments that meet the needs of our students.

And if we want to build a workforce capable of performing the technology-rich careers of the future, we must build an educational system that instills those skills in students.

Our university is providing high school teachers with the training to do just that through WVU Teach. And now, through a new $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, WVU Teach will create an ambitious partnership with the Doddridge and Marion County School districts to support at least 25 new high school teachers over the next four years.

So, as we improve education with service in mind, it also involves opening children’s eyes to the joy of discovery. From facilitating robotics projects for schoolchildren to giving virtual music lessons to rural students, our faculty members are nurturing the force that drives all discovery: Curiosity — and that is our second core value.

We ask questions, seek new opportunities and chart new frontiers from the Milky Way to equine therapy stables to cost-effective bridge construction systems. We believe in scientific discovery as a force for increasing human understanding and solving humanity’s challenges.

The urge to create through the arts and humanities is as powerful as the drive to discover through science and engineering.

From creating contemporary imagery that merges art and digital worlds to directing a film honored at Sundance to using a string quartet to help elementary school students learn fractions, our faculty and students are proving that art can expand our understanding of the world.

Across every discipline, we are nurturing the drive to discover and create in our students through community projects such as a six-week exposure to how a water crisis affects a community to the production of a 360-degree video on West Virginia’s flood recovery, which earned recognition from the Newseum.

Helping our students conceive new ideas is crucial, and so is modeling for them the free and thoughtful exchange of ideas. Which brings us to our third core value: Respect.

We support each other by being courteous, transparent and inclusive.

As a community of scholars, we must be willing not only to hear others’ opinions about things that matter deeply; we must also be bold enough to engage with them in frank, civil dialogue.

One of our primary purposes as an academic institution is to nurture our  students' questioning spirits — to help them understand that they have not only the freedom to speak, but also the responsibility to listen and understand.

The 21st century demands leaders who, despite glaring differences of opinion, have respect for the views of their peers. People who are able to think, to reason, and to debate are the ultimate antidote to incivility and intolerance.

It is our charge to teach students how to debate civilly, protest peacefully and learn from people whose opinions and choices differ from their own.

Any attempt to deny free speech protections to others is a threat to our own freedom. It is a threat to education. And it is a threat to democracy itself.

The backdrop for open discussion must always be an institution that is inclusive and supportive. West Virginia University appreciates — and supports — individuality. We will never tolerate discrimination or intimidation of any kind on our campus.

And just as it is our responsibility to teach our students, it is also our responsibility to learn from them.

Two years ago we began a journey to change the culture of this University — and we started with our students. The fall of 2014 was a semester that tested our mettle. However, we met the issues head-on by having direct and candid conversations with our student leaders. The University worked in partnership with our students to begin creating the culture we wanted at West Virginia University — not one that was presented by the actions of a few.

From re-imagining Greek life to increasing sexual assault awareness to helping our state’s communities during times of tragedy, our students have demonstrated the possibilities — and the power — that can occur when people come together.  I am incredibly proud of our students who have helped shine a light on a campus of which we all can be proud.

And as a land-grant university, we will unfurl our unifying spirit throughout West Virginia. Our goal is to create and maintain a culture in which equality is too integral to our daily operations to be thought of as controversial. Doing so is part of our mission, and — like all our work — it demands our best effort. And that leads me to our fourth core value: Accountability.

We must perform at our very best every day to create a University that is responsive and effective.

Our accountability to West Virginia taxpayers has driven our endeavors to bust bureaucracy, increase efficiency and seek new revenue sources.

We have made great strides. In fact, in the first phase of a business office consolidation plan, we merged five formerly independent business offices into one unit, reducing annual costs by $330,000. We also simplified the purchasing and payment process with Mountaineer Marketplace, saving $100,000 on bank processing fees since July.

Being accountable means working smarter. It also means hiring the very best people in the country and making them want to stay here — and that includes being prepared to pay for quality.

It means building a merit-based University. It means rewarding people for what they do best. We need to value each faculty and staff member as an individual, with individual strengths he or she brings to our institution.

I have spoken on this topic many times. A one-size-fits-all approach has no place at a university. Our reward structures must promote innovation, instead of propagating mediocrity. It is time to move away from a structure that worked well 50 years ago. Reward and recognition should be crafted in a manner that reflects the nuances of today’s higher education landscape.

Our culture survey reflected a desire among faculty and staff for more feedback and coaching on their performances, and we are already working to give those in supervisory roles more knowledge and tools for mentoring and evaluating employees.

Because we truly prize performance, we are also eliminating policies that impede improvement. As resources available from the state have declined, it has become imperative that we have greater flexibility in areas such as human resources. We supported legislation that would empower us to design our own policies for hiring and compensation — policies that incentivize performance and enhance employee engagement.

I have always had tremendous respect for the leadership of our staff and for the staff of this University. And during these past few months, I have appreciated your expressions of candor, concerns and enthusiasm even more so as we have discussed this legislation. I am aware that not everyone embraces change. But I also am keenly aware that we cannot fail to move forward. I truly look forward to working with our staff leadership to create a new environment that will recognize and reward those who work to make this university great.

And with the enactment of this successful legislation, our ability to generate health, prosperity and educational excellence will increase. This has never been more important to West Virginians. Our reward systems for faculty and staff should reflect and illustrate our final core value: Appreciation.

We need to support, value and celebrate each other’s successes.

And we have so much to celebrate.

Whether we are pinpointing a fast radio burst for the first time, earning first place from the Broadcast Education Association for a television newscast or bringing home our first Big 12 tournament championship — “Mountaineers Go First.”

We dig deeper, venture further and go beyond what is expected. Your work is helping this University climb higher on every gauge of excellence. Your accomplishments deserve appreciation.

That is why we are taking our Climb Higher recognition program to a new level to honor you — and to help you honor your colleagues — for living our values every day.

The easy-to-use recognition platform, called GoBeyond, will be like your favorite social media outlets, except instead of posting pictures of your cat and collecting likes for your witty political quips, you will be thanking the people who make our University stronger and seeing how much people appreciate your own contributions.

Celebrating success is the best way to inspire more success.

That same phenomenon is at work in the State of Minds campaign,  in which our increasingly renowned academic strength has inspired donors to invest more than $1 billion dollars to increase our momentum.

The recent $10 million dollar gift from Bob and Laura Reynolds to the  College of Business and Economics is a great example. Their gift will provide initial funding for a new business school complex, which will be a community for our students and a hub of business activity at its location on Morgantown’s waterfront. Bob and Laura saw the college’s success in preparing students for careers, learned about the vision for the future, and took steps to make it a reality.

In these challenging times, we appreciate our donors’ generosity as never before.

And we must take to heart the words that President John F. Kennedy once said: “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the  highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”  

That is why, in this milestone year, we recommit our University to living the values that drive our work. Serving our students and our state is not just our duty — it is our passion.

Daring to conceive new ideas, try new solutions and blaze new paths is our daily calling.

Respecting each other will lead to hearing each other and finding common ground on which to build our future.

Performing at our absolute best will repay those who invest and trust in us.

And celebrating our successes will inspire more people to join us as we transform West Virginia and the world.

So, in my final thoughts — and I am sure you are glad they are nearing an end — I want to take a moment to talk about another way in which West Virginia University can demonstrate our values.

We can serve as a model thought-leader for all universities and colleges to emulate.

I am both the biggest critic and biggest cheerleader of higher education. While I criticize the old methods in which we operate, I also recognize the fact that universities today MUST lead.

This is a tumultuous time for higher education. With threats to funding, limitations on free speech and attacks on the merit of a college degree, we in higher education must stand together as never before.

Our country’s new budget director has clearly indicated that there will be a substantial increase in defense spending paid for by reducing spending in other discretionary areas.

And though I never consider it my role to pontificate on the choices our national leaders make, I do consider it my responsibility to ensure that the very elements that create a vibrant educational and research environment remain in place.

Let me state unequivocally that as an R1 land-grant institution, West Virginia University is better because of its partnerships. Therefore, the University will work tirelessly to share with our national leaders the consequences any funding reductions to such partners as the Department of Education, the Department of Agriculture, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Appalachian Regional Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts and the Humanities.

I agree with Defense Secretary General Mattis that we should never take money away from the diplomatic services or from our humanistic or research programs to support military spending. If we do, we may win battles, but lose the ultimate war for the hearts and minds of so many.

It is on topics such as these to which universities must speak. We have become complacent in our actions and passive in our rhetoric. In hopes of offending no one, we say very little of value. In hopes of not being a political target from the left or the right, we step aside.

Universities are at the very epicenter of “center.” Ours are the green spaces and the classrooms where right and left meet. Where religions from around the world gather…where languages and customs are shared…where we embrace our unique differences.

If our students do not learn how to have civil discourse under shared values on our campuses, then where? If our students and faculty do not feel they can express themselves in a college classrooms, then where? These are the very spaces where new opinions are generated, where questions are questioned, and where beliefs are either reinforced — or changed.

Now is the time to stand up against those who discredit higher education — those who claim we work and study in an idealistic world. Actually, the world in which we live is one that believes in the free expression and exchange of ideas and knowledge. The world in which we live is one that is developing the leaders of tomorrow.

So, this is a pivotal time in our history where our voices must be heard — despite fear, despite retribution. I do not believe every naysayer speaks with malicious intent — misinformation, perhaps — but not with malicious intent. Indeed a young Anne Frank wrote in a time of unimaginable turmoil, “Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.”

And though I may not know all the answers, I do know this: West Virginians are really good at heart. I know this University is really good at heart.

And I know that today West Virginia University surpasses anything of which our forebears could have dreamed on February 7, 1867.

So with our good hearts, let us defend higher education. Let us defend the advancement of the arts, the humanities and the sciences. Let us defend all for which this University stands to improve the lives of our students, our faculty and staff, and 1.8 million West Virginians.

And let us do so with the same fervor in which West Virginia University was founded 150 years ago.  

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