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State of the University Address: Moving West Virginia University Forward

Monday, October 23, 2023
Prepared remarks by WVU President E. Gordon Gee.

It has been seven months since I delivered my last State of the University address  where I discussed the path on which we would embark. The Board of Governors had directed us to review our academic programs as an additional effort to close a $45 million structural budget deficit and make recommendations to ensure our university was focused and financially stable for the future.

The decisions we made were extremely difficult. The past few months have had a deep impact on our campus community. We have experienced intense emotions ranging from anger to great sadness. And I understand and acknowledge those feelings. This reaches our community at a very personal level.

Our colleagues who have been affected by the decisions are a part of our university community. They have made a difference in the classroom, the research laboratories and across our campus in so many ways. I am deeply appreciative of their contributions and am keenly aware of the cost this process has come to bear. We will continue to provide support during the transition period including outplacement services, as well as access to mental health resources. 

When we began this process, we knew it would not be easy. That has proven to be true. We may not agree with some of the decisions that were made, but collectively, I know and trust that we will find a way to move forward together. And that is what I would like to address today.

Though recently much of the attention has been on the academic program review process, we did not stop learning, engaging and growing as a university. Indeed, through it all, our University community continued to thrive.    

Within our pillars of Education, Health, Prosperity and Purpose, we excelled and broke new ground. Let me share a few examples:

  • The Health Sciences & Technology Academy, also known as HSTA, is expanding to engage middle school students across the state thanks to a $1.3 million dollar Science Education Partnership Award from the National Institutes of Health, where they will have the opportunity to engage in science, technology, engineering, math and medicine activities.
  • More School of Dentistry graduates chose to start their career in West Virginia – 41% in 2023 compared to 19% in 2022 – helping to curb a shortage of dentists in the state.
  • In the School of Pharmacy, 10 teams of students delivered the Neuroscience Behind Drugs of Abuse program to nearly 1,000 middle school students in nine schools spanning Monongalia and Preston counties in West Virginia, as well as Fayette County, Pennsylvania.
  • “The Pride of West Virginia” was invited to participate in the 2024 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, marking the second appearance for the band in the historic parade viewed by tens of millions.
  • The WVU School of Nursing and WVU Potomac State College created an LPN to BSN nursing program to allow currently employed nurses to become RNs with bachelor’s degrees in nursing while continuing to work while enrolled. This will be the only program of its kind in the state.
  • In June, the Shaw Prize was awarded to Eberly faculty Duncan Lorimer and Maura McLaughlin for the discovery of fast radio bursts. This international award honors those who have achieved significant advances in the fields of Astronomy, Life Sciences and Medicine, and Mathematical Sciences.
  • Earlier this fall, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities designated West Virginia University as an “Innovation and Economic Prosperity University,” one of just more than 80 across the country. This designation strengthens our long-term strategy to bring innovation and economic prosperity across West Virginia and beyond.
  • And one week ago today, West Virginia was chosen as one of seven regional hydrogen hubs to receive nearly $1 billion in federal funding thanks to the work of the Appalachian Regional Clean Hydrogen team that was driven by members from our University. This investment will have a significant economic impact on communities in our region and our state, creating thousands of new jobs.

These achievements are just a few that demonstrate the commitment this University has in putting our students first and embracing our mission to the state. And as we turn the page to our next chapter, we will embrace those tenets even more so.

The Next Chapter

Fourteen years ago, the National Center on Education and the Economy issued a ground-breaking report titled, “Tough Choices or Tough Times,” calling for the first overhaul of the U.S. education system in a century. While this report focused heavily on K-12 education, that same Tough Choices, Tough Times warning applies to American higher education today.

Today, only one-third of the U.S. public currently has a lot of confidence in higher education. And almost one-half of U.S. parents do not believe their children need a four-year college education. (New York Times report, September 2023)

We know the headwinds we face:

  • a lower college-going rate;
  • declining demographics; and
  • rising financial costs.

We had to make the hard choices we made this year to prepare for those challenges. And as we near the end of this phase, many have asked as to what the vision is going forward.

That vision, at a macro level, is to become THE modern land-grant university.

So, what does that mean? It means we will always respect our origins, our founding mission and our role in our nation’s history and growth.

But as a modern land-grant university, we recognize that the 21st century is vastly different from the 19th century. Our needs have changed. There are new external forces bearing down. Society has evolved and thus, their expectations for a university-educated citizenry and workforce has evolved, as well.

A modern land-grant university adapts to meet those new expectations. While we will remain focused on serving our communities through teaching and learning, research and discovery, and engagement and outreach, we will be unafraid to make changes to ensure their relevance, value and importance.

We will serve as the Great Connector building partnerships that drive industry, education and public sector growth. And we will create the Great Public Square our society so desperately needs providing a safe and nurturing place for civil discourse and debate for all ideas.

That is the vision for West Virginia University. We have always been – and always will be – a strong, vibrant university. What we are building today is a university that remains strong but is increasingly relevant to the needs of today’s students and our global society. We will never be stagnant, but rather always evolving.

What does it mean to be the modern land-grant university?

To be the modern land-grant, we will focus on four priorities:

  1. We will expand access to education by improving recruitment and retention and focus on raising scholarship funds.
  2. We will advance our R1 mission to deliver solutions to real-world problems.
  3. We will grow the academic medical center to improve the health of our people.
  4. And we will remain the economic engine of the state by partnering with industry.

And of course, we will frame this work within our Four Pillars of Education, Health, Prosperity and Purpose and through the lens of our First Principles of Students First, Land-grant Mission and Differentiation.

Let me share a few – but not exhaustive – ways on how we will approach these priorities.

Access to Education

To improve access to education, we will continually review and prioritize our academic portfolio. We have many areas that we excel at within the University. Our work in energy, forensics, neuroscience, astrophysics, WVU Extension, the outdoor economy and fighting the opioid epidemic are just a few of our strengths. We will continue the great work we are doing in those areas.

And we will add to those strengths to further differentiate our university from others. We have tremendous potential in areas such as robotics, Artificial Intelligence, cybersecurity, sustainability, biometrics, cancer research, and Appalachian culture and the arts, as well as new ways to develop a thriving economy for our state. We will create the programs our students want and our communities need.

We also will work quickly, including securing funding for seed grants to launch new ideas from our faculty and staff.

And these long-term initiatives will require input from a variety of constituents including faculty, staff, students, alumni and industry. In the coming months we will share ways in which you can get involved to build West Virginia University as the modern land-grant university.

We will continue to invest in student success efforts. Programs such as the new REACH Center provides support and encouragement to our most financially disadvantaged students. And we will continue to improve academic advising across the university, working with our colleges to ensure that all students have access to professional advisors.

Our efforts are working. In 2022, the University’s freshman retention rate rose to 81.8%, our second highest retention rate ever; it was only higher during COVID, when the University adjusted some of its academic rules in light of the unique circumstances. And the retention rate for first-generation students increased by 5.5% from last year.

We have also continued to improve graduation rates, demonstrating a 14 percent increase in four-year-graduation rates over the last eight years — that is a huge leap forward. It means students are graduating sooner and entering the job market sooner, carrying less debt.  

Currently, we have one of the lowest tuition rates in the country. And 45% of our graduates leave with zero debt. We want to move that percentage even higher. And the average federal student loan debt for our May graduates earning a bachelor’s degree across all campuses was about $20,000 – well below the national average of over $30,000. We want that loan debt to be even lower.

I am pleased to share that we have friends of the University who are investing in student success initiatives including student scholarships. We are working with the WVU Foundation to finalize those details and reduce the debt our students carry.

We also want to ensure our students are well-equipped for the future job market. We will quickly assess how to improve Career Services for all students. We know this is a vital area for student success and we want to provide the tools they need including mentorships, internships and skills training for the workplace.

Another ongoing priority is to create a pipeline to employment within the state, particularly within the field of health care. We are currently developing a partnership with WVU Medicine to create unique academic pathways to a variety of medical fields that would guarantee job placement in one of our 24 system hospitals around the state. We are in desperate need for certain medical professions and occupations, and we will fill that need with our graduates.

In addition, we continue to gain private support for the Purpose Center.

Bates College and Gallup conducted a study that found 80% – or four out of five college graduates – affirm the importance of finding purpose in their work. However, less than 50% say they succeed in finding purpose in their employment.  Gallup also found that graduates who align their work with their interests, values and strengths are almost three times more likely to experience high purpose in work.

That is why the Purpose Center is so important. In one year, we have had more than 15,000 students, faculty, staff and parents engage with the Purpose Center. Every incoming student this fall took the Gallup CliftonStrengths assessment and began to learn how to use their Strengths to improve their academics, health and social interactions. We have developed programming for career development, wellbeing and how to build a life of purpose. We will continue to expand resources and outreach, helping our students develop holistically as individuals.

And as we build this modern land-grant university, we want more students to take advantage of all we have to offer.

To increase enrollment, we will continue to recruit first-time freshmen in our primary markets, as well as new territories. We also will work to grow other enrollment avenues including:

  • Adding more Online degree options
  • Reaching adult learners such as veterans
  • Adding a path for those seeking microcredentials, and
  • Improving the Transfer pipeline.

A team is developing a plan to offer microcredentials that will tailor relevant academic content to specific market needs. This will provide anyone interested in learning the opportunity to gain knowledge that will improve their job performance, add skills to their portfolio and allow them to engage with the University to continue their education.

Our goal is to make certain that West Virginia University is available to every West Virginian in some form so that they can further their education and do so through their modern land-grant university. After all, we are the People’s University.

Advancing Research

Throughout the past decade, the University has seen significant growth in federal, state and private grant activity, with year-over-year steady and sustained growth as the University has solidified its R1 status.

We had a record $231 million in externally supported expenditures, which are mainly designated for research, for fiscal year 2023 – an increase of $32 million. And research expenditures from the federal government broke $100 million for the first time, with $107 million for fiscal year 2023.

Going forward we will maintain and enhance our status as an R1 institution with a goal of growing our research efforts. That will require us to invest in our research infrastructure and make certain that we are supporting people to continue significant efforts in both basic and applied research.

Advancing Health Care

We will continue to grow our academic medical center and WVU Medicine to provide world-class health care to every West Virginian. This year our efforts to expand cancer care received a $50 million boost from Gov. Justice and the state legislature. This investment allows us to work toward attaining a National Cancer Institute Designation — a first for West Virginia. Our goal is to place the WVU Cancer Institute in the top 2% of cancer centers nationwide, which will improve the health of the people in our state by reducing cancer occurrence rates and increasing cancer survival.

Advancing Economic Development

And as we have been for several years, we will remain the economic engine of this state. We will increase our efforts in terms of job development and job creation. Given the breadth of our academic offerings, the growth we are seeing in our research efforts, potential growth in commercialization and technology transfer, and the fact that Morgantown has become an immensely attractive place for companies and startups to locate, West Virginia University will continue to attract business and industry well into the future. The announcement of West Virginia being chosen as a site for a regional hydrogen hub is a perfect example.

A Strong Financial Foundation

Of course, to do this work, we must have a strong financial foundation.

We estimated that we would need to improve our margin by $45 million by July 1, 2025. Our fiscal year 2024 budget was designed to reduce expenses by around $21 million, leaving an additional $24 million in net expense reductions and revenue enhancements.

Through the academic program review process, we are estimating the University will yield around $17.3 million in savings by fiscal year 2027, after phased retirements and teach out plans run their course. However, the majority of savings will be realized in fiscal year 2025.

Beyond these salary savings associated with the review of our academic programs, it is projected that through other measures such as the Academic Support Unit review and college mergers, we will continue to move towards closing the gap. We also will continue to manage our expenses carefully, while pursuing other avenues of revenue generation. And we will continue to evaluate efficiencies across the university to maximize our resources.

Much has been said and written about our finances. I am pleased to share that our auditors recently completed their work and confirmed the strength of our university’s finances, as have our bond agencies. Though facing a structural deficit was not easy, we did not deter from addressing the issue. This will allow us to move toward an investment strategy much faster, and that approach has created a stronger foundation for the future.

Going Forward

At the end of World War II, knowledge doubled every 25 years. Today, due to technological advances and the amount of information being generated, knowledge is doubling every 12 hours (source: IBM).

Universities have always been at the epicenter of developing and sharing new theories and ideas. In today’s world, we must keep pace to remain a place where people seek information. Encouraging people to become life-long learners is key to moving forward.

No matter the major, every student who chooses West Virginia University will be afforded a well-rounded education that provides excellent training in their field, as well as the opportunity to learn through student life experiences that prepares them for this ever-changing world. This vision for West Virginia University as the modern land-grant university that serves its students and society can end the debate of whether a college education has value.

Over the past several months, our path has been questioned. Our decisions have been challenged, and quite often, misconstrued. I have listened and read as we have been compared to other universities. Though I have been guilty of doing the same, the reality is the only competition we have is with ourselves.

If we want to provide the best learning environment for our students, we can do that. If we want to develop research that makes a difference in the Appalachian region and beyond, we can create the partnerships to achieve that. If we want to become an NCI designated Cancer Institute, we can gather the people to make that happen.

When we have the will, we can become the modern land-grant university that our state and country needs. It will take all of us – individually and collectively – to take that step forward in a new direction.

You must decide if you believe in the future of West Virginia University. Do you want to invest your time to challenge our students to become lifelong learners? Do you want to recruit new students by sharing the good things we are doing? Do you have ideas that could improve the student experience, advance critical research or help a community? Are we ready to create a different – yet still great – West Virginia University?

I believe in this University – very deeply. And I believe we can lead in new ways that inspire innovation in higher education. It will take all of us moving forward to the future while honoring our past. And when we do, we will demonstrate that a university can transform while still providing a well-rounded, relevant and meaningful experience for all.