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State of the University Address

Prepared Remarks
October 6, 2014

It is wonderful to be with you today.

At this time last year, I was planning my next vacation and enjoying semi-retirement, while preparing to teach at Harvard.

But life has a way of diverting your path. And I am grateful that my path led me back to West Virginia University at this unique moment of promise and possibility.

As a song dear to Mountaineer hearts’ says, “Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be.”

I have no doubt: This is where I ought to be.

It is where each one of us ought to be.

Because nowhere else can we do so much good, for so many people who are counting on us.

When I took this job, I said I wanted to visit all 55 counties of this state and its people.

And guess what? I did.

It was exhilarating and exhausting, all at the same time.

In fact, I am actually thinking about becoming a university president in Delaware because they only have three counties.

But in all seriousness, it was a wonderful opportunity for me to reconnect with West Virginians. Words cannot describe what the tour was like, but this quick video will give you an idea.

So as you just saw, I listened and I learned — and probably took one too many selfies — as I traveled with many of you — from Weirton to Welch and all points in between.

In the end, this was more than a tour.

It was a spiritual experience for me.

I saw great success stories and great struggles.

I saw children who are rich in potential, but whose families lack basic needs.

I saw communities thriving and communities faltering.

But most of all, I saw opportunity.

I saw the opportunity we have to enrich this state and its people.

West Virginia University is West Virginia’s university. Our campus does not end at the borders of Morgantown.

This state is our campus. And as the flagship, land-grant university, we have the opportunity — and the responsibility — to empower all 1.8 million West Virginians.

We have the opportunity to awaken possibility, and help them rise higher.

The state of West Virginia and West Virginia University depend on each other.

We have a kinship far closer than any other state and its flagship institution.

We have a bond that is stronger than steel.

And we will make that bond even stronger.

When I met with community leaders at a McDowell County luncheon back in May, I asked, “What can West Virginia University do for this community?”

One of our Extension faculty piped up, “What would it take to bring the Mountaineer Marching Band down here?”

Everyone in the room applauded and cheered and I thought, “I better get that damn band down here or fire that Extension agent for putting me on the spot!”

I am pleased to say we answered the call.

Three months later we loaded nine buses with the Pride of West Virginia band members, and we weaved our way from Monongalia County to McDowell.

Our band went onto that field and energized anyone within earshot. Every inch of that high school stadium was packed. We even had an overflow crowd peering through the fence to enjoy the sights and sounds.

And let me tell you, hearing more than 2,000 McDowell County residents lead a “Let’s go, Mountaineers!” cheer gave me chills — and it also made me pause.

That moment — sitting in the stands — felt like the true culmination of our 55 county tour.

And what made that trip even more special was that it had been 26 years since the band played in that county.

26 years. Can you imagine that?

Someone was keeping count.

But what they need to be counting on is our presence. We need to be present in the communities and the farms and at the gas wells.

Present in our attendance.

Present in our listening.

And present in our actions when responding to their needs.

We can never, ever allow another 26 years to pass by again.

And it is not big gestures, like bringing in the band, that matter the most.

It is the chat over a Diet Dr. Pepper at the local café. It is making a phone call to freshmen parents to assure them their student is doing fine. It is stopping by to see a colleague at another institution.

It is being present. It is all of us being present.

Let me be clear: The 55 County Tour is not a one-time effort. I plan to tour the state again next summer, and the next, and the next.

I want to visit with people again — to look into their eyes, to shake their hand, to wrap my arms around them.

I want to share with them the soul of our University.

I want to explore their needs and create partnerships that embolden them.

I want to know West Virginia University is doing all it can to raise this state to its fullest potential.

But in order to do that, we have some work to do. And we are going to get down to work.

First, we are going to become a more efficient and effective university. You have heard me say these words before. Now, it is time to take action. We will work together as ONE university and we will eliminate bureaucracy.

We will put aside personal agendas, break down silos and work side-by-side toward ONE agenda for ONE university — West Virginia University.

Poet William Butler Yeats said: “Talent perceives differences; genius, unity.”

Our love for this institution unites us. Our calling unites us. All of us here — faculty, staff, health care providers, administrators, students and alumni — share the same calling: To improve people’s lives, in West Virginia and around the world.

We must not let anything bar our way, especially barriers we, ourselves, have constructed.

Today, in our country, rules have replaced leadership. Regulations and outdated laws have us handcuffed.

No one ever asks, “What is the right thing to do here?” Instead they wonder, “What does the rule book say?”

I say it is time to toss out the damn rule book.

Higher education is buried beneath a bastion of bureaucracy and it is time to dig ourselves out.

I love to tell the story of how when I arrived I was told I had to take a driver’s test. They said everyone who works here has to take it. I asked, “Why?”

The answer was that the university received an insurance discount — but that discount was so small, it was dwarfed by the loss in hours of staff productivity.

Guess what? No more driver’s test. As the saying goes, “You are in good hands… with Gordon Gee.”

But we must ask the question, “Why?” We must cut through the red tape that is holding us prisoner. We must move from nonsense to common sense.

I strongly believe that freedom begets human creativity and goodwill. Making our own choices empowers us to take risks, to innovate, to fail — and to get up and try again. That is the very foundation of the American spirit — indeed, it is the foundation of the Mountaineer spirit.

People need the freedom to make decisions and to get things done. Because at the end of the day, rules do not accomplish goals. Leaders do.

So let us lead. You may have heard about the Bureaucracy SWOT team that is working on streamlining, simplifying, and standardizing our business practices.

From hiring to travel — from purchasing to research.

The team will be releasing regular updates of new efficiencies, as well as asking for your suggestions, anonymous or otherwise.

Because it is you — our faculty and staff — who know where the problems are. So I urge you to become engaged and share what bureaucratic obstacles get in the way of accomplishing your goals.

We must make this institution move like a ballerina, not an elephant dressed in a tutu. And we must do so by working together, as ONE West Virginia University.

The next thing we must do is put our students first.

Universities exist so that we may teach and we may learn. Without putting our students first, we suffer intellectual paralysis and focus on the wrong things.

Students are the reason we are here.

Knowledge is our gift to them. Inspiration is their gift to us. We must always, always remember that this vibrant exchange is our University’s core mission.

Our work is not about teaching loads. It is about teaching opportunities.

It is not about granting degrees or granting tenure. It is about granting our students the keys that unlock the doors of opportunity.

And it is about helping students succeed and graduate. Two in five students who enroll in American universities will never don a cap and gown. That is staggering. And it cannot be acceptable at West Virginia University.

I often say that universities have deans of admissions, but what we really need are deans of completion. Think about that. What is one of the best ways we can we serve our students?

By improving retention — especially in the critical sophomore year.

Let me be clear: Recruitment and retention is a priority for this university. To start us toward our student-centered goals, I created an Enrollment Management SWOT team to improve recruiting and re-invigorate the student experience.

Our provost, Joyce McConnell, has a powerful vision for moving our academic agenda forward. We will become an innovative learning community — one that promotes individual success and provides community support.

There are 168 hours in a week and our students are in class a maximum of 18 hours. We will launch Project 168 to develop ways to bring academics and professional success into the other 150 hours.

Our students will start their journeys in freshmen learning communities — communities that build learning around disciplines and specific interests, as well as communities focused on solving global issues that can only be solved through multi-disciplinary approaches.

For example, an Economic Development and Entrepreneurship learning community might bring together people studying business and economics, engineering, and arts and sciences.

These students would get to know each other through a summer team-building experience, built on the core principles of Adventure West Virginia. They would solve problems, serve communities, and perhaps even study abroad. And, in the process, they would gain a deep understanding of their discipline, its interconnectedness, and engage in solving global issues while learning what it means to change lives.

Through the new reform of the General Education Curriculum, the GERs incorporate the standards that we all embrace to support the holistic educational and socialization goals of Project 168.

Blazing a new path to excellence, our reform will result in a West Virginia University diploma that will serve as a calling card for someone who is an innovative problem solver, a skilled communicator, an entrepreneurial leader, and an engaged global citizen who wants to make the world a better place.

And as we work with vigor to create the best learning environment possible for our students, we must not neglect their living environment, where they spend most of their time.

We must take very seriously anything that threatens that environment, including alcohol abuse and sexual assault. These are two very serious issues. And as we address them from both a campus and community perspective, we must also empower our students to create their own solutions.

When I was chancellor of Vanderbilt, I charged the students with developing an alcohol policy. They came up with something more stringent than the administration had developed.

That showed me that when we trust students to find solutions, they respond.

When we treat them like adults, they act like adults. I will call on our students to help us find solutions to issues that threaten their safety and their ability to learn.

Also, I assure you: We will honor the letter and spirit of Title IX, so that everyone on our campus benefits from our programs. We will treat all students with the respect, regard and dignity they deserve as human beings searching out a path in life.

And as we help those students find their path, let me talk briefly about expanding the number of students. I believe we should enroll 40,000 students system-wide, an increase of about 7,000 students.

From undergraduates to graduate students, from WVU Tech to Potomac State, from international to online, we have the power to expand our reach.

And we will not choose between growing in size and growing in quality. We will do both.

We will increase the quality of freshman class credentials while growing the class from 5,000 to 5,500 new students.

Of course, we will be careful with our growth. We will protect the quality of life that we love in this community, and we will not overburden our infrastructure.

I always say I have an edifice complex. I love to build. I love seeing cranes sprout up on our campus like spring daffodils, heralding re-birth and renewal. Because a university that is not renewing itself is a university that is wilting and withering.

But renewal is not really about building structures. It is about building programs.

It is about creating an environment where talented professionals can perform great operations in the hospital, great physics experiments in the laboratory, and great arias on stage.

It is also about creating a beautiful, green, welcoming and safe University city. We want a University city of which we can all be proud, enjoy and show off to visitors. You cannot have a great University without a great City, so we must continue to cultivate those relationships. And we will do that through creative town-gown partnerships.

And while we must have blue water aspirations, we can no longer depend on federal and state funds to support these aspirations. It is clear that the entire funding model for public universities is in a fast-forward decline.

West Virginia spends 22 percent less on higher education now than it did before the 2008 recession. That is why public-private partnerships are so critical to our growth.

Our four public-private partnerships — and partnership with Monongalia County for a new baseball park — are a great boon to the University and the community. These projects will contribute $61 million to local and state tax and fee revenues during their 40-year lifespan. They are also revitalizing neighborhoods and — most importantly — they are improving the student experience.

As we work to make this University fiscally sound, we must also help our students find sound financial aid strategies. I was pleased to see Governor Tomblin’s new campaign, “My State, My Life,” encouraging our West Virginia students to explore post-secondary education programs. This is precisely what we should be doing. But if we want our students to continue their education, we must be prepared to help them achieve their dreams.

While we have long known that earning power is higher for college graduates, a recent study by the College of Business and Economics underscores the economic value of a higher education for our state.

It shows that a graduating class of the state’s colleges and universities generates nearly $6 billion in economic impact for the state over a 20-year period — or more than 4 times the $1.4 billion spent to educate that class.

That is another great reason to help our state’s graduates realize their dreams.

The national spotlight has never been shined as brightly as it is now on the cost of higher education and the rise of student debt.

But here at West Virginia University, we have a reason to be proud: While nationally, students graduate with an average of almost $30,000 in debt, our students are much better off.

The average federal student debt of our students receiving bachelor degrees is just over $23,000 — about 20 percent less. And 38 percent of our graduates have no student loan debt when they graduate.

Also, our default rate of 10.5 percent is well below the national average of 13.7 percent and the state average of 18.2 percent.

So, while we are doing a good job of keeping a college education affordable and accessible, we can always do better. That is absolutely central to our land-grant mission. It is our job to educate our students about financial responsibility while providing as much support as possible.

That is why the Foundation’s State of Minds campaign is so important.

Our alumni and friends are stepping up like never before, as shown by the recent announcement that we met and exceeded our $750 million goal early and have raised that goal to $1 billion over the next few years.

Much of that support has gone to students who might not be able to attend college otherwise. One of the most heart-warming and touching stories from the summer was from a young woman from Wyoming County, Savannah Lusk. She earned one of our selective top awards—the Foundation Scholarship.

Let me tell you what this scholarship means to her:

At 15 years old, Savannah felt a calling to become a youth pastor and make her volunteer work more than just numbers on a page. Ignoring her doubters’ discouraging words and skeptical looks, she reached out to help people, from carrying groceries for the elderly to comforting a bullied student.

Looking forward, Savannah wants to make a career out of helping others by becoming an oncologist, and she sees our University as a pathway to her dream.

Savannah is studying exercise physiology, and this is what she has said about being here:

“West Virginia University is a big school with lots of opportunities, yet the people here are just lovely. They are hospitable and helpful.”

And so is Savannah.

She is the first-ever Foundation Scholar from Wyoming East High School and is already an inspiration to all Mountaineers. We are blessed to have her among us and blessed that the Foundation has stepped up to fund her education.

The third thing we must do is invest in our most important resource: our faculty and staff.

Talented people must be recognized and rewarded, and we must reward them in ways that fit their individual goals. If we have a one-size-fits-all mentality, we get a one-size-fits-all result—which is mediocrity. I want us, together, to fundamentally change the way we reward and recognize people at West Virginia University.

We must also aggressively recruit the best people. We are only as strong as our team. Good people get things done. But truly extraordinary people bring something more to their work than the will to achieve.

They bring humor, caring, humility and the courage to be one’s self. We must provide a work environment in which we all can reach our full professional — and human — potential.

And let’s define potential.

Teaching, research, and service are equally valuable. Rare is the person who can excel at all three in equal measure. So we must reward people for doing what they do best.

All our talents combine to form a brilliant mosaic.

So I urge our faculty and staff to collaborate, to take risks and to think outside the box.

We must also welcome into our community people with valuable corporate experience.

These talents will help us advance our research agenda. They will help us create ideas that, in turn, create jobs for West Virginians. Higher education is the new economic engine. The smokestack has been replaced by our factories of thought. Our university is already the single largest producer of jobs, directly and indirectly, in the state.

And we will continue to help people create and commercialize knowledge through programs such as our new Launch Lab, a resource center for building businesses.

Inside the walls of Hodges Hall, our faculty, staff and students can learn how to develop a business plan, conduct market research, protect their intellectual property and access initial customers. The LaunchLab generates the entrepreneurial energy that will fuel change.

We also will continue to elevate Extension. With an office in every county, they are the front door to this institution.

West Virginia University Extension promotes outreach across our campus — a model that institutions across the country should emulate. Many land-grant institutions are only now realizing that Extension must extend into every college and school, rather than being housed in colleges of agriculture.

Our Extension faculty carry our gold and blue banner into every corner of our state. They carry our ideas into communities and turn them into big improvements.

As a land-grant university, that is what we do: We nurture ideas, which grow into improvements.

And right now, we are yielding a rich harvest of ideas.

Life-changing discoveries in neuroscience, like the work to create a wearable brain scanner … and the innovative ways we bring health care to rural patients … the way we ignite students’ interest in STEM through our HSTA program … and the way we nurture artists who change our perspective on the world.

How do we channel all of our creative thinking into a mighty force that helps West Virginia leap — not creep — into the future?

I’ll tell you how: We need to think BIG.

So, the fourth thing we will do is create a Center for Big Ideas.

My good friend, Gaston Caperton, former governor of West Virginia and president of the College Board, has agreed to provide leadership for this Center. I cannot think of anyone who has a better grasp of our state and the ways in which higher education empowers lives.

The Center will bring together faculty, staff, and students from across the University to tackle the big issues facing this state, and indeed this country—issues such as energy, rural health, STEM education, and arts and culture.

For example, our University has built tremendous momentum in the area of energy. We recently announced the creation of the Energy Institute, with Dr. Brian Anderson, a world-class energy researcher, leading this expert network in education and research.

And in August, we unveiled the new School of Politics and Public Policy.

Instead of having political science, public administration, international studies and leadership studies scattered about on their own islands, they now all share a home. Those fields tie together, so it just makes sense, and it will produce stronger teaching and research.

We also are creating a Business Engagement Center to serve as a “front door” for corporations who want to put our knowledge to work, whether through joint research projects, professional development for their workforce, or help moving a product to market.

This is exactly what we should be doing: Leveraging our expertise to become a sought-after resource.

It is time to put our strategic planning into strategic action. This Center for Big Ideas is one of the critical actions we need to soar beyond our peers.

It is time we reposition West Virginia University as a thought leader.

We should not strive to emulate any other university. Becoming like everyone else is settling. It is lowering our ambitions and expectations.

Abraham Lincoln once said, “I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live up to what light I have.”

We are a unique institution and we have unique gifts. It is time to uncover the light and let this University shine.

I have never seen a moment more ripe for a University and a state to advance change. I have never seen a University so prepared to build partnerships with everyone, from communities to educators to businesses.

The Center for Big Ideas will ask the tough questions, and then the best and the brightest minds will answer those questions with solutions.

THAT is the way West Virginia University will lead. That is the way we must lead.

And that brings me to my fifth and final point this afternoon: We must believe in ourselves and in our University’s future.

Traveling around the state this summer, I was reminded that West Virginians are modest.

In my opinion, we are modest to a fault when it comes to talking about the quality of life we have in this state.

In the same way, we are too modest when we talk about our University.

For example, recent brand research showed that when asked if our University is a nationally recognized leader in ground-breaking research, 46 percent of prospective students answered yes. Only 17 percent of our faculty and staff replied positively to the same question.

Another question asked our prospective students if they felt West Virginia University has one of the top-ranked medical research programs in the nation. 51 percent said yes.

When asked the same question, only 28 percent of our faculty and staff responded yes.

And in yet another question, prospective students felt we were a “fun” school, whereas faculty and staff described us as a “party school.”

We can no longer let others define West Virginia University. And we cannot perpetuate definitions that are not true.

We are not a party school.

Let me say that again. We are not a party school.

Over time, we have come to believe our own bad press. But I have led many universities, and I assure you: Our students are no different than students across the country.

In fact, I celebrate that our students find balance. We work hard and we play hard. There is nothing wrong with that. We have a wonderful spirit on this campus that we need to embrace.

We have a strong athletic program that benefits our student-athletes and unites Mountaineers worldwide with pride. But our athletic spirit complements our academic mission.

Academics are always our Number One priority.

And our membership in the Big 12 Conference gives us a stage to show off our academic strength—just as we did last week in hosting the Big 12 Provosts on our campus. And let me tell you: They came away impressed with what they saw and heard.

We need to remember that West Virginia University is not a logo — though we have a great one in the Flying WV.

West Virginia University is a living, breathing being. It encompasses all the people who work here and all the people we serve.

Never forget: Our work changes lives. At the State Fair this summer, I did an interview with a TV station and a young man, in his twenties, came up to me afterward, shook my hand, and thanked me.

His name was Michael Mann and he was a technical director at the station. I thought he was thanking me for doing the interview with his reporter.

Instead, he was thanking me for the successful brain surgery he underwent a year earlier at West Virginia University Hospitals.

Michael suffered from epilepsy. He grew up in Monroe County and attended Concord University. But none of that mattered.

He is a West Virginian and he is part of our family, and West Virginia University changed that man’s life.

He told me, “I would not be where I am today or have an opportunity in my career field if not for West Virginia University and their awesome care.”

He actually used that word: awesome.

And we are. Enough of this humility stuff. We are awesome.

Through stories like Michael’s, we can tell West Virginians of our triumphs in and out of the classroom.

We need to tell those stories — and we will.

We need to change more lives — and we will.

Kierkegaard once declared that a man’s greatest fear is what he is truly capable of doing and becoming.

My friends, it is time to conquer our fears.

We must let our aspirations soar as high as the mountains that surround us.

We must be elite without being elitist. And we must build a world-class university, without ever forgetting that West Virginia is our polar star.

This is more than an opportunity. It is more than a mission. It is a calling.

It is my calling. It is your calling.

I believe in West Virginia and West Virginia University rising. And I believe in each of you.

With that, I would like to hear your comments and take your questions.