March 20, 2016
First and foremost, it is always refreshing to be at the historic Greenbrier Resort.
I keep pressuring the Board of Governors to set up an office for me here, or to at least get me the keys to the Bunker. What a fascinating pearl of history. I could really use that 25-ton blast door to keep my bowtie collection safe.
I might even give our football coach a spare key. Who knows?
He might need somewhere to hide from time to time.
The Greenbrier, and this part of the state, honestly, has always been breathtaking. I was quite disappointed when we got snowed out last time, but here we are now.
I come here frequently for business and various meetings, and the Greenbrier has become somewhat of a second home for me.
I truly appreciate the opportunity to speak at this year's Hospitality University; and I would like to thank Sharon Rowe and her colleagues for inviting me.
That brings me to this question: Is there an actual degree-granting institution called Hospitality University? And if there is, does Hospitality University have a president? Because that would be one university where I have never been president.
I am delighted to be here with so many of the state's great thinkers as we carry on a conversation – the conversation about ensuring what is best for our wonderful state and its hospitality and tourism industry.
It is imperative to bring together viewpoints from all varying angles to steer us into new directions we never knew possible.
"The Promise of Tourism" is a fitting theme for this occasion.
Just think about that phrase for a second. “The Promise of Tourism."
That is what the future of West Virginia can be all about. I see an everflowing stream of potential in this state, in our people, in our minds.
As president of West Virginia University, it is in my calling to sell our magnificent state and its even more magnificent people.
I am, after all, a born-again, born-again West Virginian.
What helped lure me back after 30-some years were all the majestic features that define West Virginia as a tourist haven.
The rivers. The gorges. The mountain views.
I have served as president of some of the finest universities across the country in states from Rhode Island to Colorado, and I can tell you that West Virginia has a special aura.
Not only is this state visually appealing, we are at an advantage geographically.
West Virginia is within a 500-mile driving distance of 66 percent of the United States’ population.
When you think about that stat, you might wonder, 'Wow. We could easily hop into a car and drive to D.C. or Cleveland or Charlotte or Pittsburgh today.'
Instead, what we should be thinking is, 'Wow. People living in D.C. and Cleveland and Charlotte and Pittsburgh can hop into their cars and easily come visit West Virginia.'
So the challenge is, 'How does the University play a role in promoting the state to that 66 percent of the country's population?'
The solution, I believe, rests on perception – our very own perception of our very own selves.
We undervalue ourselves. One of the first things I noticed when I returned to West Virginia was that West Virginians remained, over all those years, too damn humble. And I mean humble to a fault.
Humility is the only thing standing in the way of West Virginia taking its rightful place as an economic and tourism mecca.
West Virginia is rising. Look at us.
We sit on top of great resources, and I am not just talking about coal, oil, and gas.
Our greatest resource is our people. We must take pride in what we do, and we must talk more about it.
Walt Whitman once said, "If you done it, it ain't bragging."
And West Virginians have done it.
One of the ways the University has tried to relay a positive perception of itself is through our invigorating campaign called "Mountaineers Go First."
You may have seen our 30-second commercial during football and basketball games. Or maybe you have seen it on posters or T-shirts or print ads – "Mountaineers Go First."
That slogan defines who we are: An institution of rugged determination, a unified voice that fearlessly pursues ideas, discoveries, victories and breakthroughs.
Earlier this month, I gave a special State of the University address on our Morgantown campus to celebrate transformation. We had reached a brand-new level of accomplishment and prestige.
If case you have not heard, West Virginia University has attained a ranking as a "Highest Research Activity" – or "R1" university. We are one of just 115 R1 universities among the nation's more than 4,500 higher education institutions.
That designation is important.
First, it reflects years of innovative and rigorous work by our faculty, staff, administrators and students. Second, it will enhance our ability to attract and retain top-ranked scholars.
But, while R1 status elevates our University, it does not represent a pinnacle or an apex.
We are not done. We have the potential to reach even higher peaks.
As part of that address, I outlined how we can reinvent West Virginia's future by strengthening three critical pillars: education, health care and broad-based prosperity.
Those three pillars are inseparable. They are essential. And they are what West Virginia University is uniquely empowered to generate.
Our University is an extension of the state, therefore, "Mountaineers Go First" certainly applies to West Virginia as a whole.
I have seen West Virginia's successes – and opportunities – firsthand while embarking on my infamous county tours. As you may know, over the past two summers, I have traveled the highways and byways of this state, from Weirton to Welch and all points in between.
I have listened and learned – and probably taken too many selfies – at the county fairs, at the mom-and-pop diners and at the 4-H summer camps.
Each encounter is like a spiritual experience for me.
I get to see the great success stories. But at the same time, I get to see the great struggles.
I have seen children who are rich in potential, but whose families lack basic needs.
I have seen communities thriving and communities faltering.
But most of all, I have seen opportunity. And promise.
Promise we must welcome. Promise we must nurture. We must never, ever shut the door on promise.
People like Frank DeMarco are keeping the "Promise of Tourism" alive and well.
He is someone who earned both of his degrees at West Virginia University, went to Elkins to run the beautifully restored Victorian mansion that is the Graceland Inn, came back to Morgantown to run the Waterfront Place Hotel, and now teaches students in our hospitality and tourism program in our College of Business and Economics.
That program was a first-of-its-kind in this state when it was created in fall 2014.
At the time, only about 40 of 600 schools accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business had a hospitality degree program. And there were none in West Virginia.
Sadly, I cannot take all of the credit for that launch. The pieces fell into place a long time ago – and it occurred organically due to the booming interest in the beautiful resorts and recreational activities throughout the Mountain State.
Over the years, the College of Business and Economics met regularly with hospitality officials to discuss the possibilities surrounding the evolving trend.
Several people across the state came up to us and said over and over again, "We need this. We need this type of academic program to complement the industry."
Of course, West Virginia University tries its damnedest to serve the needs of the state and its communities.
Hospitality and tourism, as you know, is West Virginia's second-largest industry. A lot of people do not realize that. It is our second-largest industry. It would not surprise me if someday it became the Number One industry for West Virginia.
The driving force in shaping the University's hospitality and tourism program has been its importance to West Virginia and the West Virginia economy.
Let us examine a few of the program's highlights so far.
Students gain real-world experience in restaurant and hotel management by spending time in learning labs.
In fact, the College of Business and Economics has already placed students in internships at Taziki's Mediterranean Café and the Waterfront Place Hotel in Morgantown, Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Pennsylvania; Hilton Worldwide, which oversees Hilton, Hampton Inn, and eight other hotel brands; and at the corporate headquarters of IHG in Atlanta, which oversees Holiday Inn and nine other hotel brands.
Students who go through our hospitality and tourism program learn the tools to the trade. They graduate and embark on filling management positions in hospitality and tourism across the globe.
But, from a university standpoint, there are more layers behind enhancing tourism and hospitality in this state.
To attract people to come here from the outside, we must take good care of what we have on the inside.
West Virginia University is West Virginia’s university. Our campus does not end at Morgantown's borders.
Therefore, we are simultaneously engaged in a handful of community projects scattered across the state.
One that is especially germane for this audience is what we are doing in Harper’s Ferry.
When a fire wiped out part of that historic town’s downtown business district last summer, I called their mayor, Greg Vaughn.
I asked, "What do you need to help your town get back on its feet?"
We sent some of our experts over to Harpers Ferry to meet with the residents and officials to formulate a response plan. Several of our colleges and departments, from Extension to Engineering, stepped in to provide support.
Harper’s Ferry has long been recognized as a historic community and a driver of tourism in West Virginia. In fact, the small community of 300 residents relies heavily upon the 10,000 tourists that pass through it each week.
And then suddenly, without warning, everything was in jeopardy.
Harpers Ferry is a unique community.
The entire town is on the National Register of Historic Places and the town is surrounded by a National Historical Park — which was one of the many reasons helping the small town and its residents recover became a priority for West Virginia University.
The University’s devotion to its land-grant mission of applying real-world knowledge and application for the public good does not end in Harper’s Ferry.
We are also engaged in a project looking at the needs of Weirton and helping that town rebound from the collapse of its steel industry in the 1980s.
That problem is not exclusive to West Virginia. Big, one-industry towns and cities across the country are drying up.
But Weirton is choosing a path forward. West Virginia can be a model for communities and individuals across this country – of how to be resilient, determined and successful.
We also have our team down in Charleston's West Side wrapping their heads around the issues of urban poverty and low-test scores.
This state is our campus. And as the flagship, land-grant university, we have the opportunity — and the responsibility — to empower West Virginia.
Through those means, and by working hand-in-hand with all of you in this room and our business leaders and policymakers, the 'promise of tourism' will not be a promise that is broken.
Thank you, and I will now gladly accept any questions.