Pulitzer Prize-winning author Bernard Malamud once said: “Without heroes, we are all plain people, and don’t know how far we can go.”
I am sure that each of us in this room could name someone who inspired us, from a parent, to a teacher, to a national leader, like the man we honored earlier this week on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
In choosing the name for its college, this community made the outstanding choice to honor two inspiring people, Francis and Julia Pierpont.
Francis Pierpont grew up in Marion County, first on a farm and later in Fairmont, where his father operated a tannery.
His education began in a log schoolhouse, and he persevered through college and legal study while supporting himself as a tanner and brick layer. You might call him one of this area’s first “non-traditional students.”
He went on to become an outspoken opponent of slavery, and his pro-Union addresses to large crowds across northwestern Virginia helped to bring about the region’s secession from its pro-slave southern neighbor and the creation of West Virginia.
He became governor of the Union-controlled parts of Virginia during the Civil War, and later served as governor of Virginia itself during the early years of Reconstruction.
As governor, Pierpont showed that rarest of qualities — political courage. Looking beyond partisan positions to the nation’s long-term health, he took a conciliatory view toward ex-Confederates. This outraged many of his pro-Union allies.
You know, it is a truism in American politics that if both sides hate you, you must be doing something right.
He was also so willing to keep learning and growing. Late in life, he even changed the spelling of his last name when he became convinced that P-I-E-R-P-O-N-T was more correct than P-E-I-R-P-O-N-T.
How many of us would do that? Personally, I am sticking to G-E-E, no matter what I may learn about how my ancestors spelled it.
Francis Pierpont’s life is thoroughly woven into the fabric of West Virginia. He anticipated the importance of energy to our state by becoming one of its earliest coal operators. He demonstrated the importance of learning from our past by founding the West Virginia Historical Society. And he showed his belief in higher education by serving on the Board of the institution that would one day become Fairmont State University — the same institution that gave birth to Pierpont Community and Technical College.
His wife, Julia Augusta Robertson Pierpont, was also a visionary. In fact, she took an action that reverberates down through the years to all of us.
In 1866, she led a movement to decorate the neglected graves of the Union in Richmond, Virginia. Her actions generated controversy but also inspired imitators.
“Decoration Days” popped up around the country and eventually gave rise to a national holiday on May 30 — what we call Memorial Day.
The Pierponts’ 19th-century lives may seem far removed from our 21st-century challenges, but they demonstrate strong character, a commitment to learning, a reverence for our region’s heritage, and a far-sighted view of the future—qualities that make them ideal heroes for all of us at this challenging but exciting moment in higher education.
Improving education is the signal issue of our nation’s future — economically, socially, intellectually, artistically.
Education expands individual opportunity, stimulates the economy and creates jobs.
To put it simply: Education opens the door to the American dream.
I am not afraid to say that our most important role in higher education today is creating jobs. Some of my university colleagues would say that is not the purpose of a university. They would say the purpose of a university is to create ideas, but I propose the purpose of a university is also to make sure those ideas are turned into great opportunities — and that means jobs.
Expanding economic prosperity in this country depends upon expanding the size of our imagination. Imagination today is what steel was 120 years ago — the very building block of progress.
For this reason, it has never been more important to possess the knowledge and skills acquired on a college campus. For people aged 25 to 32, the earnings gap between college graduates and those with a high school diploma is higher than ever. According to Pew Research, millennials with college degrees made about $17,500 more in 2012 than their peers with only high school diplomas earned.
Having an educated populace is also more important to our nation’s future than ever before.
To produce the skilled workers our country needs, colleges and universities must graduate about 40 percent more students by 2020, according to a McKinsey & Company report.
Professions that have not traditionally required a degree are now finding they must rapidly keep pace with new technological advancements and evolving levels of expertise.
Industries from insurance to nursing to manufacturing are increasingly seeking college graduates to meet the demands of a fast-changing global economy.
I chair the National Commission on Higher Education Attainment, which is working to help more Americans access higher education. I firmly believe that community and technical colleges are vital — they are the drivers of our future and the true front door to the American dream.
Nationwide, vast numbers of students come through community colleges. These students would never have the opportunity for a brighter future without community and technical colleges such as this one, which set such a high standards for academic quality and student support.
Community colleges cannot solve our nation’s problems alone, however — and neither can research universities, or primary and secondary schools.
In academia, we used to say, “Publish or perish.” Today, our mandate is “Partner or perish.”
A new sustainable system of education requires our unrelenting pursuit of deeper partnerships — with one another, with business and industry, with government, and with our communities.
West Virginia University is partnering with community colleges to provide a more seamless transition from two- to four-year degree programs. But we must go beyond traditional ways of supporting community colleges — such as articulation agreements — and think more ambitiously.
All of us in education must be nimble, versatile, risk-tolerant, and innovative. We must be problem-solvers, people who collaborate, who imagine, who create, and who are not afraid to fail.
If we know the answer before the question is asked, then we can never offer an innovative, original solution.
If we stay rigidly married to a structure or set of rules laid down in another era with another reality, we can never adapt to take full advantage of our own capabilities.
In this important moment, in these challenging times, we must go beyond the answers we have always been given and the boundaries we have always maintained.
President Larson and I have had fruitful discussions about the way our institutions can work more closely together, and I look forward to launching new collaborations.
If state and educational leaders welcome all good ideas and develop new partnerships, if we cast our gaze around the world and expand our imaginations, then there is no question that we will succeed.
And we have not a moment to waste.
For, the truth is, we can do better. You only have to look at recent newspaper headlines to see our shortcomings.
Last year, an assessment of students in 14 states found that West Virginia students rank last in reading. Our high school seniors tied for the worst scores in math.
For two years in a row, Kids Count has ranked our state 47th in education. Students first gave us an F on its educational report card; we were one of only 7 states to receive that failing grade.
If we want to build a prosperous future for West Virginia, failing is not an option.
Our history has shown that we can succeed in improving education when we focus on shared goals. West Virginia made pre-K education available to all four-year-olds. We have increased our high school graduation rate, though at a slower rate than many other states.
As we tell our students, we can achieve anything if we work hard enough.
That is why I have issued a call to action to educators at all levels, as well as community and business leaders: Let us work together to wholly reinvigorate and reshape our schools, to create a fully rounded ecosystem of education that is truly lifelong, one in which our interdependencies are our greatest strengths.
I am delighted to see that this institution welcomes and engages children on Pierpont Pride Day. Improving education in West Virginia starts with our children, by making sure they start school with the skills they need to thrive. Pre-K is important, but the critical period for brain development occurs even earlier, in life’s first three years.
Recently, the percentage of infants and toddlers living in low-income families has risen. These children face many disadvantages that can impede their success in school.
For example, children in high income families hear 33 million more words by age 3 than those in low income families.
Just as children are learning to play, the playing field is already skewed against some of them. As someone with toddler granddaughters, I find that tragic.
High-quality early childcare can help to level the playing field. A recent Kids Count report showed that our state has dire shortage of high-quality childcare programs for its youngest children.
Graduates from Pierpont’s excellent Early Childhood Education programs can help West Virginia’s children succeed, which will set our whole state on a fast-track to success.
We must also keep working to improve science, technology, engineering, and math education in West Virginia. STEM is the future — for our children and our state.
According to the U. S. Department of Commerce, STEM job opportunities are growing at nearly twice the rate of other fields. Improving STEM education is critical to maintaining America’s traditional world leadership in innovation.
In order to meet its workforce needs, the United States will need approximately 1 million more STEM professionals than are projected to graduate over the next decade.
Pierpont is making a big difference here: With its ideal location in our region’s high-tech corridor, this institution can provide hands-on learning that prepares students for careers in cutting-edge STEM fields, including the rapidly growing field of petroleum technology.
At West Virginia University, working with our public school and community college partners to improve STEM education is a major priority — it is one of the areas we have targeted for strategic investment.
We must also help students develop a global perspective. We can out-think the rest of the world, but not by closing in on ourselves. It is time to provide all our young people with the benefits of a global curriculum and global thinking.
Most critically, we must try to keep college affordable for our students. In West Virginia, the PROMISE Scholarship is a wonderful tool for increasing educational access. We must fight against any further erosion to the program.
Leaders across the nation increasingly see our community colleges as a key provider of affordable higher education.
I am sure most of you have heard about President Obama’s proposal to make community college free. While this proposal raises many concerns — and while its chance of getting through Congress is similar to my chance of being named People Magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive” — it shows how large community colleges loom in our national conversation about access and affordability.
And while it is vital to increase the college-going rate, it is also vital to increase the college- completion rate.
I often joke that universities have deans of admission, but not what we really need — deans of completion. Improving retention is a major priority for me at West Virginia University.
Getting more people — young and old — on track toward a quality college degree is just the first step. The next is to make sure they cross the finish line.
Finally, to help more West Virginians succeed, we must tell our stories. It is incumbent upon all of us — administrators, faculty, community leaders and students — to communicate the value of education.
Students: It is especially important for you to tell your friends, your family members, your co-workers, and your children how education changes lives, improves communities and sustains our culture.
Remember: “Without heroes, we are all plain people, and don’t know how far we can go.”
You can be a hero for the people around you.
While researching Francis Pierpont, I noticed a link between him and another of this region’s heroes.
As governor of Virginia, Pierpont appointed an administrator for the state’s Morrill Act funding—money that Congress allocated for states to establish land-grant universities that would extend education beyond the wealthy and well connected.
Part of Virginia’s Morrill funds went to Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, a college for African-American students.
Several years later, a young man walked 500 miles from Malden, West Virginia, to Hampton for the chance to attend college. He convinced the headmaster to admit him, and he worked for the school as a janitor to help finance his education.
This young man’s name was Booker T. Washington. At age 9, as a newly freed slave, he went to work with his stepfather in the local salt mines. His mother knew he had bigger dreams, though. She bought him an alphabet book.
For years, he rose at 4 each morning so he could practice reading and writing in the hours before his work-day started.
He went on to become the first leader of what is now Tuskegee University.
Washington once said: “Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome.”
Booker T. Washington is a testament to the power of education. He is also a testament to the drive West Virginians have always shown for overcoming obstacles—for, literally, scaling mountains.
Today, we have mountains to climb, if we want greater prosperity for ourselves, our families and our state. But I truly believe West Virginia’s best days lie ahead of us, on the other side of those mountains.
And I am proud that the people of Pierpont Community and Technical College are helping to lead us there.