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2015 D.C. Alumni Luncheon


Prepared Keynote Remarks
June 16, 2015

Hello, everyone. It is great to be back with all of you. So, a lot has changed in one year, including some of the members of our West Virginia congressional delegation.

I want to thank Senator Joe Manchin, Senator Shelley Moore Capito, Congressman David McKinley—and retired Senator Jay Rockefeller—for being here with us today, and for all you do for our University and our State.

We are truly blessed to have smart, forward-looking men and women looking out for us.

I want to begin today’s remarks with a story:

Just imagine yourself moving through an ordinary day: Gulping your morning coffee, fighting rush hour traffic, having a spirited discussion with a colleague, making some tough decisions, then hugging your kids and family members as you return home.

Now imagine that instead of watching your body enact this daily drama, you could peer inside your mind.

Imagine swirls of red and orange, green and yellow, expanding and contracting as your moods change.

And imagine that this fluctuating palette captures every moment of love, anger, tedium and terror originating in the three-pound organ that defines you.

As a college student, Julie Brefczynski-Lewis thought: “How can all of our thoughts and memories be generated in this brain tissue – in this organ?” And she started imagining new ways to unlock the mind’s mysteries.

Today, Dr. Brefczynski-Lewis is a research assistant professor at the West Virginia University Center for Neuroscience. She is on a team studying the human brain in motion, using an innovative portable PET scanner.

The work is part of the BRAIN Initiative, launched by President Obama in 2013 to advance research on treating brain disorders.

Our University’s BRAIN team was one of the first groups in the country to receive White House recognition and National Institutes of Health support.

So just imagine: This portable scanner has a unique ability to show scientists how brains respond to stress.

To see, from the inside, a person with autism confronting social situations, a stroke patient working through rehab exercises, or a Parkinson’s patient struggling to walk.

Dr. Brefczynski-Lewis also has explored what peace looks like, studying the brains of meditating monks to see whether positive emotions like loving kindness and compassion can be learned in the same way the brain learns to play a musical instrument or a sport.

From this work, she has developed a kindness meditation app that injects brief serene stretches into otherwise chaotic lives.

“Compassion meditation is about fostering positive emotions,” she claims. “You start with thinking about yourself or someone you really care about and it is easy to generate compassion.

“Then, you gradually extend that feeling from your loved one to strangers, and finally to your problem people – starting with irritating people and maybe even those real thorns in your side.”

Am I alone in seeing the incredible potential for this app here in our nation’s capital?

If we could get this app on every Capitol Hill and White House iPhone, we might finally break through all the gridlock.

All kidding aside, this portable PET scan research represents a whole new way of thinking—literally.

And new ways of thinking are what we need so desperately today.

Clinging to outworn ideas and outmoded traditions will not do.

So, how can we regain our country’s leadership in innovation? How can we create a vibrant economy for West Virginia? And how can we continue to reposition West Virginia University as an eminent land-grant institution?

Ancient Romans had an answer to questions like these.

Fortes fortuna adiuvat.
“Fortune favors the bold.”

A better future starts with bold thinking, but that is just the start. Here, in the heart of our nation, we see all too well that ideas without action are meaningless.

At West Virginia University, it is time for bold action.

It is time to take risks.

It is a time to hire innovative leaders, and sever the red tape that binds their hands.

To forge new partnerships that re-set our state’s future.

To transform the campus culture and give our students a 24/7 learning experience.

And it is time to set aside all differences and work together, with one goal in mind: How can we best serve West Virginia?

Last week our University’s 15th president, Dr. Paul Miller, passed away.

He led West Virginia University in the 1960s, at the height of the baby boomers’ campus influx. Some of you might remember him. But even if you knew him then, you might not know where he came from—or the legacy he gave us.

At age 10, Paul moved from Ohio to rural Hancock County, West Virginia. He and his family had never heard of 4-H, but to make friends he joined his new community’s 4-H club, the Sharpshooters.

Paul thrived in 4-H, which stresses “learning by doing.” He developed such a passion for learning that his school performance improved, and he graduated from high school as class valedictorian.

He dreamed of becoming a County Extension agent and introducing other kids to the benefits of 4-H. But he was not sure how to make that dream a reality.

He said: “My parents didn’t really know what it meant to go to college, nor did I. Hancock County Extension Agent Walter C. Gumbel insisted that I become the first of my family line to have that experience.
He was first among those who helped my parents and me to understand college attendance as more than an impossible dream.”

After graduating from West Virginia University, Paul got the opportunity he had been waiting for—the chance to serve as an Extension agent in Ritchie County.

And, of course, that was just the beginning for him.

The boy for whom college was once an impossible dream would become our University’s president.

And in that role, he pioneered an Extension model that let our University help West Virginians in brand new ways. He transformed Extension from a School of Agriculture program to a platform for the entire University.

A half-century later, we still use President Miller’s basic model. It was so forward-thinking that many land-grant universities have yet to catch up—their Extension programs still graze in the land of cows and plows.

But a university-wide scope has made West Virginia University Extension one of the most powerful forces for good in our state.

Our faculty members logged more than 400,000 direct contacts with clients in 2013, helping West Virginians protect their resources, increase their income, improve their health and hone their career skills.

Ronald Heifetz, professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, has said that if you make one real decision in your life, that’s more than most people.

President Miller made a decision that changed our University and state forever.

A decision that bold becomes a legacy.

And that is what these contentious times demand from us—not ego-glorifying emptiness that will pad our résumes, but courageous choices that will be our legacy to West Virginia.

Of course, bold decisions cannot mean blind leaps.

I am talking about taking strategic, calculated risks, with good chances for success and a solid plan for handling failures.

In his fascinating book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman shows that people worry more about avoiding losses than pursuing gains.

But this irrational bias itself extracts a terrible price.

As President John F. Kennedy said: “There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long-range risks of comfortable inaction.”

Today, our world needs people who solve problems, who imagine, who create—in short, we need people who lead.

At our University, only innovators need apply!

In recent months, several new leaders have brought fresh perspectives to our team. These people have both national-level experience and a heart for West Virginia.

Our Vice President and Executive Dean for Health Sciences, Dr. Clay Marsh, is a Mountaineer through and through—in fact, he is the first West Virginia University alumnus to lead our Health Sciences enterprise.

His West Virginia University education gave him a deep understanding of our land-grant mission to create a healthier West Virginia, through teaching, research, outreach and cutting-edge patient care.

Our new Vice President for Student Life, Dr. Bill Schafer, also has family ties to West Virginia.

He came to us from the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he was a progressive and effective leader, and he will help us strengthen our campus living and learning culture.

And because Athletics means so much to Mountaineers, it is fitting that our new athletic director is a proud Mountaineer graduate and native West Virginian from Parkersburg.

Shane Lyons has three decades’ worth of experience in athletics administration and strategic leadership, including 10 years as an associate commissioner at the Atlantic Coast Conference and four years as Deputy Athletic Director at the University of Alabama.

He understands our University and is the perfect person to inspire excellence, model integrity and bring Mountaineers worldwide to new levels of pride.

From these three people, can you catch the drift? We want our best and brightest to return home.

Hiring the best people is important. But even the best people cannot move our University forward when red tape binds and gags them.

Now, for those of you who work here in D.C., you may not be familiar with red tape.

But it encircles large universities like ours and squeezes like a boa constrictor.

Our policies and processes overwhelm us.

If you know me, you know I hate red tape. Hate it.

If you give me a choice between red tape and red ants, I’ll let you stake me to that anthill every time. (Well, maybe not.)

But when I hate a situation, I dive in headfirst to change it.

That is why I created something called “Bureaucracy Busters” on our campus. This group’s sole mission is to slice through the red tape and save us time and money, which we can re-direct into teaching, research and service—the things that really matter.

Our “Bureaucracy Busters” are finding ways to:
  • Infuse our business processes with the latest technology
  • Simplify systems
  • And move from transaction-based approval to post-audit review.

For us non-accountants, I think that last one means, “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.”

I suspect people here inside the Beltway are familiar with that truism.

To bust bureaucracy, we stopped requiring pre-approval for people paying professional dues and memberships.

We updated travel rules, so faculty members no longer need written authorization to drive their own cars to a conference. (Yes, these were real rules.)

We eliminated mandatory driver training, which cost much more in lost productivity than it gained us in insurance discounts.

These are just a few of the more than two dozen changes we have already made.

And we are keeping our scissors sharp to cut through more nonsense as we uncover it.

Because we cannot charge into the future if we are being held back. And we cannot charge ahead if we do not know where we are going.

That is why we are making strategic investments in signature programs that address West Virginia’s most crucial needs.

Some of our signature programs will include:
  • Health
  • Energy
  • Entrepreneurship
  • and Policy and Politics

In these areas, our faculty members and students are doing world-class work. And the time has never been more ripe for them to forge new partnerships with other universities, government agencies, and business and industry.

Consider a public health problem: West Virginia’s much-too-high teen pregnancy rate. One in eight state babies is born to a teen mother.

These babies face higher rates of poverty and illness than their peers, and their mothers are apt to drop out of school.

So researchers from our University, Pitt and the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, are reaching teens where they live—on their phones.

They have developed a free app called “Seventeen Days” that will help teens make more informed decisions about their sexual behavior.

Consider an energy challenge: Making it more economical to get wood chips into the hands of businesses that produce biofuels, bioproducts and bioenergy.

Our researchers are partnering with the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry and several industry partners to cut delivery costs of bioenergy feedstocks. It is the largest project of its kind that the U.S. Department of Energy has ever funded.

Consider our state’s crying need for new businesses: Our new LaunchLab is a one-stop shop for budding entrepreneurs.

Resources brought together from across campus include an entrepreneurial coach, a marketing group led by journalism students, an intellectual property group led by law students, and a lab for programming iPhone and android phone apps.

One student startup is RenaSnacks, which is geared toward producing healthy and tasty snacks for those with kidney diseases.

Look at state and national government and consider the need for fresh ideas and new leaders: Our new John D. Rockefeller IV School of Policy and Politics at West Virginia University brings together our academic programs in political science, public administration, international studies and leadership studies. With this new school, our University will have a much greater impact on policy development and implementation at the local, state and national levels, and our students and faculty will have priceless, new academic opportunities.

We are grateful and proud that this school and the John D. Rockefeller IV Senatorial Archives will have a “forever home” on our campus—and that Senator Rockefeller’s legacy of service will become part of our University’s identity.

The Rockefeller School is just one example of how we are enriching academics.

We are also adding innovative degree programs in areas such as Energy Land Management, Forensic Justice and Public Health.

We are putting students first, and that means emphasizing academics more than ever before.

It means enrolling the best and brightest students.

And I’m here to tell you that our incoming freshmen this fall will have the highest academic credentials in West Virginia University’s history.

Putting students first also means ensuring that student-athletes have a balanced college experience.

Students on our 18 athletic teams achieved a combined 3.02 grade point average this spring, the second semester in a row with a GPA above 3.0.

Eight student-athletes are Academic All-Americans this year – already setting a new University record – with more honors likely to come soon.

And putting students first means helping all our students find the right balance between work and play.

We take seriously anything that threatens our student learning 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.

Our central goal as a higher learning institution remains steadfast: That goal has been and always will be to put students first.

So, let’s take a minute to watch a video about one of our shining beacons of hope among our sea of superstar students.

We need to recruit, retain and reinforce more Hannah Clipps.

As compelling as her academic drive is, her upbringing and desire to break the mold is even more compelling.

Hannah personifies the American Dream.

She was born in China. At 7 months old, she was adopted from a rural Chinese orphanage by parents from the Maryland suburbs.

Hannah’s parents transformed her life and future remarkably with their ultimate act of empathy.

Hannah told us about getting separated from her family at the National Zoo after admiring the ducks for too long.

When you think about it, Hannah may have been lost at that point, but she wound up finding her lifelong passion: Wildlife.

Her dream is to study mammals and birds, specifically for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

As a matter of fact, Hannah landed a research internship this summer with the latter organization in Seattle, Washington, which is why she cannot be here with us today.

I promise you she will accomplish her goals because she wields rugged determination. She embodies the Mountaineer spirit to “Go First.”

After all, she made history in April by becoming the very first West Virginia University student to win both the prestigious Udall and Goldwater Scholarships.

Speaking of firsts, I hope you have seen and like our new University campaign: Mountaineers Go First.

We truly believe in our manifesto that reads: “Going first is in our blood. It is in our sweat. And it is in our nature. So we will go above. We will go beyond. And when everyone else goes back, Mountaineers Go First.”

So, help us live that motto.

Student Initiatives

We are working hard to implement student success initiatives that will further push us to go first – from a path of excellence to eminence.

One of these ways is through a new $50 million student scholarship fundraising campaign known as “Dream First.”

We remain extremely cognizant of our students and their families as they wrestle with the financial components of a college education – and we want to do right by them.

It is crucial that we drive our students to the doorstep of their dreams.

They are the future of West Virginia, and of this nation.

I want every person who has a passion, a need to succeed – to be able to pursue his or her aspirations at West Virginia University.

The balance in one’s bank account should not stand in the way of one’s purpose.

So West Virginia University and the Foundation are partnering on this “Dream First” campaign to urge alumni and friends to support students as they dream big and pursue their passions.

We are also increasing need-based aid by $2.25 million to help those students and families lacking the financial wherewithal.

And let us make no bones about it. We have launched these efforts in response to the unpopular but necessary need to raise tuition.

As you know, the purses of public universities have lightened in recent years. Government funding – from national, state and local levels – has been slashed.

Recently, we were faced with the difficult decision to increase tuition for both resident and non-resident students.

There is a level of quality that West Virginia University must maintain, and will never sacrifice.

In fact, our mission is to provide an affordable, accessible and quality education to every student who desires to come to West Virginia University. That is the polar star by which we must guide ourselves every day.

I will not stand up here and complain about how poor we are—because we are not.

We are rich in ideas and opportunities. We are rich in talent. I do not want to get lost in percentages or dollar amounts.

Instead, I want to get lost in the dream.

Our Provost Joyce McConnell recently presented to the Board of Governors a Student Success Initiative geared toward offering a more personalized four-year approach to students’ academic, personal and professional development.

We have developed Project 168, named for the number of hours in a week. Think about it: students are in class for 18 hours a week. So what are we doing for the other 150?

We recognize the unique power a university has to be a 24/7 experience for students. So we are taking the opportunity to create the best learning environment possible.

Project 168 entails one-on-one advising, financial planning, living-learning communities, leadership opportunities and every other facet of the student experience that affects his or her academic and personal growth.

Our ultimate goal is to keep students on track to donning their caps and gowns in four years.

The safety and well-being of our students is also at the core of all this, with the goal of transforming—a resetting if you will—the culture on our campus.

A majority of our students are here for the right reasons. They are here to reach the pinnacle of their academic pursuits and to do good for society and the community.

Just last week, a team of engineering students took first place in a NASA robotics competition.

They are the first team to do so in the competition’s four-year history. They came home with $100,000 in award money to put toward further research and development on their project.

And one day, much like many of you in this room today, these are the students who will give back to their alma mater to pay forward the experiences they had as young adults on our campus.

One WVU for One WV

As we march into tomorrow with our students’ best interests at heart, we must also march together toward the road that best serves the state of West Virginia and its citizens.

This year, the Census Bureau reported that West Virginia is losing population faster than any state.

Since returning to West Virginia, I have often joked about installing a fence around the state to prevent our most talented folks from leaving.

So, without further ado, can I ask our congressional delegation here to seek funding to secure our West Virginia borders?

But seriously, only West Virginia and five other states lost population last year.

Several factors are leading West Virginians astray to other pastures, seeking something they cannot obtain in the Mountain State.

That is a problem that we, collectively, need to fix.

The steel mills, the coal mines and the factories that once served as the economic backbone for West Virginia families are fading away with our population figures.

This is not to diminish the importance of coal, oil, gas and energy. West Virginia still relies heavily on the hardworking men and women who put food on the table from those professions.

But in addition to traditional industries, we must reinvent what West Virginia is all about.

As a land-grant, research university, we are on the cusp of an ascension of innovation.

Through partnerships and collaboration,
West Virginia University must open its arms to the entire state.

We have taken a giant leap in doing so with the purchase of the former Mountain State University campus in Beckley.

This is, indeed, a historic time for us, and more importantly, a historic time for the southern part of our state.

We plan to have the new West Virginia University Beckley campus up and running by fall 2016, with programs in the allied health fields, including nursing, and programs akin to the region such as tourism, outdoor recreation and hospitality.

We have also reached out to area colleges and technical schools to discuss partnerships and how we can grow additional educational opportunities together.

It is hoped that the economic impact of the campus will benefit community businesses and the tax base as the campus enrollment grows – perhaps as much as several thousand students in a few years, making it the third or fourth largest campus in the state.

This Beckley acquisition represents the beginning of a new era of educational access throughout West Virginia.

We are truly dreaming big and going first.

But it is not about building an empire. It is not even about building a campus. It is about building programs that open doors for all West Virginians.

That is what education is all about: Opportunity and jobs.

West Virginia University has long been a key economic driver for the state of West Virginia.

We generate ideas. We train people who teach our students, build our bridges, heal our bodies. We teach people who make great music, write novels, study our water and ensure we use energy responsibly.

There is no more important time than today to operate as One West Virginia University for One West Virginia.

Last summer, I traveled all 55 counties to see what West Virginia University could do for the 1.8 million people of our great state.

This summer, I am again making the rounds to at least half of the counties.

I am particularly looking forward to visiting the Holl’s Swiss Chocolate store in Parkersburg later this month.

(I will need to remind myself to wear a dark bowtie so no one can see the chocolate smears.)

But I am traveling again because I want to see firsthand the strengths of West Virginia communities and their citizens, in addition to the challenges they face.

Traveling the state also allows us to attract the best and brightest high school students from Weirton to Welch and all points in between.

It is a prime opportunity for us to assert West Virginia University as the destination toward your dream.

Resume vs. Eulogy

Now I will leave you with this.

We dove into quite a few goals today as one Mountaineer nation.

But as we strive to craft the perfect West Virginia and the perfect West Virginia University, we need to ask ourselves the question, “How do we want to be remembered?”

Author David Brooks has a new book called “The Road to Character,” in which he explores the differences between résume virtues and eulogy virtues.

Résume virtues consist of the skills we, as individuals, bring to the job market and contribute to external success.

Eulogy virtues go much deeper.

These virtues are the ones that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being.

They become your legacy—what you are most remembered for, respected for.

Unfortunately, our education system, and society at large, is too oriented around résume virtues rather than legacy virtues.

We know the various paths to career success.

We acquire and retain certain job skills and we aspire for job stability and a six-figure paycheck.

I have news for you. There is more to life than that.

While we have clear strategies for achieving tangible successes, we are not so clear on how to develop a profound character. We are not so clear on how to be kind, brave, honest and faithful.

We are not so clear on how to make people feel that they are special – that they are heard.

It is time for us – one West Virginia University family – to build that special aura – that intangible essence – that far exceeds any bullet point on a résume.

We shall no longer obsess over individual success.

We shall be remembered for how we entered the lives of others and lifted them up to reach their full potential.

And by doing so, we will lift West Virginia University – and our beautiful state to which it belongs – to its rightful place and purpose.

Thank you and have a great afternoon.