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Culture Change Needed on College Campuses

November 21, 2014

Dear Mountaineer Family:

Nolan Burch was an 18-year-old freshman full of energy and enthusiasm. Those who knew him well spoke of his love for life, his positive attitude and his passion for West Virginia University. His parents shared with me the excitement they all felt as he unpacked his belongings at Summit Hall this past August. That excitement turned to grief last week, when on Friday, Nov. 14, Nolan Burch passed away.

It is never easy to lose one of our own.

In many ways, I feel the loss of Nolan as if he were my own son. As president of this University, I am deeply passionate about my responsibility for all 33,000 of our students. Nolan should be going to class today and eating pizza with his friends. But sometimes, bad decisions are made. We all have had those moments. And it is when we look back on those moments, that we pause, reflect and perhaps gain a new perspective.

When I spoke to Nolan’s father, I learned that three people are alive today due to Nolan. His organs were donated through Ruby Memorial Hospital to patients in need. This tragic loss brought our Mountaineer family both sorrow and hope.

And hope is what I continue to have for the future of West Virginia University. I am an optimist. And despite the series of events surrounding our students that we have experienced this fall, I am optimistic that this institution — and our students — will rise to the call and address the issues at hand.

Two of those issues needing to be addressed are alcohol and the irresponsible and reckless behaviors that often follow. It is a culture we must change at West Virginia University. Indeed, it is a culture that needs to be changed at nearly every institution of higher education across this country.

So, how do we go about changing a culture in which the participation of a small percentage affects the whole?

Robert Kennedy once said, “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total, of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.”

I believe this generation has the power and the ability to change the trajectory of this nation. I believe that if we invite our students to the table, they will work with us to create solutions and outcomes that truly matter to them. And I believe that if you treat students as the young adults they are, they will inspire us — and sometimes even surprise us — with their ingenuity.

But this is not just a student issue for us to solve. It is not just a University issue. It is an issue that will take the support of our entire Mountaineer community — parents, families, faculty, staff, alumni and community leaders. We are bringing in national facilitators to assist our students in thoughtful solutions. We are partnering with alumni who bring ideas. We are reaching out to the community to ask the necessary, hard questions that may not always have easy answers.

However, together with our students, we will implement solutions that allow us to soar, not suppress. That connect people not divide them. That in the end, demonstrate that a culture is not dictated by your past but can be positively transformed by your present. And that is what our University is all about: translating ideas into actions that make a difference in our lives.

And it is in those actions that West Virginia University will rise to a better calling — a higher calling.

E. Gordon Gee
President, West Virginia University