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Mid-Atlantic People of Color Conference

 

Prepared Remarks
January 30, 2015

It is my privilege to be here today to help welcome, along with Dean Bowman, some of America’s finest legal scholars to the West Virginia University College of Law.

As some you may know, I get up early every morning to work out, so this is usually the time of day when I feel the most energized and youthful.

But nothing can make you feel your age like seeing the children of your former colleagues in leadership positions.

I became dean of this College of Law in 1979, the same day Dean Bowman’s father, Jack, joined the law faculty.

At the time, Greg was probably playing with his model cars and ordering action figures.

Now he’s running our law school – there’s some demographic change for you!

On a serious note, I have been a college president for 34 years, which means it has been 34 years since I had the opportunity to immerse myself fully in legal education and scholarship.

I remain, however, a law professor at heart. I have served on the law school faculties at each institution I have led, and I have continued to publish in the field of law and higher education.

The habits of thought I acquired as a lawyer, legal educator and legal scholar inform everything that I do as a president.

And now, more than ever, what I do as president is lead our community in re-configuring, re-calibrating, re-thinking and re-defining what higher education will look like in the 21st century.

This conference focuses on one dramatic change transforming our country—the demographic shift that will make the white ethnic majority a minority by mid-century.

As important and historically unprecedented as this change is, it is one of just many changes facing our society.

Learning modes are evolving.

Old funding models are collapsing.

Technology is revolutionizing our lives and integrating the global landscape.

The broad range of topics at this conference shows how these trends are permeating our lives.

They are certainly transforming the world where I have spent my career—higher education. As society changes, higher education must change. We must prepare our students to thrive in a new world.

Embracing diversity is a pre-requisite for success in the 21st century.

Helping students celebrate diversity and global thinking is something of a passion for me. I think that is because I had rather narrow horizons when I first arrived at college half a century ago.

I grew up in Vernal, Utah, a small town of 2,000 people. Vernal’s largest attraction was, and is, the nearby Dinosaur National Monument. The irony of the most popular characters in town being 150 million years old was never lost on me.

Vernal was not what anyone would call diverse.

You were more likely to see a dinosaur roaming the streets there than a Democrat or a non-Mormon.

Rural states like Utah and West Virginia may still have a few such homogenous pockets, where young people can grow up without encountering people who look, worship or think differently than they.

That reality makes it even more important for universities like ours to open students’ horizons and engage them with a diverse group of peers, from around the country and around the world.

Increasing diversity and global engagement is so important to our land-grant mission of teaching, research and outreach, that it represents two of our university’s five strategic goals for 2020.

By increasing multicultural awareness throughout the University; building support systems for faculty, staff and from under-represented groups; engaging faculty in teaching, research and outreach on multicultural topics; and sponsoring events that celebrate diverse cultures, we are working to meet those strategic goals.

By the numbers, West Virginia University is rapidly become a more diverse and global university.

Among domestic students, minority enrollment grew to almost 13 percent, including more than 14 percent of freshmen and 18 percent of transfer students.

West Virginia University is certainly a much more diverse place now than it was when I first served as president in the 1980s.

But I want those numbers to keep growing. I want our campus to reflect the diverse world we live in.

I want to enable more students from underrepresented groups to earn doctoral degrees.

Students like Jason Ottley, who is African-American and originally from Washington, D.C., but who grew up in rural West Virginia. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees here, and became founder and CEO of a company that helps people build healthy relationships.

To better serve his clients, he is now pursuing a Ph.D. in human development and family studies.

I want to see more faculty members guiding women and minority students toward the STEM disciplines, which are so important to our nation’s future.

Jessica Deshler, an assistant professor of mathematics, has been doing just that.

She works with non-math majors from underrepresented ethnic backgrounds and shows them the connection between math and real-life through field trips and hands-on activities.

I want to see more students putting their knowledge to work in overseas service projects, like the members of Engineers Without Borders who traveled to improve water quality in a remote village in Fiji.

I want to see more faculty and students providing health care in areas from Guatemala to Ghana.

Engaging as many students as possible in study abroad is especially important.

What is travel to a faraway place but an immersion in the lessons of culture, communication, language, problem-solving and teamwork?

Danielle Capano, a student here who won a Fulbright award to study in Turkey said: “This experience isn’t just going to go on my resume. It’s something that I’m going to take with me the rest of my life and professional career… I’m putting myself out of my normal comfort zone.”

As American society changes, we must all step outside our comfort zones.

As your wonderful keynote speaker, Paulette Brown, noted yesterday, many implicit biases still hold sway throughout the legal system and American society.

To step outside our biases is to enliven creativity and nourish innovation.

To embrace change is to see every challenge as an opportunity to charge ahead, to think differently, to collaborate more fully and to reconfigure ourselves for the long-term benefit of our nation.

That is why I am so pleased to welcome you here, to share scholarship and insight about every aspect of our changing nation and the legal system that protects its citizens’ rights.

Only by anticipating and adapting to change will our institutions flourish.

I would like to thank Dean Bowman and Provost Joyce McConnell for enabling the College of Law to host this conference and for creating an environment that celebrates and supports diversity.

I would also like to thank Professors Atiba Ellis and Reginald Robinson for their hard work facilitating this event.

Finally, I would like to thank all the outstanding scholars who are here as speakers, panelists and participants.

Your work is making the case for the future.

A relentless belief in the future is our nation’s hallmark.

It brought people to these shores, moved them to build schools and universities, and vivified the long, slow struggle to extend democracy to all.

That belief in the future will sustain us through any challenges to come.

America is changing, but the American dream will endure.