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Teaming to Win

Prepared Remarks
May 27, 2015

Good evening. It is wonderful to see so many of our state’s leaders in business, industry, government and academia together in this beautiful part of our state — in the heart of the Allegheny Mountains.

I would especially like to acknowledge Senator Shelly Moore Capito, who has taken time from her busy schedule to be here — and I know that is because she believes in the power of small business and wants to partner with all of you to help our state’s economy thrive.

That is a goal we all share.

That is also why Dr. Grace Bohenek, director of the National Energy Technology Laboratory in Morgantown, is here … as well as Greg Blaney, director of NASA’s Independent Verification and
Validation Program in Fairmont … along with Stephen Morris, assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division in Clarksburg.

That is three cities’ worth of leadership in research and innovation. I have not seen so much talent collected in one room since the MTV Video Music Awards. I just hope Kanye West doesn’t try to interrupt me tonight.

For helping to make this event possible, I would like to thank my friend Diane Lewis, who plays such an important role in Teaming to Win as your director.

She also helps shape the future of West Virginia University as a member of our Board of Governors.

And, as you all know very well, Diane is a successful businesswoman. She started Action Facilities Management in her basement just over a decade ago, with a staff of two — herself and her teenage son.

Her West Virginia company has grown to employ more than 300 people and operate in 9 states.

Diane is an innovator, and so are all of you. You know that innovation means being bold—bold enough to go first, to go further, to go beyond.

It might sound like I am echoing the rallying cry of a certain space ranger: “To infinity and beyond!”

However, in my defense, I have two-year-old granddaughters whom I have already accompanied to Walt Disney World and on a Disney Cruise, so that slogan just stays in my head.

But, the truth is: We do have the power to blast beyond bureaucracy, beyond borders, beyond even the limits of our imagination.

The people who first settled this region were a hardy breed. They had the courage to scale mountains and ford rivers to make their lives better.

And they knew that they could accomplish more when they worked hand-in-hand with family and neighbors.

We can accomplish more by working together, too. We can win a brighter future for West Virginia.

In fact, a study that will be released in mid-June by our Bureau of Business and Economic Research will show that working together — West Virginia University and partners like you — we will grow this state even more.

How can we speed up this process?

I carry with me each day a special gold coin—a coin that lists six actions I consider essential for success — focus, innovate, perform, change, stretch, reward.

I have brought a coin like this for each of you tonight because I think it can guide us on our path.

The first thing we need to do to build that future is move beyond bureaucracy.

Today, in our country, rules have replaced leadership.

Showing a lack of trust in our fellow citizens, we regulate, regulate, regulate. We spend so much time regulating people’s spirits that we do not allow them to soar.

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. That is the very foundation of the American spirit — indeed, it is the foundation of the Mountaineer spirit.

Few ever ask: “What is the right thing to do here?” Instead they wonder, “What does the rule book say?”

I say it is time to toss out the damn rule book.

This means getting government out of the way of innovation, so that entrepreneurs can create jobs.

We have bright and talented young people in West Virginia. I see them every day on our campus, and I see the way employers covet them.

Young West Virginians have the independent spirit and fundamental moral fiber that characterizes this state.

As president of institutions like Brown and Vanderbilt, I saw many talented students. Among some, however, I noticed an air of entitlement — a sense that the world owed them a living. West Virginians are not like that.

They bring both solid credentials and solid values to the table, and employers love that. Our students compete well for jobs on the national and world stage.

But I want to see more of them finding jobs here in West Virginia.

That is our state’s future: Keeping our good people here and creating jobs so they can stay here.

Personally, I would like to build a wall around this state to keep talented people from crossing our borders. University lawyers tell me there may be some constitutional problems with that plan, however. So, instead, I want to harness West Virginia University’s tremendous power to drive innovation.

Higher education is the new economic engine. We create ideas that, in turn, create jobs for West Virginians.

Our university is already the single largest producer of jobs, directly and indirectly, in the state.

We are creating and commercializing knowledge through programs such as Launch WVU, a resource center for students interested in starting new, innovative companies.

Our students have worked on everything from mobile apps and software companies to medical devices and energy technologies.

This hub is not located within our College of Engineering, or Health Sciences, or Liberal Arts. It is a university-wide effort open to all students. And better yet, it empowers students to create jobs, not take jobs.

We can and will do more to create jobs, but we can do it most effectively when freed from burdensome, outdated regulations.

Freedom enables us to be more flexible, more entrepreneurial, and allows us to start generating more money. And, today, generating more money is essential.

The economy has altered the American landscape to a degree unseen in our lifetimes. Government funding for higher education has plummeted, and I am under no illusion that it will ever return to previous levels. Our Legislature understands the value of investing in higher education, but the Kanawha River is not lined with money trees.

Increasingly, our University must drive its own future. And to do that, we must move quickly when opportunity strikes. Speed is money, speed is power, speed is the ability to get things done.

When I talk about eliminating bureaucracy, though, I am not just talking about government. At universities, it often seems that its red tape is the mortar that holds our ivy-covered bricks together.

I love to tell the story of how when I arrived 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. As the saying goes, “You are in good hands… with Gordon Gee.”

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

I often describe West Virginia University as an elephant—big, ponderous, powerful. But we’ve got to become a ballerina, not an elephant in a tutu.

We must be nimble.

We must be free to make decisions and to get things done. Because at the end of the day, rules do not accomplish goals. Leaders do.

To make West Virginia stronger, we must also move beyond outmoded traditions.

Universities thrive on traditions. I have just survived one of our most venerable ones — Commencement.

At West Virginia University, we like to keep things simple — so we hosted 17 different ceremonies for the various schools and colleges on campus.

Yours truly had the honor of speaking at six of the ceremonies, which also afforded me the opportunity to shake hands and hug each and every graduate that walked across the stage. You know how athletes give their coach a Gatorade bath after a big win?

I made sure I had some people at the Coliseum waiting with a bucket of hand sanitizer to dump over me.

Seriously, though, as a University president for three decades, I have learned to respect traditions without being imprisoned by them. Leaders must look to liberate energies frozen by long-held habits, and habits of mind.

“But we’ve always done things this way!” is not an acceptable rationale for anything.

Today, West Virginia needs leaders who are problem-solvers, who imagine, who create and who are not afraid to fail.

If we know the answer before the question is asked, then we can never offer an original solution. If we stay rigidly married to a structure or set of rules laid down in another era with another reality, we can never adapt to take full advantage of our own capabilities.

At same time, we must guard against embracing too fervently the catechisms of moment. Several years ago, much hype surrounded Massive Open Online Course, or MOOCs. A MOOC is defined “as a course of study made available over the Internet without charge to a very large number of people.”

The “without charge” part, I admit, gave me pause.

The New York Times declared 2012 the year or the MOOC, and some pundits were predicting these courses would put colleges and universities out of business.

Well, colleges and universities are still standing, and now pundits are racing to declare MOOCs dead. Rushing to this extreme judgment is just as silly as declaring them to be future of higher education was a few years ago.

MOOCs and other forms of online learning have their place in higher education, especially for working professionals who are trying to further their studies. Our University moved cautiously into the world of MOOCs, partnering with Coursera, a leading provider, and offering two courses. The interest was phenomenal.

A course on today’s music industry attracted more than 4,500 students from 126 countries, and a course on forensic accounting and fraud examination, enrolled more than 20,000 students from 86 countries.

Online education supports our highest calling as a land-grant university — providing access to opportunity.

But despite ever-evolving technologies, we cannot let what has historically elevated higher education as a public savior slip away — face-to-face, real-life interaction.

Students are the reason we are here. Knowledge is our gift to them. Inspiration is their gift to us.
This vibrant exchange is our University’s core mission.

And for most students — especially undergraduates — that exchange can best take place through one-on-one, face-to-face connections, in our classrooms and labs.

That is why we are working to build an innovative learning community —one that promotes individual success and provides community support.

Reforming the undergraduate experience will ensure that a West Virginia University diploma serves as a calling card for someone who is an innovative problem solver, a skilled communicator, an entrepreneurial leader, and an informed global citizen who wants to make the world a better place.

And as we work to create the best learning environment possible for our students, we are not neglecting their living environment, where they spend most of their time.

We take very seriously anything that threatens that environment, including alcohol abuse and a “party school” reputation. We are working with students to change the culture regarding alcohol abuse and trying to lead the way in developing solutions to this nationwide problem.

A college degree should mean our students who are with us 168 hours a week have a 168-hour-a-week experience and that the university is connected in their lives in almost every fundamental way, not intrusively, but in very engaging ways.

The most important learning experiences that students have, though guided in classrooms, are the opportunities to go to a ball game or to go to the Pittsburgh Symphony or hear a national leader speak on campus.

If parents will pay the $10,000 for their children to go to West Virginia University for those kinds of experiences, they will pay $1,000 to let them get a degree online if they are not getting those experiences. It is in our interest to make sure we put our students first.

A more complete learning experience will help our students succeed and graduate. Two in five students who enroll in American universities will never don a cap and gown. That is staggering. And it is not acceptable at West Virginia University.

With the WVU Foundation, we are launching a $50 million fundraising campaign to support students as they “dream big” in the pursuit of their academic passions. We are also increasing need-based student aid by $2.25 million.

All these new initiatives will work together to help us increase graduation rates, improve the student experience, attract the best faculty,
and offer the labs, classrooms and student services facilities that modern students need.

Higher education does not need to choose between online learning and traditional learning.

None of us needs to choose between traditional methods and forward-thinking impulses.

To strengthen West Virginia and help our young people succeed, we must find the perfect balance.

To move our state forward, we must also move as one. Southern West Virginia, North-Central West Virginia, the Eastern Panhandle, the Northern Panhandle — every region of our state has a unique identity, and that is as it should be.

But we cannot let regional pride be a rationale for regional infighting.

Of course, turf wars are nothing new here. Our state capital location was based on an 1877 election.

After several years of watching the capital bounce back and forth between Charleston and Wheeling, voters got to have their say. They chose Charleston over Clarksburg and Martinsburg.

Similar conflicts took place about where to locate West Virginia University. The University is only in Morgantown today because Moundsville citizens preferred having the penitentiary. And, every once in a long while, I have a feeling that they made the right choice.

But, in today’s world, we must all work together to advance our state.

West Virginia University is West Virginia’s university. Our campus does not end at the borders of Morgantown.

Our Extension program is in every county, helping to strengthen communities, nurture youth and spur economic growth. This state is our campus. And as the flagship, land-grant university, we have the opportunity — and the responsibility — to empower all 1.8 million West Virginians.

That is why I undertook a 55 County Tour last summer, and why I am touring the state again this year.

I want to visit with people again — to look into their eyes, to shake their hand, to wrap my arms around them.

I want to explore their needs and create partnerships that embolden them.

I want them to know West Virginia University is doing all it can to raise this state to its fullest potential.

That is what we are doing with our purchase of Mountain State University in Beckley. We have no interest in duplicating programs available elsewhere in southern West Virginia or diminishing institutions that already serve the region.

What we do have an interest in is bringing a whole array of new opportunities to people in the Beckley region. We are all part of ONE West Virginia. Improving life in West Virginia will not only require transcending regional rivalries but also looking beyond national borders.

In an economy fueled by ideas, the world is a level playing field. The simple truth is that we are not an economic island. Protectionism cannot protect in a world where knowledge and creativity know no borders.

Economist Tyler Cowen, in his book The Great Stagnation, identified two paths to economic expansion. Countries can take good ideas already in use elsewhere and capitalize on them by exploiting their own labor and natural resources. Or, countries can be the source of new ideas that serve the rest of the world. In the second strategy lies America’s future. And that is good news.

As the world shrinks, opportunity grows. In a time when actions taken on one side of the globe have an immediate and profound impact on the other side, we simply must reach out beyond national borders.

Our faculty, staff, and students have the expertise and compassion needed to help solve the growing food crisis; to develop sustainable energy sources; to unleash the power of literacy to more children in developing countries; and to advance health care around the world. Innovation has always been a vivid strand in the American mosaic.

I had a conversation in China several years ago that underscored for me both our imperative and our opportunity. I have been to China many times over the years to meet with academic, business, and government officials. On one visit, I was scheduled to have a 15-minute chat with their minister of education. After three hours, he said to me, “How do you Americans teach creativity?” That question is our answer! Others recognize our advantage — now we must.

As a University, we must expand the tool kit we provide our graduates. We must prepare them to construct a global view.

At West Virginia University, we now have students from 110 countries that speak 100 different languages, so the world comes to West Virginia through our front doors.

We also send many of our students out into the world through life-changing study abroad programs.

Students like Nina Orteza, from Morgantown, and Colin Frosch from Fairmont, who were both among our top eight graduating seniors this year. Nina graduated with degrees in economics, Russian Studies, and Slavic and Eastern European Studies. While simultaneously earning those three degrees, she found time to study abroad in the United Kingdom and the Czech Republic.

Colin led our student chapter of Engineers Without Borders and traveled with that group to Fiji to install and assess water filters.

He has also studied abroad in Germany and served an internship with a transportation firm in Texas. As a Civil Engineering student, he did research on transportation and traffic patterns, and his ideas around fixing the traffic problems in front of the Mountainlair earned him a WVU Student Innovator Award.

If he goes on to fix all of Morgantown’s traffic problems, it will probably earn him a Nobel Peace Prize.

Colin said: “I know my experience at WVU was unique. I believe that I wouldn’t have had these same opportunities for growth, insight and learning if I would have chosen to study anywhere else.”

Engaging as many students as possible in study abroad is critical.

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

Today’s college students simply must experience the world firsthand. It is not just a matter of understanding the interconnections of the world, of appreciating other cultures and other perspectives — although those are all important.

Learning to navigate in unknown territory challenges us in critical ways. We grow from it. We gain confidence. We learn skills that last a lifetime.

Our state also needs to learn how to navigate the global economy.

West Virginia University has always been, and always will be, West Virginia’s university. What has changed since our founding is this: West Virginia’s future depends on creating success in a diverse, global marketplace.

West Virginia needs a global strategy. And West Virginia University is the vehicle for executing that strategy.

We best serve the needs of West Virginians by ensuring that our students, our businesses, and our citizens compete successfully in the world economy.

If my Disney vacations have taught me nothing else — it’s a small world after all.

Finally, to power West Virginia’s future, we must soar past the limits of our imagination.

We must expand our thinking about urgent issues such as energy, rural health, and STEM education.

We must also expand our thinking about the ways business, government, higher education, and other sectors can work together. I want our University to partner with everyone. We will partner with our communities.

We will partner with K-12 educators and community colleges. We will partner with business and industry.

Only by working together can we leverage West Virginians’ energy, vitality, and creativity and transform them into a catalyst for progress. Most of all, we must demolish any doubts we have about West Virginia’s potential.

We need to talk less on our problems and more about our strengths.

We need to let go of our fears and embrace our hopes.

We need to think less about our differences and more about the shared pioneering spirit we inherited from our forebears.

By teaming, we can win the greatest prize of all — a West Virginia that offers its people a future without limits.