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NASA 2020 Knowledge Sharing Event

WVU President E. Gordon Gee
Prepared Remarks
May 17, 2016

I am so delighted to be here today and to help welcome those of you who have traveled from other places to be here at the NASA IV&V facility.

I am grateful to Dr. Ed Hoffman and his team for inviting me to be here today. I love his title — chief knowledge officer. I am thinking of asking my Board of Governors to change my title. A university president is kind of a chief knowledge officer, I think … although I might adjust it to “primo knowledge virtuoso.”

I would also like to thank Director Gregory Blaney and everyone here at the IV&V Program, which is truly a jewel in West Virginia’s crown.

For more than two decades, NASA has been an important force for economic development in this region, an important research partner for our University, and a leader in encouraging our young people to pursue STEM careers.

Plus, it is just cool to see that NASA logo on a building here in West Virginia. When I walk through the doors, I feel like I am living out my childhood fantasy of being an astronaut.

Do you know what made me give up on that dream? I learned astronauts cannot wear bow-ties over their spacesuits.

Since I had to settle for being a lawyer and a university president, I cannot claim to understand all the high-tech work that goes on here to ensure that NASA’s mission-critical software operates safely and reliably.

Maybe you will have better luck understanding it when you tour the facility after my presentation.

But I do know that the research and educational collaborations that happen here are an important part of a special relationship that West Virginia University and NASA have developed over many years.

Many Mountaineers play key roles at NASA, including Dr. Judith Hayes, who studied exercise physiology here and is now Chief of the Biomedical Research and Environmental Sciences Division at the Johnson Space Center; and Dr. Kimberly Weaver, an astrophysicist at Goddard Space Flight Center.

Many of our students enrich their learning through internships at NASA, which frequently lead to full-time jobs after graduation.

For example, Alan Didion was a first-generation college student from Wheeling, West Virginia, who studied mechanical and aerospace engineering on our campus.

His dedication earned him an internship at Goddard, and he also worked here at the IV&V Program and at Ames Research Center in California.

After graduating last December, he received a systems engineering internship with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which led to a full-time position as a systems engineer in mission concept systems development. He credits his success to the hands-on opportunities he found at West Virginia University. And many of those opportunities involve NASA programs and competitions.

Most recently, a Mountaineer team made history and won $100,000 in NASA’s Sample Return Robot Challenge—the first level-two victory in the competition’s four-year history.

And 12 undergraduates have been accepted to NASA’s Student Flight Research Opportunity, which gives them the chance to test their experiments aboard the zero-gravity “vomit comet.”

For some reason, they are happy about that.

Our University is also proud to be the lead academic institution in the NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium, which is building research infrastructure and promoting STEM education in West Virginia.

A powerful and tangible symbol of our WVU-NASA partnership will soon take flight when West Virginia’s first satellite goes into orbit.


Part of NASA’s CubeSat program, our satellite grew from collaboration between the University, the IV&V Program, the Space Grant Consortium and TMC Technologies here in Fairmont.

This satellite will be a major milestone for our University’s increasingly vibrant space research program.  It will also be an exciting step forward for West Virginia, helping to expand interest in science and technology throughout the state.

And the close partnership between our University and the IV&V program has been fundamental to the development and planning process.

I am a great believer in the power of partnership.

Today global problems do not fit in neat disciplinary boxes. And they are too big for any one person, department, institution or sector to solve alone.

Only by working together can we leverage our nation’s energy, vitality and creativity and transform them into a catalyst
for progress.

We must expand our thinking about the ways business, government, higher education, and other sectors can work together.

As president, I want West Virginia University to partner with everyone. We partner with communities. We partner with K-12 educators, community colleges, and public and private universities. We partner with business and industry, and with the federal government.

We are dancing beyond all boundaries to improve our state, our nation and our world.

When I was preparing for this talk, I rooted around a bit in my knowledge management toolbox.

As you know, every leader needs to have one, even if he or she does not have that wonderful “chief knowledge officer” title.

While a large University is different from an enterprise like NASA, capturing, sharing and maximizing knowledge presents just as many challenges.

A University is an organization where people are researching everything from vowels in West Virginia dialect to the contraceptive properties of turmeric.

But I found having these three tools in my toolbox can foster effective communication and knowledge-sharing in any organization. And like the best tools, they are guaranteed for life.

1.    The first and most important of these tools is collaboration.

I believe that these times cry out for a radical transformation of the American university—and this applies to many other large organizations, as well.

Traditionally, many institutions are structured vertically. At West Virginia University, we are remaking ourselves horizontally.

We are leveling silos and demolishing boundaries within our University that have limited our ingenuity.

In a complex world, we must foster trans-institutional collaboration. The old term “multidisciplinary” does not do this concept justice. Disciplines themselves need to change, becoming more flexible and permeable.

Since returning to our University in 2014, I have seen great examples of people working together across disciplines to change lives.

One powerful example is our focus on shale gas. In partnership with industry, government, and others in academia, we launched the Marcellus Shale Energy and Environmental Laboratory — or MSEEL — the first-ever long-term, comprehensive field study of shale gas resources.

We also have cultivated a relationship with the Gallup organization, the premier polling organization in this country, if not the world. Our trans-institutional work with Gallup will focus on how one reinvents a University to lead the reinvention of a state.

Besides reaching out within the University, we are also preventing boundaries within our state from becoming barriers to progress. We are doing this by quashing the notion of regional and institutional competition. It is about growing the pie, not fighting over its diminishing size.

We must make West Virginia a living and learning laboratory for successful partnerships, among all sectors — public, private, education and government.

Our work with the NASA IV&V Program is a great example. Another is just a few exits to the south on I-79. For many years, we have been collaborating with the FBI and its Criminal Justice Information Services in Clarksburg.

That partnership has been a catalyst for economic growth in the region, for cutting-edge research in biometric technologies, and for student educational and job opportunities.

Another of our highest priorities is taking West Virginians from last to first in health. The health of our people directly affects the health of our state, the health of our economy and the health of our positioning in the global market.

That is why we are working with others—including the institution that some would call our cross-state rival, though I believe we only have rivals on our athletics arenas.

West Virginia University and Marshall University together have pledged $1.5 million to jump-start healthcare research and delivery projects across the state.

Like NASA, we make partnering with public school educators is a top priority. As you well know, we have entered the age where applying our brains for ideas and innovations overrides the backbreaking, blue-collar work of yesteryear.
Ingenuity today is what pays the bills and puts food on the table.

Therefore, we need to ingrain in our children a love of learning — and the knowledge that learning is a lifelong process.

This summer STEM ambassadors will fan out across West Virginia. Thanks to a partnership between WVU Extension and a private foundation, these University students majoring in science fields will help youths learn STEM concepts through hands-on, kid-friendly activities from ice cream making to LEGO robotics.

Collaboration will also help our state transition to a 21st-century economy, which has been a difficult process. Although manufacturing is still important, it is clear that the jobs that have been lost in recent decades are not coming back.

Across the state, communities are left to cope amid the staggering decline of industries that supported generations of families.

Take Weirton, a town in the northern panhandle whose economic stability was uprooted with the drastic contraction of the steel industry beginning in the 1980s.

In Weirton, we are pairing University resources with front-line intelligence from residents to create solutions that honor the town’s culture and history, capitalize on economic trends, and recognize the importance of meaningful work.

Our goal is to turn Weirton and similar places into models of resiliency for communities across our state — and across the nation.

Looking beyond our state’s boundaries also is essential in today’s worldwide economy. As the world shrinks, opportunity grows.  

Last fall, I visited Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar with a group of West Virginia University faculty members and senior leaders. We celebrated partnerships, made new connections and founded our first alumni chapter
in that region.

In this volatile time, it is even more important for all of us to nurture relationships that create opportunity, understanding and a zone for peace and prosperity.

When it comes to boundaries,the hardest ones to scale are those that clutter our minds and limit our imagination.

2.    That is why the second vital tool in my toolbox is simplicity.

Powering the future requires us to look at things in new ways. Our most fearsome enemy is the phrase, “This is the way we have always done things.”

The first step in simplifying is setting clear and straightforward goals. As we all know, large organizations are anything but clear and straightforward. They are complex places, and what we all tend to do is make them more complex.

But simplicity is the best way to get an ordered result.

My goals are so streamlined that I keep them on a laminated card in my wallet. That way, I can find them whenever I need to remember why I am here.

This card lists my six leadership goals:
1.    Forge ONE West Virginia University.
2.    Put students first.
3.    Focus on faculty and staff success.
4.    Further develop our research agenda.
5.    Commit to our communities.
6.    Simplify University systems and structures.
If I cannot run West Virginia University on a card of this size, then I am not doing it right. I am making it too complicated.

One common roadblock in the path to simplicity is tradition.

NASA has an amazing history that reaches to the moon and beyond. That is something to take pride in. Universities take pride in their histories, too. But we must guard against tradition becoming a barrier to progress.

Above all, we must liberate energies imprisoned by long-held habits, and habits of mind.

Now, most of you work with or for the federal government, so I am sure you never have to deal with bureaucratic silliness.

But take my word for it: Today, in our country, rules have replaced leadership. Regulations and outdated laws have us handcuffed.

No one ever asks, “What is the right thing to do here?” Instead they wonder, “What does the rule book say?”

I say it is time to pare down the rule book and eliminate what no longer makes sense.

I love to tell the story of how when I arrived at West Virginia University I was told I had to take a driver’s test. They said everyone who works here has to take it. I asked, "Why?"

The answer was that the university received an insurance discount – but that discount was so small, it was dwarfed by the loss in hours of staff productivity.

Guess what? No more driver’s test. We have created a team of bureaucracy busters, who have simplified many processes — from staff hiring to submitting bids for purchases.

We must always ask the question, “Why?” We must cut through the red tape that is holding us prisoner.

We must move from nonsense to common sense.

I strongly believe that freedom begets human creativity and goodwill. Making our own choices empowers us to take risks, to innovate, to fail — and to get up and try again.

As we simplify our goals, we must simplify our processes. We must prioritize efforts that move our organization forward. We must create a culture that values boldness and even failure, when failure stems from strategic risk-taking.

With clear goals and simple processes, we can convey straightforward messages, both within the organization and to the outside world.

Having clear messages, of course, is only half the battle — maybe less than half.

Because, as you know, the heavy lifting is making sure that information gets to the people who need it.

3.    That is why my third useful tool is transparency.

Now, I cannot offer you any advice about taxonomy or metadata or the other technical aspects of knowledge management in an organization like NASA.

But connecting with people is, perhaps, my greatest strength and my greatest passion.

So I think I can give you some quick, valuable tips about communicating in an authentic, transparent way.

My first piece of advice is to put the skunk on the table.

It means that all organizations have problems that are will stink to high heaven if we let them fester. Candor is the best relationship-builder, even when topics are uncomfortable. Clear the air and move on.

And while what you communicate is important, how you communicate matters, too.

Our work is complicated and nuanced. If important conversations take place over email — or, God forbid, text message —confusion is sure to result.

Context gets lost, tone becomes indistinguishable and misunderstandings proliferate.

When important issues arise, make sure you talk to people face-to-face or at least over the phone. And if you are calling with bad news, remember this piece of advice: EAFL: Excuses are for losers.

It may not be the most memorable or easily pronounceable acronym, but it is one of the most important.

In my experience, excuses destroy organizations.

I do not accept them from my staff, and I do not expect anyone to accept them from me.

Make your workplace an excuse-free zone. And instead of giving excuses, seek input.

We cannot all be rocket scientists, or software engineers, or chief knowledge officers. But having a large organization means having access to wisdom from perspectives.

Always seek to widen the circle of your conversations. And always seek to enlarge your knowledge base.

This past weekend, I awarded a Presidential Honorary Degree to a woman who did just that, with wonderful results for our nation’s space program.

Katherine Johnson was born in 1918 in While Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, where segregated schooling available for African Americans ended in eighth grade.

Her father moved the family to Institute, West Virginia, so his math-whiz daughter could attend high school.

By age 15, she was ready to enter West Virginia State College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and French.

She attended West Virginia University to earn a master’s degree, but family issues kept her from completing it.

In 1953, she went to work at NASA as one of several African-American women assigned to do calculations.

She said: “The [other] women did what they were told to do. They didn’t ask questions or take the task any further. I asked questions; I wanted to know why.”

Her quest to learn more set her apart. In the 1960s, she became the first woman pulled from the computing pool to work on another project — landing a man on the moon before the end of the decade.

She began by calculating the trajectory for Alan Shepherd’s 1961 mission. She went on to do the calculations for the first actual moon landing in 1969 and later to work on the space shuttle program.

Last year, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the U.S.  government’s highest honor for civilians. And, as you probably know, NASA has named its new computational facility in her honor.

Remember Katherine Johnson and keep asking questions.

You might not always get answers you like.

This is hard to believe, but even I have faced criticism now and then. I always say a university president must have thick skin, nerves like sewer pipes and a good sense of humor.

That is probably true for everyone these days.

The criticism you face from time to time might not be as public as mine. But criticism is part and parcel of leadership.

Some of it can be constructive.

For example, I tour West Virginia each summer to connect with citizens and learn how our University can help them. On these tours, I have learned that a vast chasm remains between our campus and other parts of the state.

Despite their fondness for gold-and-blue and the Flying WV, people in small southern West Virginia towns often feel a disconnect. I am determined to change this.

If criticism and concerns can show you the way to move forward and make your organization stronger, by all means listen and respond.

But when it comes to non-constructive criticism — ignore it.

And, above all, keep looking forward. Too much peering in the rear-view mirror will only cause you to veer off-course.

And while you take your work seriously, try not to take yourself too seriously.

Occasionally, my sense of humor has landed me in trouble, but more often it has helped build affection and trust between me and the people I serve.

For me, humor has been especially helpful in building a strong social media presence.

Nothing can substitute for personal contact, but today social media is a powerful way to cultivate relationships.

It enables us to target messages with laser-like accuracy at specialized audiences — and to reach those audiences directly, without risking dilution or distortion by media gatekeepers.

That is why more and more organizations are realizing that social media is an invaluable tool for sharing information and forging connections. I have gained more than 79,000 followers on Twitter and more than 36,000 likes on my Facebook page.

I have also established a presence on Instagram and have almost 13,000 followers — more than any other college president, as far as we know.

My communications team makes sure that I speak with a consistent voice across all platforms.

They know which platforms reach which audiences. And they are constantly looking for new vehicles for me to get my messages out. In fact, I was the first university president to jump onto Snapchat for a takeover.

Because social media is a very personal communication tool, it works especially well for connecting audiences with an organization’s personal face — its director, president or CEO.

A survey by Brandfog showed that leaders who use social media to communicate their core mission and brand values inspire more trust than those who do not.

Now, by any measure, I am a highly social leader — I rise before dawn, race around campus all day to meetings and events, and keep going late into the night, dropping in on student parties.

My outgoing nature finds another outlet in “Gee Mail” — our popular video messages to the campus community.

About once a month, we release a new Gee Mail that showcases me in all my quirky, lovable glory as I deliver an important and serious message.  

In a world that bombards us with information, videos like these reverberate with the power of a human voice. They cut through mere social noise, which one expert defines as “a vast overload of data that drowns out the underlying message or meaning.”

So in conclusion, I have spent many years learning to wield my most important knowledge management tools — collaboration, simplicity and transparency.

I have learned through trial and error, through great successes and occasional hints that my services were no longer required.

I hope you can put yours to work more quickly because 318 million Americans are counting on you, every day.

And we at West Virginia University are excited to keep working with you, to develop innovations that protect those people and improve their lives.

Thank you for your time and I will now gladly take any questions.