Prepared Keynote Remarks
August 8, 2014
(Introduced by Dr. Mary Todd, executive director, The Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi)
Thank you, Dr. Todd, for that warm introduction.
Mary is a champion of higher education, and a real game-changer as the first woman to lead this prestigious organization, which dates back to 1897.
It really took you guys over a century to pick a woman?
But in all seriousness, it is a privilege to be here with all of you today.
You are the country’s oldest and most selective all-discipline honor society.
Changers of the world walk among us as Phi Kappa Phi members — Jimmy Carter, John Grisham, Hillary Clinton, and even my old pal Jim Tressell.
Phi Kappa Phi helps steer this nation and the world to grander destinations.
Your mission and values stand firmly in line with what we do at a public, research, land-grant institution like West Virginia University.
We are here, collectively as one, to foster the future of higher education and the overall well-being of Phi Kappa Phi.
I have been in higher education – which I call the ‘thinking business’ — for quite some time now.
I have been president of half the universities in the country. Well, it seems like it, anyway.
And I can say, without a doubt, that higher education today is more important than it has ever been to the American public.
Traditional industries are drying up. Superpowers like China and India are outperforming and innovating at a rapid pace. Meanwhile, our leaders and elected officials in Washington are in constant gridlock. They cannot even agree to disagree.
They fail to move our country forward. So now we bear that responsibility.
As partners in the ‘thinking business,’ we remain cognizant. We strive to think our way out of the ashes of mediocrity and nonperformance.
One of my favorite quotes is from former United States Army Chief of Staff, General Eric Shinseki, who said, “If you do not like change, you are going to like irrelevance even less.”
Mediocrity and nonperformance is what you get when you deny change.
And America must change. Higher education must initiate that change.
Institutions of higher learning must serve as factories of thought. They have replaced the factories of yesteryear — the smokestacks, the warehouses, the assembly lines.
We must churn out a fail-safe product that, really, possesses more value than anything tangible. But we must be willing to change ourselves and change America, and I will touch on a few points today that will lead us to prosperity.
A recent Fast Company article dissected the future of higher education, calling it a “constantly moving target.”
POINT 1: One way to move with the target and ascend to the next level is by busting down silos.
In recent years, the traditional academic landscape has morphed into a transdisciplinary universe.
The old formula saw units and departments develop curriculum independent of the university at large. That is no more.
As I have told my own university, we must break away from our isolation and rise from the pit of partisanship.
Most of us have kept up with this new logic, and Phi Kappa Phi embodies cohesion.
As a matter of fact, the origins of Phi Kappa Phi are rooted in the essence of solidarity.
It was first established to promote the unity and democracy of education by recognizing all disciplines. Not many other honor societies did that.
And that has contributed to Phi Kappa Phi’s longevity and its growth, with more than 100,000 active members. I have often said that, in the past, academic units within a university were only connected by one thing — the same heating plant. That was the only relationship between one another.
If that is the only link that exists, we will not evolve. And this goes beyond a single university.
Institutions of higher learning must engage with industries, communities, and governments as business partners.
Listen, we are no longer at our senior prom. We need to dance with everybody.
At more universities across the country, such as the University of Utah, we have established innovation hubs where students, faculty, and staff can “launch” companies in the same space.
At West Virginia University, we host a startup incubator called Launch WVU, which is a resource center for students interested in starting new, innovative companies.
Our students have worked on everything from mobile apps and software companies to medical devices and energy technologies.
This hub is not located within our College of Engineering, or Health Sciences, or Liberal Arts. It is a university-wide effort open to all students. And better yet, it empowers students to create jobs, not take jobs.
POINT 2: Another rising issue in higher education is the need to balance online learning with traditional learning.
We have all heard about Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, which is something West Virginia University has invested in.
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.
Higher education does not need to choose between online learning and traditional learning. Instead, higher education needs to find the perfect balance.
The institutions that find that balance can make better use of time in the brick-and-mortar classrooms and define tailored approaches to how professor, student, and coursework complement each other across all platforms.
POINT 3: That being said, institutions need to be investing in technology — not only for the classrooms — but for this mobility shift we are seeing.
Students and faculty utilize their technology devices at the gym, dining hall, student center, everywhere.
How did we manage to run on treadmills in the past without smartphones?
This increased use places greater demands on campus IT infrastructure. We have acknowledged this on my campus.
Last summer, West Virginia University became the first university in the country to use vacant broadcast television channels to provide campus with wireless broadband Internet.
The University partnered with a private business to transform “TV white space” frequencies into broadband connectivity.
The initial phase of the network provided the campus community with free Wi-Fi access on our 73-car Public Rapid Transit system.
It allows faculty, staff, and students to be engaged from anywhere.
That, my friends, is innovation.
POINT 4: But engagement needs to happen with students before they step onto campus.
We try our best to familiarize K-12 students with our university atmosphere through tours, branding, and goodwill.
For higher education to flourish, we obviously need to recruit and retain the best talent.
Our world revolves around our students. That is the one constant among all of this change.
We have always focused heavily on their academic experience, which is a must. But at the same time, their life experience means just as much.
More and more universities are realizing this as they embrace sustainability and wellness as key components to campus life.
I am going to shamelessly promote my university again.
West Virginia University has models of such programs, including an outdoor orientation program for first-year students called Adventure West Virginia.
Last year, we opened a canopy tour, a network of four ziplines connected to trees in our Research Forest. This is the first of its kind owned and operated at a university.
This is why I wear bowties instead of regular ties, which fly up into your face as you glide through the air.
Life is about finding the art of balance. If we stress academics to students 24/7, we end up with miserable human beings.
I have always encouraged students to take their work seriously, but not themselves seriously. Hard work is an obligation, but so is smiling, laughing, and having fun with friends.
POINT 5: Lastly, higher education needs to seek new funding models.
I just said it is all about the students. But it is all about the money, too.
Our best talent needs the best resources.
Federal and state governments are slashing higher education funding. That will continue unless the decisionmakers wake up and realize that education is the most precious commodity for the future of our nation.
In the early 20th century, America’s most enterprising people — the Carnegies, the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers — made their fortunes from manufacturing and the hard work people did in their steel mills and coal mines and oil fields.
Now, in the 21st century, a person like Bill Gates owes his fortune to ideas — ideas and technology developed at our nation’s universities.
Microsoft. Apple. Google.
All of these companies flourished on the ideas and ingenuities created on the campuses of the great American university.
It is what Mr. Lincoln envisioned.
Today is a challenging time for higher education. Recessions tend to start a little later and linger a little longer — sometimes a lot longer.
My state, West Virginia, now spends 22 percent less on higher education now than it did before the 2008 recession.
We cannot waste time asking for more money or pining for better days. Spending too much time peering in the rear-view mirror will only cause us to veer off-course.
We must forge ahead with fresh ideas.
I wholly believe that we must innovate from the inside out, rather than be forced into change by external forces.
Pop artist Andy Warhol once said, ‘They always say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.’
The best way, I believe, to enact change is by being more agile, less bureaucratic, and infinitely more inventive.
Before I left Ohio State, we agreed to lease campus parking operations for $483 million, thus boosting our endowment by twenty percent overnight.
In 2011, Ohio State became the nation’s first public university to issue $500 million in century bonds, which helped fund capital projects.
We are continuing this line of thinking at my new post at West Virginia University.
In a time of social and economic disruption, Americans are looking to public higher education for solutions — and they should.
Improving education is the signal issue of our nation’s future — economically, socially, intellectually, artistically.
Future generations need us to keep the American dream within reach.
And as long as we have partners like Phi Kappa Phi, who are as dedicated to the cause, we will continue to be facilitators of the American dream.
Ladies and gentlemen, it is clear that we must recalibrate Mr. Lincoln’s university. This is the case for the future.
When President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act 150 years ago, he had the foresight that it would re-chart American higher education and empower young people.
Without knowing what the future held, our forefathers determined that the path forward was paved with education.
What Lincoln did was radical. We, too, must not hesitate or cower from second-guessing, in order to continue to light the way for the future.