Monday, March 27, 2023 | Watch Video Replay
Prepared remarks by WVU President E. Gordon Gee.
Good morning! I am so pleased to be with you today. And I am especially pleased and surprised to see students in the audience. This is a little early for a Monday morning!
I also was thinking about the last time I gave a formal speech in this room, and I believe it was during New Student Orientation. I told our families we were going to win the national championship in football. Well, I can’t get it right every time … maybe this year!
But all kidding aside, I am truly grateful to be with you today.
According to Tolstoy, “Spring is the time of plans and projects.” Today I will share where we stand as a university, and the plans and projects we have in store.
The state of West Virginia University is strong, and we will be even stronger in the decades to come, thanks to a concerted focus on what matters most.
For years, we have transformed ourselves. Though we have made tremendous strides, we did so within the current construct of higher education. I propose that construct can no longer position us for the future. It will not sustain us to thrive in the imminent landscape. Today we will discuss why we must continue to evolve and how we intend to do so.
The Challenges We Face
It is no secret that West Virginia University is facing challenging times. Indeed, higher education is facing challenging times. We are no different than our peers – only the details within the situation.
And to be frank, we have been facing these headwinds for a long time. If we return to the year 2019 – before the pandemic uprooted our lives – we will recall that we were confronting several difficulties.
A declining college-aged population.
A lower college-going rate.
Rising financial costs.
A national narrative that questioned the value of college.
And lean financial and personnel structures.
We then experienced two years like none I have ever seen. In 2020, the pandemic sent us home to work and study. We had to navigate how to work differently, teach differently, learn differently – all while managing the personal stress that accompanied a virus paralyzing the world.
Next, we began the slow migration to a sense of normalcy in 2021. However, we had lower freshmen enrollment in 2020 and 2021, as well as lower international and transfer enrollment. All negatively impacted our financials.
Both years were costly – not only from a financial perspective but also from a culture and a health and well-being perspective.
We emerged in 2022 with a great appetite to return to the next normal. Programs and initiatives that had been paused were back in motion. We embraced a new hybrid model of work and we returned to a more familiar cadence of campus life.
But 2022 delivered new hurdles. Our first-time freshmen returned to a more stable number through an improved market share, and we also saw dramatically improved graduation rates. Do not misunderstand me – this is very good news. Graduating more students on time is exactly what we want! When we did not account for a higher graduation rate, it affected our bottom line when we saw a decline in total enrollment.
In 2022 we also experienced the phenomenon known as The Great Dropout. According to data from the National Student Clearinghouse, undergraduate college enrollment dropped 8 percent from 2019 to 2022, with declines continuing even after returning to in-person classes. Students chose not to return to college due to a strong job market, the rising costs of attendance and a cynical perspective on education.
In addition, we are experiencing global inflation concerns. We are paying more for goods and services – just as families are at the grocery store and gas pump. We are seeing an increase in personnel costs, as well, as the recruitment of new faculty and staff is higher than five years ago.
When you add the current challenges to those of 2019, it is easy to understand why we are projecting around a $35-million-dollar structural budget deficit for Fiscal Year 2024. And as we face the demographic cliff over the next five years, that deficit could grow to around $75 million based on enrollment and inflation projections.
I share that not to alarm but to alert. We need to better understand the reality we face. Keep in mind, the University operates a budget of $1.3 billion dollars. A $35-million-dollar deficit equals about 3 percent of our total budget. From a short-term financial perspective, the number is manageable. From a long-term sustainability perspective, it is not unless we budget strategically for the future.
Now, we have always been a lean institution – and the last few years made us even more so. We asked you to reduce expenses during the pandemic – and you did. And because of your actions, we are in a better place today than some of our peers around the country.
And when we asked for your help again in January, you again began to reduce expenses. But we cannot get to where we need to be by merely halting hospitality and reducing travel. We still need to operate as the R1, flagship institution of our state.
It is clear we need to get to a better place. A different place. While these issues are affecting every institution in our country, we must be committed to becoming one of the first to overcome them. That is the opportunity before us.
My friends, we are at a crossroads.
I have been a leader in higher education for a long time and that affords me a distinct view that none of my peers have. And as I deliberated on how best to position the University going forward, I thought about why President Lincoln signed land-grant universities into being 161 years ago.
I thought about who we are here to serve.
And I considered how we stand out among 4,600 other universities across the nation with similar mission statements and familiar course catalogs.
Higher education has become a cacophony of voices shouting the same message to the same audience – an audience that does not feel heard and has lost its faith in us. Our reason for being has become clouded by multiple priorities. Sometimes when we are trying to manage chaos, we lose sight of what is truly important.
On March 17, our Board of Governors directed that we reposition ourselves today so that we can be a responsive, relevant university system of the future. A system that meets the needs of the students and of the market – providing degrees and experiences that will lead to meaningful careers and productive lives. A system that invests in the initiatives that will change the trajectory of our state and its people. A University that is uniquely West Virginia University.
Over the past three years, we have been stretched in many directions – and rightfully so. We had a daunting healthcare crisis and we needed to assist in every way we could. We have come out on the other side and can look in the rear-view mirror with pride at what we achieved. But today, I ask that we face forward to address our future and focus our energies on what I am calling our First Principles.
These principles in many ways return us to our core roots, and are critical as we prioritize the issues facing higher education and our own financial situation. I believe if we lean into these three principles, we will emerge a more productive, more significant and more dynamic University system.
To begin, we must put our students first.
Second, we must embrace our land-grant mission and the people we serve.
And third, we must differentiate ourselves by investing in the initiatives that uniquely serve our campus community, reflect our values and play to our strengths.
It is that simple.
Putting Students First
I believe we would all agree that educating our young people is one of the most critical investments we can make as a society. However, learning environments and methodologies have changed, and our university needs to reflect that. Indeed, the pandemic illustrated that students are open to – and now demand – a variety of learning choices. We need to meet this new generation of students where they are.
We also need to ensure that when our students arrive on campus, we keep them on campus. I want every student to feel they are an indispensable part of this University – that their contributions matter and make us better. Indeed, without students we do not exist.
I know we have students in the audience today, and I say this directly to you: I want every one of you and your peers to finish your college degree. I want you to walk across the platform at commencement and into a new career or graduate program you are passionate about. I want you to find your place, find your people and stay healthy and happy while pursuing your purpose. Your success is my – and our – number one priority. That is my commitment to you.
To create a university that encourages student success, we must better understand our students’ needs. For the past six weeks I have been talking with our students. Sometimes informally when I am hanging out here in the Lair, other times more formally through focus groups. I would like to share a video that highlights some of the thoughts shared with me during these gatherings.
I am so impressed by our students. They are thoughtful. Smart. Driven. And it is clear they care about our university and its future. They care about education and understand its importance to their future and to the world.
Our students are also overwhelmed. Frustrated. And anxious. And, they still feel the challenges of the pandemic, just as we do. They yearn to connect, to find a purpose, to find order and comfort in a divided and dysfunctional world.
One of the many things I love about our students is that when they do share concerns, they also share possible solutions. Some of the ideas they have shared include creating consistency in advising across colleges and schools, requiring a financial literacy class and once again holding New Student Orientation back in person – which I am happy to report we are doing this summer.
They also would like free parking, a couple new PRT stations, an In-and-Out Burger joint in the Lair and Bad Bunny at FallFest this year. We will keep those in mind.
But as we heard in the video, there are a few key messages I have gleaned from my conversations: they are concerned about their safety on campus, their mental health as well as paying for college.
The cost of attendance weighs heavy on our students’ minds – and the minds of their families. Approximately 25 percent of our students are Pell Eligible, which means they have exceptional financial need. We must continue to find ways to make the cost of attendance more affordable.
And we are. I am pleased to announce a new scholarship program called WVU Pledge. This last-dollar-in scholarship program will assist qualifying Promise scholars, who have an Expected Family Contribution of zero, with their cost of tuition, fees, University housing and a meal plan. It is imperative that we remove as many barriers as possible to allow our brightest West Virginia students access to higher education. Ensuring that their basic needs are met allows them to focus on their education and their future.
I also am proud that the West Virginia University Foundation is committed to student success. We held our sixth Day of Giving last Wednesday and raised a record-breaking $18.1 million dollars. That is an astounding number and a testament to the faith people have in us. People are willing to invest in us when we are willing to invest in ourselves.
Bottom line, every dollar we get into the hands of our students will ease the burden they carry. And we will continue to work to lessen the financial stressors of our students.
I know that campus safety is another worry – from the blue lights to campus carry to crimes occurring off-campus. Let me address a few of those issues.
First, we know that we have several blue lights that have needed repair. These were installed during an era before cell phone technology and apps were commonplace. We paused on repairing when we saw – and shared – the data on the low usage of the system. In 2022, we had just one actual call from an emergency phone. And since 2019, there have been fewer than 10 legitimate calls.
With the LiveSafe app, we have more than 15,000 users as of October. In 2022, we had 22 people use the app to call for help on their phone, 276 provided tips via chat and 191 provided anonymous tips. The LiveSafe app works.
We have struggled acquiring the replacement parts needed for the blue lights due to old technology and supply chain delays. However, I am pleased to report that parts for six phones came in last week and are back in operation.
Though I do feel the Live Safe app is extremely reliable and more accessible, we will continue to review each blue light location, evaluate the need and repair as quickly as parts are available.
I also know that many in our campus community are concerned following the passing of the Campus Self Defense Act, also known as campus carry.
I want to stress that the University has always advocated for local control. However, when we knew the legislation was likely to pass, we were prepared with best practices and exemptions that were included in the final bill. They provide additional safety measures for our community, and I am very proud of our government relations team for leading that effort.
Though it does not go into effect until July 1, 2024, we will use that time wisely to prepare our campus. I have asked our Dean of Students Corey Farris and our Vice President for University Engagement Sharon Martin to lead a Campus Safety group. This group, which will include emergency and safety experts, will make recommendations to the University on a variety of safety issues including campus carry, community safety, partnerships with our city officials, and more.
We will always strive to ensure that campus safety is a top priority, and we will communicate often so that everyone is aware of the safety measures and resources available.
Those resources include access to mental health care. According to a survey conducted by McKinsey, one in four Gen Z respondents reported feeling more emotionally distressed, almost double the levels reported by the millennial and Gen X respondents, and more than triple the levels reported by Baby Boomers.
Gen Z’ers also were more likely to have been diagnosed with a behavioral-health condition and were more likely to have considered or attempted suicide.
The University has invested significantly in mental health and safety resources over the past several years. The Carruth Center has hired additional counselors, increased access to these counselors, ensured emergency appointments are always available, added an online option and created therapeutic adventure opportunities. We also have increased mental health programming and developed a web site where students can find additional information on how to care for their mental health.
We created a long-term mental health counseling and psychiatric office called Healthy Minds U, which offers long-term care by referral underwritten by their insurance. We have begun training faculty and staff on how to recognize students in distress and how to help. And we established a Wellness and Student Mental Health Advisory Board, which helps shape decisions made by our mental health experts. We know this is a serious concern for our students, and we will continue to work with them to provide the resources they need.
I share all of this to remind us that the journey we may have had as a college student is much different than the journey our students experience today. We must provide the resources and tools they need to thrive in today’s world. Our students must be our number one priority. When they succeed, we all succeed.
In addition to prioritizing the student experience, we must remain focused on our mission as a land-grant institution. Through our four pillars of education, health care, prosperity and purpose, we deliver on that mission every day. Let me share a few examples.
Each year, the School of Dentistry participates in the national dental access program “Give Kids A Smile.” This program provides underserved children with a free oral health care visit. In one day, dentists and dental hygiene students treat more than 100 patients from ages 1 to 17. For many children, it is their first dental clinic visit.
In our West Virginia public schools, we are working with educators to prepare children for successful lives. The STEAM TAC program, for example, helps teachers expand their expertise in delivering engaging science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics learning experiences. In its first year, this program reached more than 25,000 students and 400 teachers in middle schools across the state, and it is “full steam ahead” for expansion in its second year.
The WVU Land Use and Sustainable Development Law Clinic is improving the quality of life for West Virginians. It contributes local government legal services to communities, while also providing educational opportunities for law students. The clinic, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in December, has helped more than 1,000 communities in nearly every county of West Virginia.
These are just a few of the many ways our university serves West Virginia. It is our mission in action – and we will continue to evolve to be a land-grant university of impact – one that focuses on the issues that matter most to the people of our state.
As we consider how we improve the student experience and fulfill our land-grant mission, we do so with an eye toward being uniquely different. Our brand is now competing for students against the likes of other state flagship institutions such as the University of Kentucky, the University of Tennessee and the University of Alabama, in addition to our neighbors in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Virginia.
Though I am proud to be in that company, these institutions have more resources for scholarships, facility upgrades and student engagement. That is why it is so crucial we wisely invest every dollar into programs and resources that truly offer a personalized and unrivaled experience.
Because we are a system of unique campuses across the state, we have a variety of college experiences to best serve a student’s needs. In addition to our three health sciences campuses shown on the screen, we recently opened our newest nursing campus at UHC in Bridgeport. The campus is the fifth location in the state that provides WVU School of Nursing programs. An accelerated program that leads to a Bachelor of Science in Nursing seated its first cohort of students this spring.
WVU Tech in Beckley and WVU Potomac State College in Keyser provide an individualized, quality education on campuses that showcase the beauty of our state. Both have recently transitioned to new leadership, and I am so pleased to have those leaders with us today.
Please help me welcome Dr. T. Ramon Stuart, our new president at WVU Tech, and Dr. Chris Gilmer, our new president at WVU Potomac State.
They have hit the ground running, making connections with students, faculty and staff, and I look forward to working with them as they lead our campuses to new heights.
No matter which campus our students choose to attend, our goal is to be sure they earn a degree that leads to a job.
I consider my job a calling. I am fortunate to be doing something I care deeply about – that I am passionate about. And I am energized daily because this role allows me to use my strengths.
I hope you all saw my February GeeMail where I talked about the CliftonStrengths assessment and how using your strengths can improve the way you work, lead and live. Last year The Purpose Center developed the path for us to become the ONLY fully Strengths-based university.
To begin, I am pleased to share that this summer, every incoming first-year student and transfer student will take the Gallup CliftonStrengths assessment prior to attending New Student Orientation. Then at NSO, students will break into groups, learn more about their strengths and how to use them when they arrive on campus in the fall.
West Virginia University will be integrating Strengths holistically into our students’ first-year experiences including Adventure West Virginia excursions, our 191 courses, residence hall life and Carruth Services. We will also be incorporating Strengths into special modules for our upperclassmen to continue their work with Strengths. We will be measuring how this impacts the well-being and engagement of our students and adjust course as need be. This differentiates us from the pack and provides our students with an advantage as they head into the job market.
Our friends at Gallup are so impressed with our approach, they worked with us to create an exclusive opportunity for parents. During NSO, parents will learn more about the assessment and receive a co-branded strengths parents book that will only be distributed at West Virginia University. This one-of-a-kind experience creates an even stronger partnership with our parents and provides them with tools to aid in their student’s success.
For us, “purpose” is not just a buzzword. And the Purpose Center is not just a space for students to explore their Strengths. It is also a place of connection. There are many resources on this campus, but it can be confusing to know where to go. The Purpose Center is a personal concierge for our students to access the guidance they need – from tutoring to mental health to career supports and our alumni network.
We also offer Project 168, a self-paced, co-curricular experience that provides a credential for extracurricular effort. We have Adventure West Virginia that allows students to broaden their community through outdoor outings. And few can stack up against our ASPIRE office, who has a long-standing tradition of providing personalized guidance for students to compete for – and win – prestigious scholarships and fellowships. The proof is in the numbers as you can see on the screen.
The proof is also in the academic programs and research that distinguishes us from other universities. We just had our first Decide WVU Open House this past weekend, and I had numerous students tell me they wanted to study forensic science – and they knew this was the leading university to do so. I also met several students who wanted to pursue a degree in neuroscience, and they were excited about the first-in-the-world research that is occurring at our Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute.
Our researchers are conducting ground-breaking research in rare earth minerals, working to improve water quality, discovering new treatments for Alzheimer’s and addiction, and bolstering national security and defense through work on biometrics and unmanned aerial vehicles.
These are just a few examples that differentiate us among our peers and set our students up for success. As we look to transform, we need to continue to find those niche programs and supports that will truly elevate our educational experience.
When we put our students first, it brings everything into context – from academics to research to student life. It crystallizes our priorities. And it shines a light on those things that may no longer be relevant.
In my 42 years as a college president, I have led universities through everything imaginable. I have navigated periods of great economic growth and difficult recessions. I have weathered every crisis and celebrated every success. I even learned to Zoom during a global pandemic – though I still sometimes forget to come off mute.
Every one of those experiences have led me to this moment.
In addition to our First Principles, I have contemplated how best to lead during this opportunity. And I know for certain there are five things we must do to prosper.
First, public universities have always lived at the margins where there is never enough funding to do all the things we would like to do. We can no longer live and work that way. We will address our structural budget deficit and create a solid financial foundation for our future.
We will be transparent in how the new budget model will work as well as provide projections for the next several years. On Thursday, March 30 at 11 a.m., we will host a Campus Conversation where we will share more details on the budget projections, and how we will build toward a stronger financial certainty.
Which leads me to my second point. Universities are wonderful at saying yes, and lousy at saying no. Imagine a garden that is filled with flowers but is never pruned. It is difficult to see the beauty when it is overgrown.
My friends, we have been overgrown for a very long time. To address that, we will identify university priorities through the lens of our First Principles. We will assess what is most relevant and invest in those initiatives that support our students, our mission and meet market demand.
We will invest in our strengths – both in programs and in talent. Every unit will examine their priorities to ensure we are investing wisely. Armed with that data, we also will need to make the difficult decision to stop investing in those things that no longer meet our expectations.
Third, we must move fast. Universities are notorious for moving slow. However, the pandemic proved that we could move fast when we need to. We did so before and we must do so again.
Fourth, we must remain focused and squeeze fear out of decision making. There is no doubt that we will have to make very difficult decisions in the months ahead. But we must fixate on our goals and what is best for the greater good of the University.
We must be laser focused on why. Why are we here? How do we contribute to the First Principles every day? If we know our why, we will better understand what we need to do, and fear will begin to dissipate.
That is not to say that change is not difficult. It can be. But if it is for the good of the university, the good of the whole, then it is change worth doing.
And fifth, we must be hopeful but realistic. Achiever is in my top 5 Strengths, as is Woo. So, I always want to approach situations with aspiration and great enthusiasm. I recognize I struggle with negativity. I know I must balance that need to achieve with a frequent reality check of meaningful progress. We will move strategically and collectively – knowing that we will create a stronger and more purposeful campus that we call home.
Making It a Reality
So, how will we do that? By putting everything on the table. Everything must be reviewed and reimagined with a keen eye. This is time for an investment strategy.
We have been working on Academic Transformation for two years. In that time, Provost Maryanne Reed and her team have many accomplishments such as blending our strengths in education and physical activity into an incredible new asset, the College of Applied Human Sciences and implementing Guided Major Pathways to ensure students find the right academic home.
We have also been working on busting operational bureaucracy since 2016. From Shared Services to WVU Hire, we have streamlined processes and increased efficiency throughout the University system – and have saved resources along the way.
But it is time to truly transform our university into one of relevancy – without losing sight of who we are. Without losing sight of our mission and our values.
To evaluate the health of our institution, we will be partnering with the fresh eyes of consultants. We will define the needs of our constituents, discover where we excel and create a model that is sustainable. It is critical that we ascertain an accurate assessment of our administrative and academic portfolios and how they relate to the needs of our students.
This assessment – and the data we will glean – will lead to the development of an investment plan that establishes immediate, short-term and long-term goals, and measures for the growth of West Virginia University. Among those, we will invest in academic programs that meet the needs of our students and the market.
We will invest in initiatives that support student recruitment, retention, persistence and graduation, leading to increased student success. We will invest in student programs that provide opportunities for leadership, personal development, health and well-being, and career readiness.
Currently we are developing a financial plan to serve the future growth and stability of the university. We are defining immediate strategies to fill current shortfalls and identifying savings that can be reallocated to areas of critical need.
We will review data to further refine the priorities for the University. Decisions will be data driven, and as I mentioned earlier, speed is our friend. Though we will take the time necessary to do a thorough review, we will work as quickly as we can to take advantage of this opportunity. We will simultaneously re-establish the importance of higher education while re-inventing the deliverables.
We also will continue our conversations with our students. In fact, we will communicate soon about various focus groups and online discussions we will have with our student body starting in April.
And, of course, we will communicate frequently with you – sharing data, discussing results and contemplating next steps.
The Future of WVU
I realize this can feel overwhelming – especially as we steady ourselves after the past few years. However, this need for reinvention has been on the horizon for quite some time. The pandemic only accelerated our journey towards it.
Make no mistake, higher education is under attack. We must stand firm, and we must provide example after example of why an educated citizenry is the best path forward for our country and our state. I believe we have an incredible opportunity to place our university in a position of great strength.
Indeed, we are one of the few land-grant, R1 universities with a comprehensive health sciences portfolio that extends to a statewide healthcare delivery system. We are unique and we need to embrace that.
Our success is dependent on us working together to bring our First Principles to life. When I dream of West Virginia University in 10 to 20 years, I see the current-day vision that President Lincoln had for us – providing an education for our students and caring for our citizens through innovative health care and life-saving research. West Virginia University can be all that we imagine – and more.
And each of you play a crucial role in our success. I charge each of you to think about where you want to see West Virginia University in 10 to 20 years. Think about how you will contribute. Realize that you already are.
When you maintain the buildings and grounds and beautify our campus, you are putting Students First by creating a bright and safe environment where they live and learn – a campus like no other.
When you teach in the classroom, you are putting Students First by shaping the next generation of great minds and global citizens. You are connecting with students to make a difference in their lives.
When you offer a mentorship or a job in your company to a new graduate, you are putting Students First by demonstrating the powerful Mountaineer network.
No matter your role, everyone can be a powerful influence in a student’s life and in the life of this great university. And in the end, our future will be determined in large measure by how we play to our greatest strengths.
Our greatest strength is in the spirit of our university – in the authenticity of our people – and in our unwavering focus on our purpose. Let us use that strength to prioritize our polar star – our First Principles – to position us in the landscape of higher education as the one – and only – West Virginia University.