July 11, 2023
Dear West Virginia University Faculty, Staff and Students,
Every summer as I speak with our incoming students and their families at New Student Orientation, I often share the story of how our University came to be. A young state representative from Vermont, Justin Morrill, met with President Abraham Lincoln to share his vision for accessible education for all. At the time, only the very wealthy could afford to pursue higher education. Morrill felt that everyone should have access to higher learning, thus providing more people a pathway to pursue the American dream.
President Lincoln shared Morrill’s perspective and, even though our country was in the throes of a Civil War, signed the Morrill Act into law on July 2, 1862.
That act gave this country the land-grant university. Universities established under the Morrill Act – including West Virginia University – were to concentrate on teaching agriculture, engineering, science and military science. This focus was in direct response to the industrial revolution and a changing society. Education shifted to meet the needs of the people.
Though it may be more than a century later, we are in familiar territory today.
There is a shift that has been happening for a long time; one accelerated by the pandemic. We have been facing a declining student population, a declining college-going rate and a more competitive market for years. Our post-pandemic world has forced a change in the job market, leaning even more heavily on technology and healthcare. But perhaps, even more disconcerting is that we fight a pervasive narrative that a college education no longer holds the same value in today’s society.
This is why we must think as Justin Morrill did more than 161 years ago. Education again must advance to meet the needs of our people. And time is of the essence.
That is why I called for Academic Transformation in 2020 and reinforced that message this year. Though post-pandemic financial challenges added to the urgency, we are at an inflection point in higher education that we cannot ignore. We must adapt to be relevant to the students of today and the industry of tomorrow. We must make certain that education continues to be a founding pillar of our great nation. It is, in my view, our greatest hope to future prosperity.
The data we gleaned through the Academic Program Portfolio Review and Realignment process positions us for meaningful discussions. It clearly shows what we are doing well. It also shows where we have room for improvement, for growth and for change.
This data also has reinforced my belief that West Virginia University is moving toward an even better, brighter future. I do not diminish the challenges and the loss that comes with transformation. Each of you helped to build our University into one of America’s great institutions, as Lincoln and Morrill had envisioned. However, as your president, I must also keep us focused on the future. A future that will see us leading in critical, distinct areas and making an impact on the world around us.
When I think about West Virginia University, I have great hope — and I can see how our efforts will transform us.
In five to 10 years, I see our University’s student success programs leading to increased retention and higher graduation rates. Our entrepreneurial spirit creating more industry partnerships that provide a strong pipeline for our students into internships, co-ops and jobs. I see our alumni being a formidable resource in continuing to assist our students in their purpose.
The research we conduct at our University already has far-reaching impact — from helping those with addiction to building the next generation of Mars rovers. With transformation, I can envision our University standing as one of the elite R1 institutions in the country — emerging as a global leader in the areas of astrophysics, neuroscience, energy and sustainability, cancer prevention and treatment, and artificial intelligence and robotics.
We will differentiate ourselves with programs that serve our stakeholders and play to our strengths. I believe we will lead new generations to study and appreciate the rich Appalachian arts and culture that surround us. And we will be a place that encourages the free exchange of ideas to advance a more informed and educated citizenry essential to a democratic society.
More than ever, we will be a system that meets the needs of the students — providing degrees and experiences that will lead to meaningful careers and productive lives. We will be a system that invests in initiatives changing the trajectory of our region and its people.
Our narrative is not one of reducing to be smaller. Our narrative is one of refining to be strategic — to be stellar.
It is a narrative where West Virginia University is a leader in the programs that will move our nation forward. And when we shine a light on all the good we are doing at West Virginia University, there will be no question whether higher education is worth it.
I am confident that we will get through these next few challenging months because I believe in West Virginia University. We will get to the other side where we create an educational dynamic of the future. One where students are receiving a high-quality education from faculty who are rewarded and recognized for their contributions. One that meets the needs of industry and our communities, while ensuring that we are differentiating ourselves in a competitive landscape.
I encourage each of you to be involved in this transformation process. Ask questions. Bring forward suggestions and solutions that optimize learning pathways. Your feedback and ideas will ensure that we are taking the right steps to transform ourselves today so that we can be a responsive, relevant university of tomorrow.
Indeed, if we stack hands and work together for the good of the University, we will be the modern version of the land-grant University that President Lincoln and Justin Morrill imagined all those years ago, one built to serve and stand the test of time.
E. Gordon Gee