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2015 State of the University Address

Prepared Remarks
October 5, 2015

“There is always hope.”

Those words rang loud and clear this summer on my second tour of West Virginia.

When big ideas inspire bold decisions … when courage trounces boundaries … when “Let’s go” morphs from a sports cheer into our daily mantra … When we advance change … we fuel hope.

And that is what West Virginia University is doing in Harpers Ferry and in the lives of so many across the Mountain State and beyond. We nurture hope in the hearts of our students. We open doors of opportunity. And by helping them build a culture that puts learning first, we give them the keys to fulfilling lives.

We infuse hope into the lives of West Virginians. By working with governments, businesses and other partners, we help our citizens create jobs, improve our schools and build healthier lifestyles. By working together, we reverse the course of our state and rise to a place of opportunity.

Because our researchers dare to think big, we generate hope—and we change lives:

  • We make stroke diagnosis as fast and easy as a blood test.
  • We study gravitational waves to discover more about our universe.
  • We develop digital publishing to provide greater access.
  • And we make West Virginia University a leader in diesel emission research—even raising questions about a leading automobile manufacturers’ emissions standards, resulting in major fines by the Environmental Protection Agency.

By investing in research, facilities and especially our people, we strengthen communities and enlarge the human spirit.

In the past year, we have worked hard. We have reached new heights. And we did so because our students, our state and our world depends on us.

They are still depending on us. So it is time to surge beyond boundaries that have held us back. It is time to take risks—thoughtful, strategic risks.

In the simple, succinct language of advertising: It is time to “go big or go home.”

We are ready to take action. By ONE West Virginia University. For ONE West Virginia. And for the future of us all.

I want to focus today on the Power of the University and what we must do to harness that power to allow us to meet our obligations to so many.

So how do we get started?

The first step is scaling the boundaries of indecision and exulting the Power of Yes. Last month, when I spoke at a Chamber of Commerce Business Summit in Lewisburg, many people congratulated me on our launch of the WVU Beckley campus, the future home of WVU Tech.

They are excited about the opportunities the new campus will bring to southern West Virginia—but I think they are even more excited to see a decision get made.

Rest assured: Deferred decision-making is a not unique West Virginia product, like the pepperoni roll.

I have faced it in every place that I have served, and one needs only look at our federal government to see how fear of change, criticism and political retribution has stalled momentum.

Incrementalism and hesitation beget mediocrity.

But I believe our University can apply the jumper cables to get our state moving again.

By setting a standard for decision-making and advancement, we will make a real contribution to West Virginia’s future. I am not proposing that we greenlight every idea that comes along.

In fact, the most important word in transformation is “no.”

If we as a University and as a state are willing to say no, then our “yes” becomes very powerful. So we must reserve our yes for moments that herald real change.

Our initial decision to purchase the Beckley campus—and then our decision to move the WVU Tech campus there—is a powerful yes.

Yes to a stronger economy in southern West Virginia. And yes to life-changing education for students with big dreams.

I would like to commend our Board of Governors members and state leaders for supporting this important decision. Thanks to them, we are ready to leap—not creep—into the future.

And what is our future? Students. There is Power in learning.

Putting students first means helping them escape worn-out bonds of destructive student behavior that only inhibit their success.

It means awakening them to the power of learning and giving them a 24/7 experience that prepares them for vibrant careers and enriching lives.

We showcased the power of learning at Welcome Week this year, and we did it in partnership with the students.

A new event, Saturday Night Lights, brought 3,500 freshmen together at Milan Puskar Stadium for an extravaganza that brought Mountaineer tradition alive.

We moved the traditional Monday FallFest concert to Sunday so it would not distract students from academics, resulting in zero incidents at FallFest for the first time ever. Students demonstrated that they could be good citizens when 1,000 of them completed Welcome Week service projects in their new community.

Early indications show that our approach is paying substantial dividends, with improved academic records among our entering freshmen.

Honors College enrollment surged from about 500 students last year to 740 this year.

We are attracting more students who are intellectually curious and career-driven, and we are giving them the learning experience they deserve.

That involves designing advanced facilities in which they live and learn.

Our newest student living complex includes Oakland Hall, a residence where 900 freshmen live in ultra-modern rooms, and University Park, with apartments for upperclassmen.

Our beautiful new Art Museum has given the University’s unique art collection a fitting home. And last week we dedicated our new Advanced Engineering Research facility.

Later this semester, Evansdale Crossing will open as a student services hub. And spring will see the opening of our new Agricultural Sciences Building. These and other strategic investments will give our students in Morgantown the best possible learning environment. And Project 168 will help them make the most of our academic culture, which emphasizes hands-on learning, outside-the-box thinking and global exploring.

Part of Project 168 is a revitalized advising system that will help students stay on track for graduation. We have set a 90 percent retention rate as our future goal.

Let me repeat that: A 90 percent retention rate as our future goal, and we will achieve it.

Guiding us to that goal is Joe Sieaman, who will serve as—what I call—our very first Dean of Completion.

Think about it. We have Deans of Admission who help get our students into the University. Why do we not have a Dean of Completion who will help our students graduate from this University?

We will do that.

Putting students first is our highest mandate. That means more than just transforming the culture and strengthening academics.

It also means making sure we are accessible and affordable for every qualified student who wants to learn here.

Access and quality must be our polar stars.

To maintain our quality, we made the tough decision to increase tuition this year. It is a difficult decision but necessary.

We must never sacrifice the quality of the institution. Instead, we must find ways to keep education affordable.

I am pleased that the WVU Foundation created the Dream First campaign to raise $50 million for student scholarships. We are well on our way to meeting that goal, and I am grateful to the Foundation leadership and all our donors for helping our students thrive.

Let me now speak to the Power of Trust.

It is important to invest in scholarships, facilities and student life programs. But none of those things will help our students succeed if we lack a University’s greatest resource—talented people to teach, mentor and guide our students.

So we must we hire and retain the very best—from leading researchers to inspiring faculty to on-the-rise graduate students. We must trust them to do their jobs effectively and compensate them accordingly. And we must unshackle the bureaucratic chains that strangle creativity.

Investing in faculty and staff means encouraging risk taking. It means rewarding success—even rewarding failure when it springs from innovative attempts.

Investing in faculty and staff means building a merit-based University, one that is fair but not equal.

A one-size-fits-all approach, has no place at a university. Our reward structures must promote innovation, instead of propagating mediocrity. It is time to move away from a structure that worked well 50 years ago. Reward and recognition should be crafted in a manner that reflects the nuances of today’s higher education landscape.

We need to provide a positive learning environment that includes an infrastructure of laboratories and libraries worthy of a Big 12 institution.

We need to hire at market so that we attract the very best in the country. We need to address compression challenges.

And we need to create a system that places value on each faculty member as an individual and the strengths he or she brings to the institution—whether it be in research, in teaching or in public service.

When we create a mosaic of talent, we create a University that will move farther faster with ideas and ingenuity surpassing all others in higher education.

And finally, investing in faculty and staff means making their jobs easier by making our university simple, agile, and responsive. In short: We must bludgeon our bureaucracy.

To lead the way, I created a Bureaucracy SWOT team—popularly known as our Bureaucracy Busters. They are streamlining processes and procedures across campuses to save time and money. And they get their ideas from the people who understand cumbersome processes best—our faculty and staff.

I have often said, and will say it again, we must transform our University from an elephant to a ballerina. We will continue to battle bureaucracy—most often created by us—so that we can move forward with grace and agility.

There is great Power in Partnership. Streamlining our processes will make it easier for us to experience the power of partnership.

The problems facing our state and world are too big for any one person, department, institution or sector to solve alone.

Boundaries within the University must not be boundaries on our ingenuity. That is why we are creating more trans-institutional efforts like our Neurosciences Institute, the Energy Institute, and our endeavors in Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Commercialization.

Although I feel strongly about creating a strong academic environment for our students, I am equally committed to leading this institution to our rightful place among the best research universities in the world.

The research we conduct on this campus has the power to make a difference in people’s lives. And it is even more powerful when we allow our students—both undergraduate and graduate—to work alongside their mentors making discoveries that are critical to the advancement of this state and this nation.

For example, our experts are studying every aspect of shale gas, which is becoming so important to our state.

We launched the Marcellus Shale Energy and Environmental Laboratory—or MSEEL—in partnership with Northeast Natural Energy, the National Energy Technology Laboratory, and some university called Ohio State that sounds vaguely familiar.

MSEEL is the first-ever long-term, comprehensive field study of shale gas resources in which scientists will study the process from beginning-to-end.

This summer, drilling began on the science well and two production wells that form the heart of MSEEL.

Another powerful partnership stems from our collection of papers from former Senator Jay Rockefeller, former Congressman Nick Rahall and Nobel Prize-winning author Pearl Buck.

Through these works, we are enhancing our Libraries’ West Virginia & Regional History Center, while preserving our state’s heritage with collaborative initiatives around these collections.

As West Virginia’s flagship, land-grant institution, it is our responsibility to promote our state’s heritage for future generations. But I see this as much more than a responsibility—it is an opportunity.

We are currently working to launch a Humanities Center that will position our University as a leading voice on the value and necessity of humanities education.

The Center will ensure that our humanities programs are working hand-in-hand toward the common good.

Through it, faculty and students will strengthen humanities research and education in West Virginia, improving the lives of all of our citizens. This Center is a faculty-led project and shows the collaborative spirit that is so important to our future.

And, speaking of collaboration, we are celebrating the arts and humanities on our campus all year-long as we acknowledge the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

So, whether coming together to shape our understanding of the world, to renew the promises of Title IX, to expand suicide prevention resources, or to research West Virginia’s biggest health problems, we must be ONE West Virginia University.

In the same way, boundaries within our state must not become barriers to progress. That is why our University is quashing the notion of regional and institutional competition. We must grow the pie, not fight 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.

Above all, we must eliminate any arrogant notion that we are too big or too good to partner with others.

We are ONE West Virginia, and the power of partnership will make all of our lives better.

Powering West Virginia’s future will require the courage to look at things in new ways. Yes, there is Power in Courage. We must root out the most tenacious obstacles to our success—the ones we impose on ourselves.

These include the negative self-image that haunts West Virginians and the poverty mentality that lurks throughout our institution.

Yes, we are like most other universities, in that we do not have enough money to meet all of our appetites.

But too often we let that discourage us from using what we do have in the most thoughtful and productive way. We must be courageous enough to believe we can compete with anyone on the national or world stage.

When Groucho Marx said he would not join any club that would have him as a member, he expressed the same negative elitism that infects some here—the notion that if we were so good, we would not be living in West Virginia.

We need to embrace this beautiful state and encourage the best and brightest West Virginians we have exported to other states to return home.

We have been an exporter of talent for generations. We now need to find that talent, wherever it resides, and create ways for that talent to return home.

Finally, we must be brave enough to challenge our most fearsome enemy: The phrases, “This is the way we do things in West Virginia.” and “This is the way we do things at West Virginia University.”

Those answers are no longer acceptable. We must be fearless and resilient.

We must be fearless now because the stakes are too high. This University represents the Power of Hope.

Having spent another summer touring West Virginia, I know that our University’s calling extends far beyond Morgantown. I met Braxton County high school students who are preparing for careers through our Health Science and Technology Academy.

In Wyoming County, I shared a story with children attending Energy Express, a summer reading and nutrition program that our University’s Extension unit offers for children in rural communities.

From Charleston to Clay, from Sutton to St. Albans, and at the State Fair in Lewisburg, I saw that we are making a difference.

I also saw that we need to do even more. And I can sum up what we need to do in one word: Hope.

Against all odds, after enduring so many hardships, the people of West Virginia are optimistic about the future.

West Virginians are among the most resilient people I have ever met, but we must give them a reason to keep hoping. It is up to West Virginia University to deliver on the promises we made to this state when we became a land-grant institution.

It is up to us to build a West Virginia where education, health and the economy thrive.

So let us begin with the Power of Education. Our commitment to education begins at an early age—before youngsters even step foot into a classroom.

Educational enlightenment is a lifelong process. It is not wedged between kindergarten and 12th grade.

Nor should it be a privilege only for the elite. Abraham Lincoln changed that game back in 1862 with passage of the Morrill Act.

At West Virginia University, it is our job to facilitate education for all. And education for all equals empowerment.

From panhandle to panhandle and behind every hill and valley, education has the ability to empower all citizens of West Virginia.

There is no more important time than now to realize this.

As you know, traditional industries across the country and in West Virginia are fading away. Those are the cold, sobering facts.

For a state that backs its pride on coal, the volume of coal mining jobs has taken a tremendous hit. The same goes for other industries, such as the steel mills and the manufacturing plants.

When I was first president at West Virginia University back in the early-1980s, you could pass on college. You could even drop out of high school and still get a decent paying job.

That is no longer the case.

Going to college was once viewed as an elite privilege. Today it is a necessity.

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 engrain in our children—who are the future of West Virginia and these United States—this notion that education is a lifelong process.

It is about adapting and evolving through life as individuals, and as communities.

We must work closely with our public schools and boards of education at both the county and the state levels. We are already working hand-in-hand with the state Board of Education, and we have a rich relationship with state superintendent Martirano.

We must now burst out of the corner into which we painted ourselves. No more segmentation of pre-K through 12 versus higher education. It is all interconnected. If our students are to excel on our college campus, they must know how to read and do math at an early age.

A 2013 study revealed that 7 out of 10 students in West Virginia were not reading proficiently at the end of the third grade.

That is unacceptable.

As a University, we will continue to encourage reading through programs such as Energy Express. We will train more secondary science, technology, engineering and mathematics teachers through our UTeach program. We will explore any avenue that will give our students the skills they need.

We must also expand our online learning, and in order to do that, West Virginia, particularly our rural areas, needs a bit of a boot in infrastructure and technology.

As I noted earlier, ladies and gentlemen, Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act of 1862 that opened the gates of educational access to all.

But here we are in 2015 and still, not every child has the same access as the next because they might live in the southern coalfields or in a secluded area without the luxuries of technology.

This is why we are pushing high school students into the door of West Virginia University while they are in high school—through efforts such as the ACCESS WVU Early College Program.

This program does not get enough recognition. Current high school students can enroll in University courses and earn credits toward their college degree before setting foot on campus. That is the kind of forward-thinking that will help these students succeed. Another way we are staying ahead of the curve is through Massive Open Online Courses.

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.

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 everything is on the table when it comes to rethinking our delivery system of higher education.

A college education means an exploration of ALL ideas. A college campus SHOULD provide a safe place for us to explore ideas and beliefs other than our own.

We should be questioned and we should question others. We must see the world beyond the boundaries we live in or those that have been created for us.

One debate that has popped up on many campuses across the country threatens the core roots of the college education system. I am afraid we are becoming too politically correct—and that the real, living, breathing world outside of academia is laughing.

Who here is familiar with the trigger warnings that some of our overly sensitive college students in the nation have called for on books and syllabi?

Columbia University, for instance, made changes to its required reading after some student concerns. Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”—a book some said was offensive because of sexual violence—is out, and a Toni Morrison novel was added.

The Columbia example is a slippery precedence to which we must not succumb.

I downright detest the notion of avoiding debate or discussion just because a topic might make some people uncomfortable.

College campuses are the places for healthy and open dialogue. I do not wish to limit who comes to campus to speak because they might have ideas or thoughts different from our own or society’s current landscape.

Let us be mindful that we must treat each other respectfully. We must be inclusive. And we must listen and speak to each other with open minds and open hearts.

We should lead the way for our citizenry to once again debate issues openly and with fervor, but without fear of retribution or censorship.

We also have the responsibility to assert the Power of Healthcare.

So, I warned you all when I returned to West Virginia University 18 months ago. I told you we would bust down the silos that separate our systems. I told you we would forge more meaningful connections other than sharing the same heating plant.

The best example of that collaboration is the bond being forged between our healthcare system and the University.

Hats off to Albert Wright, President and CEO of WVU Hospitals; Dr. Christopher Colenda, President and CEO of West Virginia University Health System; and Dr. Clay Marsh, Vice President and Executive Dean for Health Sciences and their teams, who have done a remarkable job on the health side.

These men and women recognized a need to let our patients and communities know what we were doing together for them.

A new yet consistent brand campaign, WVU Medicine, ties all of our talented people and quality health services together in a meaningful way for patients and the public. WVU Medicine is a promise to everyone: No matter where you see that sign, you will find the very best in healthcare.

And our Health Sciences faculty members across the state are making a difference in people’s lives.

In the Eastern Panhandle our doctors and medical students prescribe fresh fruits and vegetables to their patients—and then show them how to prepare them.

In Morgantown, nurse Jen Mallow is handing out iPads to patients at the HealthRight clinic so they can track their health every day—and have a face-to-face talk with someone at the clinic when they have a problem—without leaving home.

Pediatrician Dr. Pamela Murray developed an app to help teenagers make good life choices during the transition to adult life. And our relationships with Marshall University, Charleston Area Medical Center, the School of Osteopathic Medicine, and dozens of other partners in health education, research and healthcare are at an all-time high.

In fact, our gold-and-blue nation has come together with others to support research addressing the Mountain State’s health issues. West Virginia University and Marshall together have pledged $1.5 million to jumpstart healthcare research and delivery projects across the state.

We need to go from last to first in health.

West Virginians have real health problems, and we all have a responsibility to address them.

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.

Cooperation, not competition, will lift this state and its citizens.

Finally, we must focus on the Power of Prosperity. Some of you might be familiar with this Leonardo da Vinci quote:

“People of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.”

Of course, that fits into our whole “Mountaineers Go First” mantra, and it provides us with a call for bold ideas and bold action.

Going out and “happening to things” exemplifies true leadership. And West Virginia University will lead in the areas where we are starving for innovation.

In order to embrace bold action, we announced last year the creation of a Center for Big Ideas. Let me cite a project we are currently undertaking.

One overarching theme that has emerged can be summed up in two words: Community Resiliency.

Let me repeat that: Community Resiliency. For generations, communities across the country grew their identities around the seeds of industry.

Local economies flourished around the stable roots of manufacturing industries such as automotive and steel.

However, our manufacturing communities across the nation have faced a shifting reality.

Although manufacturing is still a vital part of our country’s overall economy, it is now clear that the jobs that have been lost in recent decades are not coming back.

We have seen the effect of the changes to the nation’s fiscal reality in our own backyard.

Just like other parts of the country, West Virginia has witnessed changes in job markets causing a cascade of both severe and troubling economic and societal consequences that have sometimes strained our ability to connect people to jobs.

When I returned to West Virginia University, I embarked on a tour of all 55 counties across this great state, reinvigorating our land-grant mission.

This year I visited many of them again—40, in fact.

I shook the hands of business people, embraced teachers and nurses, and high-fived young students. I have looked into their eyes and carried their stories back to campus.

I know how much people love this state. And I understand why—because I love it, too.

So, as I listened to the challenges we face, I firmly believe it is this institution’s mission to make full use of our resources to better understand the needs in our communities and address them together.

It is not university largesse. In fact, it is our duty to the state and its citizens.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is not simple rhetoric.

I am talking about real-world application of knowledge and research for the public good—actions that will enact positive change in our neighborhoods, schools and businesses.

In Weirton, a town whose economic stability was uprooted with the drastic contraction of the steel industry beginning in the 1980s—smart and loyal leaders are still forging the way forward.

Nationally, communities are searching to understand how the staggering decline of an industry has had an impact on workers, families and subsequent generations.

Together we must learn from those who have found the grit and resilience to go about rebuilding their lives even as their meddle was tested again and again.

Our University would like to begin the conversation with community members who have lived through these industry shifts.

Through inter-disciplinary work that pairs University and external resources with front line community intelligence, we can find solutions that honor the culture and history of our communities; employ data analysis, as well as national and economic trends; and identify public and private resources for supporting individuals, families and communities while recognizing the importance of meaningful work.

For these community engagement projects, academic departments from across the University—and within the new, multidisciplinary John D. Rockefeller IV School of Policy and Politics—will play a vital role, guided by those who have lived through the real-life challenges—some for generations.

As a country, we once faced the evolution of an agrarian economy to an industrial economy, and now we must embrace a new national economy that relies on global manufacturing.

Some of our communities have been part of that evolution. And as our nation chooses paths forward, West Virginia can be a model for communities and individuals across this country of how to be resilient, determined and successful.

That, my friends, is what it means to provide a meaningful education.

Putting a strategic plan into strategic action means, above all, recommitting to communities across the state.

In conclusion, we have accomplished many great things this past year—of which I am very proud.

But what makes me even more proud is the spirit of our leadership, our faculty, our staff and our students who want to do more.

It is not enough to achieve the goal—we want to surpass it. We exceed expectations. We dance beyond the boundaries.

“Going big” sometimes comes with risks. And that is OK—as long as we move forward thinking strategically, moving quickly and fearlessly, and always, always putting our students and the 1.8 million people of the state of West Virginia first.

THAT is the way West Virginia University will lead.

THAT, my friends, is the way we all must lead.

Thank you and I will now be glad to take questions from the audience, divisional campuses and via Twitter.