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Annual D.C. Alumni Luncheon Keynote

 

Prepared Remarks
July 10, 2014

It is a great honor to be in the nation’s capital today with so many dedicated Mountaineers, especially our entire Congressional Delegation, and their staff members, who serve our state and nation.

Senator Rockefeller, Senator Manchin, Congresswoman Capito, Congressman McKinley and Congressman Rahall: We appreciate your leadership, your guidance, and your unwavering support for all West Virginians.

Another special guest who is with us today is Helen Holt, West Virginia’s first female secretary of state.

I would also like to acknowledge the National Capitol Area Chapter for hosting this event and for all you do to unite Mountaineer nation — and advance West Virginia University — in our nation’s capital.

So here I am, back where I started — at a university that gave me an unusual opportunity to respond to the issues of the day — and the blessing of being part of an institution at its time of transformation.

Since I returned to West Virginia University, I have received the warmest possible welcome from Mountaineers everywhere.

To meet as many of them as possible, I decided to visit each and every county in our beautiful state — and I will have achieved that goal by next month.

From 4-H camps in Hedgesville, Jackson’s Mill and Beckley — to a gas well near Moundsville—from tours of college and university campuses — to a session with McDowell County high school students and participants and volunteers in our wonderful Energy Express programs — I have reacquainted myself with the unique character that is West Virginia.

In fact, I got to snap a picture with the Mothman statue in Point Pleasant during one of my stops.

There were some passers-by who stopped to gawk at the strange-looking creature — and then they turned their attention to the Mothman.

I look forward to continuing my 55-county tour of West Virginia and experiencing more of the hidden gems and vast beauty the state has to offer.

What has been apparent during my visits around the state is that West Virginians are strong-willed people with a character of independence and spirit that has become unusual in this nation.

And it is clear: West Virginians love West Virginia.

Of course, West Virginians are also modest. In my opinion, they are modest to a fault when it comes to talking about the quality of life and quality of opportunity we have in West Virginia.

It reminds me of a story about Henry Augustus Rowland, professor of physics at Johns Hopkins University, who was once called as an expert witness at a trial. During cross-examination a lawyer demanded, “What are your qualifications as an expert witness in this case?”

The normally modest and retiring professor replied quietly, “I am the greatest living expert on the subject under discussion.” Later a friend expressed surprise at the professor’s uncharacteristic answer. Rowland answered, “Well, what did you expect me to do? I was under oath.”

We should all take an oath to sing our state’s praises and tell the world how good we are, rather than focusing on the challenges. And during my travels, I have seen the challenges we face. But I have also seen the opportunities.

And those opportunities can be fueled by the energy and the people of West Virginia University. I am visiting every county because I believe that West Virginia University is, truly, West Virginia’s university.

As I have stated many times since I returned, I will work tirelessly until all 1.8 million West Virginians believe in their hearts and in their minds that West Virginia University is their University.

They are counting on us.

And why are they counting on us? What do they need above all?

Jobs.

Today, higher education is about jobs and opportunity.

In the early 20th century, America’s most enterprising people — the Carnegies, the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers — made their fortunes from manufacturing and the hard work people did in their steel mills and coal mines and oil fields.

Now, in the 21st century, a person like Bill Gates owes his fortune to ideas — ideas and technology developed at our nation’s universities.

Microsoft. Apple. Google. All of these companies flourished on the ideas and ingenuities created on the campuses of the great American university. It is what Mr. Lincoln envisioned.

We can cure cancer. We can write the great American novel. We can discover new galaxies — because we are Mr. Lincoln’s university.

Imagination today is what steel was 120 years ago — the very building block of progress.

We have moved from a hardware to a thoughtware society. That is not to diminish the importance of coal and oil, gas and energy. But in order to compete worldwide in any industry today, West Virginians must out-think and out-perform.

Fortunately, West Virginia University can help our state do just that. Education expands individual opportunity, stimulates the economy, and creates jobs.

We are in the thinking business.

At West Virginia University, we generate ideas. We train people who teach our students, build our bridges, heal our bodies.

We teach people who make great music, write novels, study our water, and ensure we use energy responsibly.

We produce people who will then produce economic vitality.

And they will enhance the well-being and quality of life of the people of West Virginia.

One of our students is already on her way to doing that.

Jordan Lovejoy grew up in a hollow in Wyoming County. She would sit under an apple tree and read because she said there wasn’t much else for her to do.

Her love for reading opened her mind and led her to gain a deeper appreciation of the state.

Jordan is now a senior triple major in English, Spanish and women’s and gender studies. And earlier this year, she became the University’s third-ever Udall Scholar.

Each year, the Udall Foundation selects 50 Udall Scholars from a pool of college students across the country committed to careers related to the environment, tribal public policy, or Native American health care.

Jordan’s motivation to study the environment stemmed from some infamous moments from her past.

She lost two friends to mining disasters.

Jordan is also a McNair Scholar and a vocal member of the campus community. All of this should lead her onto the path of becoming a literature teacher.

And hopefully, West Virginia will get to keep her.

Our state’s future depends on us creating jobs so we can keep these talented people in West Virginia.

Of course, that will not be easy. These are challenging times in our state. Here, recessions tend to start a little later and linger a little longer — sometimes a lot longer.

Higher education has felt the crunch. West Virginia now spends 22 percent less on higher education now than it did before the 2008 recession. A recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities indicated that we are one of only eight states making cuts to its public higher education system for fiscal year 2014-15.

At the same time, parents are squeezed. Student loan debt has soared past $1 trillion nationally.

We cannot waste time asking for more money or pining for better days. Spending too much time peering in the rear-view mirror will only cause us to veer off-course.

We must look forward.

We must rethink the nature of higher education in order to make sure we improve quality but that we moderate the cost.

We must be as bold as our forebears were when they created land-grant education.

And that was bold, was it not? Just think about it. In America’s darkest moments, in the turmoil of civil war, President Abraham Lincoln expanded the promise of public education to higher education, extending opportunity beyond the wealthy and well connected.

It is important to recall the times in which President Lincoln had the vision and wisdom to sign the Morrill Act, creating land-grant education: 1862 was the year of the Battle of Shiloh, the Second Bull Run, and Antietam. The losses were beyond comprehension. Uncertainty was high and hope was scarce.

But Lincoln — the son of illiterate parents from the country’s vast frontier — recognized that the story of human progress is inextricably bound to education.

I believe that the Morrill Land Grant Act is perhaps the single most important legislative act in the history of Congress, because it ultimately bound the wounds of division and provided an open door to the American future.

And the fact that a small-town guy from Utah can become president of West Virginia University is a testament to the American dream.

Public education opened the American dream to every one of us, forever.

Now, amid our own challenges, land-grant universities are facing a moment of truth.

I believe there is no more important time than now for the great land-grant universities to reassert their values and value to the nation.

In a time of social and economic disruption, Americans are looking to public higher education for solutions — and they should.

Improving education is the signal issue of our nation’s future — economically, socially, intellectually, artistically.

Future generations need us to keep the American dream within reach.

And no university in America is better positioned — nor has a higher calling in this new millennium — than does West Virginia University.

Our University represents intellectual attainment and opportunity for all. It does so in a state which is experiencing a fundamental resetting of its economic future.

And I believe we have a responsibility to carve out that brighter future by working closely with our communities, state government, business, industry, and labor to create a unified and common cause for this state.

We are not truly the institution we should be unless we believe that each individual in this state is part of our responsibility and, in turn, that we convince the people of this state that our institution is the most important force for change in their lives.

As you know, I have worked for a few universities — and I have never seen a university that is more relevant to needs of the state it serves.

I have never seen a university so prepared to build statewide partnerships.

I have never seen a university with so much potential to make a real, immediate difference in a state’s quality of life.

Being at West Virginia University, at this time, is not only an opportunity and a responsibility — it is a calling.

Not just for me, but for every member of our university family.

That calling is to rise above ourselves, to put people ahead of personal gain, and to place progress and leadership as our polar star.

In so doing, we can cause West Virginia to seek its higher angels. That expectation is as it should be of a great land-grant university in this century.

We must all now focus on the daily task of that higher calling. And it must start with the university itself.

This institution must move away from being isolated and consumed by the traditional nature of the educational enterprise.

The policymakers, whether at Capitol Hill, the statehouse in Charleston, or the county and municipal offices scattered across West Virginia, must adopt a similar approach.

We need to move away from our isolation and rise from the pits of partisanship.

We are all in this together:

The University cannot elevate West Virginia on its own.

I cannot do it alone.

Washington, D.C., cannot do it alone.

Everyone who feels a loyalty to West Virginia University must bond together as one.

Whether you live in a farmhouse or a penthouse, we are all connected by the same gold-and-blue thread.

We must now become focused on changing lives by using our creative spirits to discover new ideas and making those ideas into a reality—economically, socially and culturally for West Virginians.

This means that we have to, as an institution, reset ourselves in so many different ways.

My number one presidential leadership goal is to forge ONE West Virginia University.

We have to move from being vertically organized to horizontally energized.

We have to restructure the way that we undertake teaching and learning.

We have to make certain that every student and every parent believes that there is a remarkable return on investment by studying at our University.

This requires our faculty to engage with each other across disciplines and across time and space.

Faculty must think anew and afresh about how each individual can add collectively to the university and its leadership role in the state and beyond.

It requires our staff to do the same. And all of us have to stop focusing on our immediate future and start focusing on the future of the University and its role in the wider world.

As I have often said, the only relationship academic units often had with one another in the past was being connected by the same heating plant.

If that is the only link that exists, we will not evolve.

And this goes beyond a single university.

It requires West Virginia University to attract the best and brightest students while making certain that the American dream is open to all of our citizens by also partnering with other public and private four-year and community colleges as well as K-12.

Because, in the end, we are all part of ONE West Virginia.

We need to march together at the same pace to ensure our vitality for future generations and the well-being of our state and nation.

We need to keep convincing our policymakers that higher education is the one investment that can push this country to the next level.

Cooperation — not competition — is sometimes the best strategy to blaze new paths. These are the kinds of partnerships that will sustain us. Partnerships, plus our creativity. On a recent visit to China, their leaders asked me how Americans teach creativity. It isn’t something you can teach, I answered. It arises from our hearts.

Thank you, I am grateful and blessed to be back at West Virginia University.