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2018 Spring State of the University Address


Prepared Remarks
February 27, 2018

At this time last year, we began a celebration as our University turned 150 years old. We spent time remembering our past and the people who helped build this institution. 

We honored the present and the work we are doing today in education and in research. We looked to the future and what lies ahead. And, of course, we had cake. Lots of cake. 

So, as we conclude West Virginia University’s sesquicentennial, we thought it would be interesting to hear what some future graduates think we will be doing 150 years from now. 



Children certainly re-open our eyes to the power of imagination. And they remind us: Imagination can power our world.

It did so, literally, in one famine-plagued African village. 

In Malawi, a boy named William Kamkwamba reluctantly quit school when his parents could no longer afford his fees. 

But a drive to learn led him to the library, where a book about energy launched him on a project — building a windmill to power appliances in his family’s home. 

His successful work attracted attention and led to a book, a popular TED talk and support to further his education, which included earning a bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth.

Most importantly, it led him to create additional improvements in his village, including a solar-powered pump to supply clean drinking water.

Kamkwamba, whose early work drew jeers from skeptical neighbors, has a message for all would-be innovators: "In life you can go through many difficulties, but if you know what you want to do, if you can focus, and work, then in the end, you will end up doing it."

This message is a clarion call for us today. 

For too long, many in higher education have abandoned purpose in the quest for prestige — and, in the process, they have eroded prestige, as well.

As the economy faltered, government funding for higher education plummeted, college costs soared and student debt reached crisis levels. 

Modes of learning are evolving. Technology is revolutionizing our lives and integrating the global landscape.  

Meanwhile, the job market is changing. And, in a world where so many William Kamkwambas can only dream of pursuing higher education, the American public is losing faith in our work.

In a Pew Research Center survey, only 40 percent of the respondents said the value for the money spent on higher education is good or excellent. That is an existential threat to all universities.

An anti-academia feeling is surging on the conservative side of the opinion spectrum, with 58 percent of Republicans saying colleges and universities are having a negative effect on our country. Just two years ago, only 37 percent of Republicans held this view.

Protests about free speech and its limits have erupted on campuses nationwide. 

Controversy surrounds the best approaches for preventing and responding to sexual harassment and assault. And more young people are experiencing anxiety and depression. 

Immigration policies and rhetoric have helped to spur a 7 percent drop in international students enrolling in the United States. And the number of high school graduates here at home will be dropping significantly by 2026.

These are tenuous times for universities and colleges — small and large, public and private.

The obstacles are daunting. The urgency grows every day.

But, so does our chance to reassert the transformational power of education.

Philosopher Michel de Montaigne said:  “The great and glorious masterpiece of man is to know how to live to purpose.”

At West Virginia University, our purpose is transforming lives in our state and our world.

Every day, our faculty, staff, students, alumni and donors are putting the power of that purpose to work. 

In fact, the Hoylman family truly understands the power of purpose.

Neither Don nor the late Marcella Hoylman graduated from West Virginia University. But they saw its positive impact in this region. 

They saw our University’s role as an economic driver as Don was building his own successful mining and oil and gas businesses. 

They saw our University’s life-changing power in the lives of their three children, who together earned five West Virginia University degrees.

And with the firm intention to advance cancer research and nurture young entrepreneurs, the Hoylman family made a substantial estate gift to the WVU Foundation — the second largest campaign gift from an individual. 

With this gift, their intention will extend far into the future, through lives saved, futures forged and a state moved forward.

I am delighted to welcome Don Hoylman and his family, who are with us today. 

Please help me in thanking them for their tremendous generosity and support!

Colin Lopez knows the power of purpose, too.

The recent international studies and Honors College graduate always wanted to increase access to health care. After gaining research and policy analysis skills in the Geography Department’s Food Justice Lab, he worked to map and explain barriers to health care in West Virginia. 

And his resolution to improve global health helped him become West Virginia University’s first Schwarzman Scholar — one of only 142 students worldwide chosen to study at China’s prestigious Tsinghua University.

Traci LeMasters, assistant professor in the School of Pharmacy, also knows the power of purpose. She is one of only 16 people nationwide to receive the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy’s New Investigator Award this year. 

Traci is studying elderly cancer survivors and their chances of receiving inappropriate prescription medications — work that could have major quality of life and Medicare policy implications, especially in West Virginia, with its aging population and high incidence of cancer.

The Hoylmans, Colin Lopez and Traci LeMasters are just a few among us who have turned their purpose into progress.  

Two years ago, I challenged faculty, staff and students to recommit to our unique and sacred responsibility — advancing education, health care and prosperity in West Virginia.

I see the results in everything from coding camps to computing clusters to beating hearts. 

Advancing education means positioning our young people for success, with innovative learning opportunities from preschool through college and beyond.

This month, for example, West Virginia youths tapped into the technological future at WVU Extension’s first 4-H Code Camp at WVU Jackson’s Mill. 

Such programs are important because demand for STEM professionals nationwide continue to grow. 

Unfortunately, West Virginia has been producing fewer science, technology, engineering and math graduates than any neighboring state. That hurts our state’s ability to compete in the 21st century global economy. 

Advancing prosperity means helping the state diversify its economy. 

One promising high-growth sector includes cybersecurity, cloud services and data centers.

That is why it is so exciting that we have received a three-year, $1 million National Science Foundation grant to develop a next-generation High Performance Computing cluster. 

The Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center will host and operate the cluster, which will advance computationally intensive research in many fields, from drug delivery to genomics and astrophysics.

Advancing health care means tackling deadly threats such as heart failure — the most common heart-related reason for hospital admission and readmission.

In December, a 62-year-old man with a failing heart received a permanent heart pump in an operation performed for the first time in West Virginia. A team of specialists at the WVU Heart and Vascular Institute installed the pump, known as a left ventricular assist device. When pacemakers or surgeries are not options, patients require heart transplantation or a heart pump such as the L-VAD. 

Now, thanks to the top cardiac experts we have recruited to WVU Medicine, West Virginians do not have to leave the state for this life-saving care.

And I can personally attest to the quality of our cardiac team and the confidence that comes from knowing high-caliber care is available.

Our purpose also powers the University’s response to West Virginia’s devastating opiate epidemic — and we have earned national recognition for our broad-based charge against this plague. 

Education, health care and prosperity are not three separate issues — they are the three interwoven strands that make up West Virginia’s fabric. 

Strengthening that fabric is our University’s fundamental purpose.

The drive to strengthen that fabric led to the opening of our WVU Beckley campus, to bring world-class higher education closer to the people of southern West Virginia.

In West Virginia, which has the nation’s lowest workforce participation rate, employers have 20,000 jobs they cannot fill because citizens lack sufficient training.

At WVU Tech and at WVU Keyser, we are building two-, three- and four-year programs that are glide-paths to our graduate programs in healthcare, engineering and other fields.

Our purpose also strengthens our international partnerships, which connect our students to the global marketplace of ideas.

And I am proud that our University received the Heiskell Award for innovation in international partnerships with our strategic partner in the Middle East, the Royal University for Women in Bahrain.

Our purpose drives us to infuse innovation throughout our curriculum. 

That is why we have named four IDEA Fellows, faculty members who have received extensive training to develop and teach courses with entrepreneurial themes.

Our purpose powers West Virginia Forward, an unprecedented partnership that is forging pathways toward a thriving West Virginia.  

One such pathway is a collaboration with China Energy, which will bring more than $83 billion to West Virginia, and will offer key investment opportunities that could reinvigorate the state’s and region’s petrochemical industry like the natural gas storage hub.

Our purpose delivers improvements to our students’ total living and learning experience. By fall 2019, almost 1,100 students will reside in Living-Learning Communities, a re-envisioned approach to bridging the gap between academic and non-academic life on campus to help improve retention.

Currently seven LLCs serve groups, ranging from first-generation students to those pursuing engineering, creative arts or forensic sciences degrees. More communities are taking shape, including ones for future business and health professionals.

Our renewed focus on academics is paying off with rising student qualifications. Last fall, for example, we welcomed our biggest class of Honors College freshmen ever, as well as our largest overall freshman class, with the highest-ever GPA.

Our University’s overall reputation is also growing, as shown by our status among the top 1.5 percent of universities worldwide, according to the Center for World University Rankings. 

We are, indeed, moving in the right direction.

We have had great success in changing the overall student culture to emphasize working smart and playing smart, in true Mountaineer fashion. 

Now, we must draw on our purpose once again to reinvent fraternity and sorority life on campus. 

Greek life on America’s college campuses is at a tipping point. Fraternities and sororities are acquiring an increasingly toxic reputation among students, parents, employers and members of the public.

We are not waiting for the next tragedy or headline-grabbing incident to prompt our action. 

Instead, we have placed an immediate moratorium on all social and recruiting activities of the 16 social and social-professional fraternities comprising the Interfraternity Council, enacting a plan to review and strengthen oversight. 

We are raising academic standards to join a fraternity or sorority from the current 2.5 grade point average to 2.75, gradually increasing to 3.0 by fall of 2020. To remain in good standing, chapter GPA averages must meet the same requirements. 

This decision has created some divisive conversations. Some are grateful for the pause; others believe we are punishing unfairly. 

Still others are adamant that we shut Fraternity and Sorority Life down permanently.

As someone who has worked closely with college students for nearly four decades, I know that today’s students can lead the way in solving their own biggest problem — reining in the small number of students whose increasingly negative behavior is damaging the reputation and credibility of all.

To make this happen, alumni and national chapters of fraternities and sororities, along with students and University leadership, must step up to combat behavior that flouts their organizations’ — and our University’s — core values.

We can make West Virginia University a national example of how a large, land-grant university can make Fraternity and Sorority Life a vibrant part of our overall mission to create positive change through education. But we must work together to do so.

My friends, in the past few months we have enjoyed many successes that I quickly outlined. But as I just mentioned, we have a few challenges, too. Many might think that financial challenges would top the list. But I would disagree. 

I believe the greatest threat to our University’s purpose is this: complacency — that comfortable notion that we are just fine with the way things are. 

I do not want this institution to ever become complacent. We need to value unconventional thinking and pursue unreasonable possibilities. 

If someone says to you, "That’s a crazy idea,” then I say you should push the idea even further.  

Change is uncomfortable and often creates fear. 

And for those who lead and advocate for change, it can become tiresome to fight the good fight. We must always be aware that as passion diminishes, complacency flourishes.

So rather than succumb to a sense of security, we will take this occasion to reconfigure, recalibrate and redefine what West Virginia University will look like in years to come.

We can loudly proclaim the value of our work, in a world where knowledge powers people as surely as wind and sun and coal and gas power technology.

In 2015, college graduates earned, on average, 56 percent more than high school graduates — the largest gap the Economic Policy Institute has ever found in almost half a century of polling.

Since the "great recession" began in 2007, the employment advantage for college graduates has only grown. In the past decade, the number of employed college graduates has risen 21 percent, while the number of employed people with only a high school degree has dropped nearly 8 percent.

This trend will only escalate in coming years, especially as our nation continues to shift from a manufacturing-based economy to a knowledge-based one. 

But as important as economic benefits are, they are far from the only way that high rates of college attainment strengthen our society.

Research shows that college graduates are more likely to vote, volunteer in their communities, make charitable contributions and engage in healthy practices such as exercising and getting regular medical care. 

College-educated people even have a longer life expectancy than those who never attended college — 81 years compared to 74, as reported in a recent study.

While I talked earlier about STEM education, the arts and humanities are just as important in today’s world.

American democracy has always drawn its strength from citizens whose education is well-rounded and whose perspectives are wide-ranging. Without that kind of citizenry, we lose our ability to compete in the world economy and may even fail to sustain our democracy.

A Harvard public health researcher found that the biggest difference between healthy and unhealthy neighborhoods is something he called "collective efficacy" — the degree to which people act together on matters of common interest. It ranked higher than even wealth, crime rate or access to healthcare.

Through the arts and humanities, we encounter the most difficult questions and formulate our own answers. We express ideas and values. We discover the past; make sense of the present, and form our hopes for the future.  

And, critically, we see through unfamiliar eyes and enlarge our capacity for empathy.

What could be more important today, as so many Americans isolate themselves in echo chambers that drown out dissenting opinions?

For all these reasons, we must continue to defend the pursuit of knowledge and the value of higher education itself. 

Because, amid today’s seeming havoc, our nation still looks to higher education for solutions.

They look to us because of the uniquely powerful role that education fills in America — to fulfill our country’s founding ideal of a meritocracy based on ability and action, to sustain our democracy through an informed citizenry, and to right the wrongs of bigotry and oppression.

Change is never easy.

It certainly was not easy for William Kamkwambwa as he salvaged bicycle parts and scrap materials to build his windmill. 

To transform our University and state, we must assemble some of the same tools he used — courage, imagination and unwavering focus.

More than 90,000 people recently used those very tools to help us build the largest private fundraising campaign in West Virginia University history.

I am thrilled to announce that the WVU Foundation State of Minds campaign generated $1 billion, $218 million dollars — let me say that again — $1 billion, $218 million dollars — exceeding its $1 billion goal, which itself had been raised from $750 million.

In fact, the gift I mentioned earlier from the Hoylman family placed us over the $1.2 billion mark.

That, my friends, is purpose fueled by passion. 

Campaign donations established 844 student scholarships, 57 chairs and professorships and 227 funds to assist research efforts.

More than $560 million was raised to enhance the undergraduate student experience and global education, with another nearly $227 million raised to advance the research initiatives of the University. 

Our alumni, family and friends answered the call to create more opportunities for our students — and our state. From new academic buildings to scholarships to research, the funds donated have purpose — and enormous potential.

This is certainly a moment to celebrate — but it is not an excuse for slowing our progress. On the horizon is a new Business and Economics complex and a new children’s hospital. 

And with the proper tools and a blueprint that serves people’s real needs, we can generate even more power to improve lives.

William Kamkwamba describes his focus as "all the things made possible when your dreams are powered by your heart."

By nurturing ideas from around the world and across the ideological spectrum, we can power ingenuity.

By enkindling childlike wonder across the lifespan, we can spark creativity.

By uplifting curiosity and scientific inquiry, we can ignite discovery. 

And together, by reclaiming our shared purpose, we can fashion a future that reaches beyond the next 150 years and far beyond our dreams — perhaps even beyond fly-mobiles.

Now, I would be glad to take your questions.