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Charleston Rotary

Prepared Remarks
May 8, 2017

Thanks, Ted (Armbrecht).

It is great to be here tonight in our capital city, and I am thankful to all of you for inviting me. 
When Ted first contacted me about this speech, he asked that I not give my usual “how wonderful things are at West Virginia University” speech—which tells me that he has heard a lot of my speeches and those of other college and university presidents. 

Maybe it is being around our athletic programs that turns us all into cheerleaders. But Ted is correct in thinking that this serious moment for our state demands more than pom-poms and catchy cheers.

Our economy is at a tipping point. Employment in manufacturing has declined by about one-third since 1990. 

The financial gap is widening between middle- and upper-income households. State spending on public two- and four-year colleges is at its lowest point in a decade.  

The state has lost more than 22,000 jobs overall since early 2012, as much of the nation has enjoyed steady growth. Our 53 percent labor force participation rate is the lowest in the country, 10 percent below the national average.

Clearly, our current strategies are not working. 

Powering our state’s future requires us to look at things in new ways. Our most fearsome enemy is the phrase, “This is the way we do things in West Virginia.”

The world around us is changing quickly, and if we are not the architects of our own change in West Virginia, we will become its victims.

In this tumultuous time, university leaders owe their state more than reassuring platitudes. 

I believe we should be the advance force that advocates new ideas and tough decisions and takes the incoming fire from those too entrenched in their own positions to take risks.

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, West Virginia University should be an impetus for change. Our state’s problems are our problems, so we need to drive solutions. I believe that my role as president is to stimulate conversation and generate ideas that make sense.

Thinking big has always been my preference. What other president would create something called the Center for Big Ideas on campus?

And BIG is also a good acronym for the three major changes that I think West Virginia must make to ensure a prosperous future.

  1. Break with outdated policies and structures
  2. Invest in our future
  3. Generate new opportunities. 

Breaking with outmoded practices is the first step.

It may seem strange for a university president to make this argument, since few places nurture bureaucracy and duplication like a college campus. I have often likened large universities to Noah’s ark, where you are sure to find at least two of everything.

But on our campus, we recognize that traditional approach has no place. Our reward structures must promote innovation, instead of propagating mediocrity. 

We are moving away from a structure that worked well 50 years ago, and crafting policies in a manner that reflect today’s landscape.

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

Because we truly prize faculty and staff performance,  we are eliminating policies that impede improvement. 

At the Legislature this year, we supported legislation that would empower us to design our own policies for hiring and compensation—policies that incentivize performance and enhance employee engagement.

Now that these bills have been signed into law, our ability to generate health, prosperity and educational excellence for West Virginians will increase.

West Virginia as a whole must engage in similar bureaucracy busting. 

And a good place to start would be to consolidate school districts and counties to reduce excess spending.

Our administrative structure might work well for three million people. However, only 1.8 million live here.

Research and the example of other communities show that consolidation can work. Consolidating school districts increases the variety of courses offered, gives teachers more resources and reduces administrative and building costs. 

Streamlining local governments creates an empowered mass of population, such as you see in the Nashville area, where the city and Davidson County governments joined forces and have created among the top-growing areas of the country.

Consolidation help to revitalize the state, which would help us retain talented West Virginia natives and recruit new residents. 

And that brings us to our second imperative for creating prosperity: Investing in the future.
The future of the state is based on talent. We need to nurture talent, keep talent in West Virginia and attract talent. 

That means building a very clear investment strategy that focuses primarily on public schools and infrastructure. Currently, our state has no clear strategy. Each legislative session, we try to patch holes in our leaking roof as the deluge outside accelerates.

At some point, you have to invest in a new roof. Although I believe firmly in busting bureaucracy, West Virginia cannot simply cut its way to prosperity.

In lean times, we must decide where to put our money. 

I am not speaking from a biased position when I say that education is the best possible investment. It is a fact, for example, that every dollar invested in West Virginia University, we generate $10 in return.

While funding for higher education 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.

We do not have a jobs deficit in West Virginia, as much as we have a training deficit, and we need to remedy that problem.

Generating jobs and keeping talented young people in state is our best hope for a better future.
We want to keep people like Morgan King, a civil and environmental engineering major from here in Charleston. Morgan learned about abandoned water systems in Prenter, West Virginia, and 12 other communities while she was interning with the Department of Health and Human Resources. 

She helped to bring our University’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders to Boone County to help get clean water flowing again in Prenter. We want to keep students like Noor Dahshan, also from Charleston, who recently earned on of our most prestigious awards, the Bucklew Scholarship.

Noor, who wants to become a psychiatrist, was born in Oklahoma and lived in Saudi Arabia for two years. But West Virginia is her home, and it is here that she wants to build her future.

Noor said:  “West Virginia has given so much to me it would be wrong of me not to give back,” she said. “The sense of family and community – I always feel safe here. West Virginia becomes your life. I’ve always felt like I belong here.”

Keeping talented young people in West Virginia means creating the best possible K-12 education system.

At our University, we are helping to open 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.

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 at all levels. 

Excellent math and science teachers inspire and prepare students to become tomorrow’s technology innovators, enhancing our national security and burgeoning STEM industries.

The state school superintendent has called our state teacher shortage a crisis, with more than 700 vacancies across the state. Many of the openings are in math and science positions. 

While the problem is especially acute here, it reflects a national trend.

Too few of our experts in STEM—science, technology, engineering and math—are choosing to apply their talents to teaching the next generation. Only 30 percent of eighth graders learn math from a teacher with an undergraduate degree in the mathematics, and only 48 percent of eighth graders have science teachers who majored in science. 

We are doing something about this problem through WVUteach , a robust partnership between Eberly College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Education and Human Services. 

Students also feed into the program through the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources and the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design. Although the program just started in 2015, we already have 143 students enrolled and we look forward to graduating our first class in 2018. 

With the average STEM salary in West Virginia paying $62,940, nearly double the state average for non-STEM careers, the potential returns are huge: If each graduate from WVUteach inspires even one student to pursue a STEM career, the increased revenue to the state will pay for the program many times over. 

Simply training more teachers is not enough, however, if many of our education graduates continue to leave West Virginia. 

Even among those who stay here after graduation, approximately one in three leave the state or the school system by the fourth year of their teaching career. Salaries below the national average are the reason for the exodus and another example of why indiscriminate budget-slashing cannot generate prosperity.

Increasing the college-going rate in West Virginia is another key to retaining talent. 

Research shows that in-state students are far more likely to work in the state after graduation than out-of-state students.

Increasing access to higher education in southern West Virginia is the reason we are moving our Montgomery campus to Beckley this summer.

Along with our campus in Keyser and health sciences campuses in Martinsburg and Charleston, our Beckley campus will help us provide the academic programming and supportive environments that meet the needs of our students.

To ensure that students who enroll at our University make it to graduation, we have designed an undergraduate experience called Project 168 that helps make the most of every moment our students spend on campus. 

Across every discipline, we are nurturing the drive to discover and create 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.

Because an educated workforce is so important to our future, we have also been working 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 for reductions at that level. 

However, some legislative leaders have suggested much larger reductions to higher education.
Reductions of that magnitude would jeopardize the educational quality and value we offer students, as well as programs and services we provide to the state.

We are also facing challenges at the national level, with our country’s new budget director indicating a desire to reduce funding to many of our University’s important partners in transformation, including the Department of Education, the Department of Agriculture, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Appalachian Regional Commission, Americorps and the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities.

Forward-looking West Virginians must stand up for the importance of investing in education, research, science, the arts and community partnerships.

As Chancellor Paul Hill has said:  “When we support our students, they  give back to West Virginia. College graduates are more likely to be employed, and they help drive innovation and offer service to their communities. Helping more students earn a college degree is a critical component in our work to move West Virginia forward.”

The third step in our quest to move forward is generating new opportunities. 

And this is West Virginia University’s biggest strength. We are the state’s idea generator.
We are partnering with West Virginia’s struggling communities, such as Charleston’s West Side, where we are pairing University resources with front-line intelligence from residents to capitalize on economic trends.

To support economic growth, we created the WVU Innovation Corporation, a new tool that will enable us to increase the amount of contract-based testing and evaluation that we perform for industry and government agencies.

To promote workforce development, we are working with such companies as Boeing to offer online degrees in fields that match industry needs. Arrangements like this bring value to corporations by offering the expertise and knowledge that our University has in niche areas.

To promote tourism, our state’s second-largest industry, we created a hospitality and tourism program in our College of Business and Economics that was the first of its kind in this state. Students in the program gain real-world experience in restaurant and hotel management by spending time in learning labs.

Across many disciplines, we are leveraging our fundamental research capabilities and building stronger relationships with industry and government.

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.

We have also joined the Rapid Advancement in Process Intensification Deployment institute, or RAPID, which focuses on using advanced manufacturing to boost the productivity and efficiency of some industrial processes by 20 percent in the next five years.

To diversify our state economy, we are nurturing the startup firms that power much current economic growth. To give students and citizens the skills to start their own businesses, we have created the Launch Lab, our resource center for budding entrepreneurs. We also host high school and college business plan competitions and created the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Law Clinic at the College of Law, whose projects include providing legal services to West Virginia student inventors.

Working together, with communities, businesses, other educators and concerned citizens, we can make West Virginia a model for people across this country—a model of the resilience, determination, and cooperation—and a living and learning laboratory for successful partnerships among all sectors.
We can create a better future if we think big. That is why, in our 150th year, we have recommitted 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 and finding common ground is the foundation for our future.

Performing at our absolute best is our pledge to those who invest and trust in us.

Displaying our Mountaineer pride is not just cheerleading. It is an invitation for friends like you to join us as we transform our state and our world.

Now, I would be glad to take your questions.