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State of the University Address: A Purpose-Fueled Journey

Prepared remarks by WVU President E. Gordon Gee

Monday, October 3, 2022 | Watch Video Replay

The West Virginia University community has spent the past two years doing extraordinary things in extraordinary times.

Through so many challenges, you – our faculty, staff and students – never faltered in your efforts to learn, to serve, to care and to fulfill our responsibilities.

This is the epitome of who we are. This is how Mountaineers Go First.

We have demonstrated once again what a strong and resilient university we have built. For more than 150 years we have been the land-grant, flagship university of West Virginia and we should be proud – very proud – of that.

Working together, we will always overcome obstacles as we educate, heal and advance the economic prosperity of our state.

I have been a university president for more than 40 years. And that tenure affords me a unique perspective on higher education. We are, indeed, in tumultuous times. We are confronting considerable headwinds with the enrollment demographic cliff that looms before us. And over the past few years, the Great Dropout has resulted in more than four million students leaving higher education – over one million left last year alone.

In West Virginia, we face the reality of a college-going rate that has diminished from 56 percent to 46 percent in the last 10 years. An increasing loss of confidence in higher education has left people questioning whether there is any value to a college degree.

These are concerning statistics and perceptions, and I grapple with them every day. But my experience also allows me to see beyond the immediate challenges.

I see the possibilities for our great university.

I see the enormous potential in our students and the commitment of our faculty and staff who teach and guide them.

I observe the extraordinary research we conduct and the health care we deliver.

I am fortunate to bear witness daily to the myriad of ways in which we lift our communities.

We may face dilemmas – but all of us gathered here today are part of a powerful collective that nurtures potential. And that potential translates into real solutions.

For example, in our West Virginia public schools we are working with educators to prepare children for successful lives. This fall, the STEAM TAC program is expanding its reach during its second year of immersive, hands-on learning activities.

STEAM TAC 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 12,000 students and 200 teachers in middle schools across the state. And there is an extensive lineup of school visits scheduled for the new academic year.

To help West Virginians thrive, our health care researchers are pioneering approaches to West Virginia’s biggest threats, such as the opioid crisis.

For example, Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute researchers are quieting brain addiction centers using low-intensity, focused ultrasound treatments and deep brain stimulation, as well as using virtual and augmented reality to change addiction cues.

RNI conducted the world’s first clinical trial on this technology, which offers great promise for patients whose substance use disorders are resistant to conventional treatment.

Our scholars also are helping to launch West Virginia on a new economic trajectory.

Energy researchers have developed a process to extract rare earths and critical materials from acid mine drainage and coal waste.

Rare earth element technologies, which power everything from smartphones to America’s missile guidance system, could serve as a gamechanger for the environment and the national economy.

Acid mine drainage provides the rare earths in a form that is easily recovered so no new mining is required. Our University is well positioned to make an impact, with one of very few mineral processing groups in the United States.

The reality is, here at West Virginia University, there is an abundance of examples to show how we are changing lives. The challenges we face may introduce a few detours, but they do not deter us from progress.

Change can be uncomfortable, but we have weathered these shifts by anchoring our work to our West Virginia University values.

Service encompasses everything we do, including our efforts to reverse the disturbing trend I mentioned earlier: a declining college-going rate in West Virginia. The national narrative of high costs and low value has fueled distrust and encouraged the debate of whether college is worth it.

I am happy to end that debate today. The answer to the question of whether college is worth it is an emphatic YES.

Let me be clear: It is more than worth it.

According to the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, those with bachelor’s degrees are half as likely to be unemployed than those without higher education. They also earn an additional $1.2 million on average over their lifetimes.

But statistics are not nearly as powerful as the stories of our students.

Amanda Valentine joined the U.S. Air Force, finishing her undergraduate degree while serving with posts and deployments that took her around the world from Alaska to Korea. When she retired in 2014, she was not sure what to do next. With the GI Bill, she decided to go back to school, entering our MBA program.

Today, Amanda is a student veteran who is pursuing a master’s degree in business administration and is one of only 18 women chosen for the 2022 Focus Forward Fellowship, a prestigious year-long mentoring program designed to support women with military connections.

Azeem Khan is a sophomore in political science from Charleston, West Virginia. As co-chair of the Mountaineer Fentanyl Education Task Force, he is working tirelessly to educate our campus community about the dangers of fentanyl and the resources available. In less than a year, they have educated 7,500 students in-person and connected with even more via social media channels.

And there is Cassandra Stewart, one of our recently named recipients of the Hazel Ruby McQuain Graduate Scholarship. Diagnosed with narcolepsy at 5 years old, Cassandra’s hidden disability inspired her to help others. That interest combined with her love of fashion propelled her to earn a master’s degree in design and merchandising.

She plans to serve as a sensory needs consultant and will one day open her own business to provide clothing and custom alterations that are sensory-friendly.

These are but a few examples of the incredible pursuits toward which our students’ endeavor.

As a land-grant university, our very mission is to provide access to a high-quality education at an affordable cost.

Nationally, the average federal debt of public university 4-year degree graduates is $33,000. On Morgantown’s campus, for students earning their bachelor’s degree, the average federal student loan debt is just over $12,000.

And 41 percent of our May 2022 graduates earning baccalaureate degrees graduated with zero debt.

Let me say that again: 41 percent of our undergraduates this past May graduated with zero debt.

We are fortunate that private giving has enabled financial aid and scholarship funding to increase for our students and their families. In 2021-22, our University, along with generous alumni and friends, contributed more than $126 million to provide student scholarships.

But while the cost of attending West Virginia University is still lower than that of many peer institutions – on average, lower by 15 percent – cost will be an ongoing concern for students and aid will be an ongoing priority for the WVU Foundation.

In addition to financial resources, we provide the necessary college preparation. This fall we launched the Mountain Scholars Program to create a culture of support for incoming students from rural West Virginia and to ensure they have the same opportunities for study abroad and experiential learning.

Prospective first-generation students in southern West Virginia benefit from WVU Tech’s Upward Bound program, the longest running in our state, supported by federal grants since 1966. This summer, WVU Tech served 90 high school students from Fayette and Raleigh counties. The program offers academic and financial support to help students prepare for higher education and success in the workforce.

Meanwhile, our Potomac State College campus in Keyser has launched a flexible degree program ideal for both traditional and non-traditional students. The Bachelor of Integrated Studies lets students create their academic paths based on their professional goals and interests. Non-traditional students can receive College Equivalent Credit for career, military and volunteer experiences, helping them meet graduation requirements sooner and reduce college costs.

These stories and statistics prove we are delivering on our land-grant promise to the state. And we will continue to create more accessibility, improve affordability and graduate more students to make our communities and world a better place.

Educating our people is our central purpose, and it has never been more critical. An educated citizenry will lift us above our current challenges.

We must continue to share the importance of higher learning. And, as a university, we must continue to provide and showcase the value of what a college degree can do.

In addition to helping our students find their path, we also are committed to their health. That includes supporting students with mental health concerns, which have increased dramatically nationwide over the past several years.

Our Carruth Center has scaled up in-person appointments and hired additional staff with an eye on diversity to support our students’ changing needs.

Healthy Minds University launched last year to work in partnership with The Carruth Center and other University support services to offer outpatient psychiatric treatment and long-term therapy services for students referred there.

We also are expanding resources to meet the unique needs of graduate and professional students, who experience a high incidence of stress, anxiety and depression. A new mental health counselor position at the Carruth Center will focus specifically on graduate students’ issues.

And two additional counseling positions for graduate and professional students also have been added over the last year at the College of Law and the Health Sciences Center.

We also have been meeting students where they are by rotating open hours at various locations around campus where students can simply drop by to chat with one of our therapists. Sixty faculty, staff and clinicians have completed suicide prevention training and a second CARE team member was hired.

In addition, we created a website to house mental health resources and information, allowing for quick access for all students, faculty and staff. I encourage you to be familiar with the site.

To feed our curiosity, we have invested in innovative learning facilities for our students. Most notable is our beautiful new Reynolds Hall, home to the Chambers College of Business and Economics.

This building sparks experiential learning – blending approaches from group participation-based projects to hands-on career preparation.

Reynolds Hall has transformed the classroom experience and will help our graduates compete in today’s marketplace. Its labs and learning tools also will forge new synergies between industry and academia, creating engagement opportunities for our students that lead to internships and job placement.

Reynolds Hall is a visible symbol of our commitment to academic innovation.

Our curiosity also shows in the research excellence that is one of our proudest points of distinction. We remain one of the top research institutions in the nation, according to the latest rankings by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education.

Earning Research 1 status for the first time in 2016 was an incredible honor – and staying on top validates that we are a powerhouse when it comes to research.

The bottom line is that of 4,500 colleges and universities in this country, we now find ourselves among those 146 major research universities called R-1. And our climb within the R-1 category has been equally dramatic.

We have more than doubled our sponsored research over the past five years to $172 million. The goal is to double it again in the next five years with the hope that we can come close to or exceed $500 million in sponsored research within that timeframe.

We have hired a cadre of very bright people who are bringing a balanced research portfolio to the institution, and we also have invested heavily in our academic medical center. The innovations, dedication and perseverance of our faculty have made our consistent, highly revered status as a research leader possible.

We also are making strides in serving as a leader for causes close to our heart. Located among the beautiful mountains of Appalachia, our university is nestled in a region that has far too often been misunderstood. Our scholars’ efforts to change that were showcased when we hosted the 45th annual Appalachian Studies Conference this spring.

Through programs such as the West Virginia Dialect Project, faculty members are helping students understand the beauty of the Appalachian language, breaking down the stigmas associated with it and nurturing respect for our culture.

And a decade after its inception, the Women’s Leadership Initiative continues to be a unique, necessary and enriching program that empowers women leaders to break stereotypes and overcome barriers such as applying for grants or ascending into leadership roles.

The first program in the state that solely focuses on women leadership development at the academic level, it is currently benefiting hundreds of women at all stages of their leadership journey.

As the flagship, land-grant university, our Extension programs keep us accountable to the people we serve throughout the state’s 55 counties.

Recently, the Extension team worked with health care professionals and faculty from the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences and the Schools of Medicine and Nursing to develop the idea for a “visiting neighbor” program.

Senior citizens in sample communities will receive training to visit elderly neighbors, providing companionship, educating them on healthy lifestyle choices, and connecting them to helpful resources.

This program was presented during our first Academic Innovation Summit, part of the University’s overarching academic transformation plan.

Extension also is addressing the sad reality that one of every four American children has a parent wrestling with drug or alcohol addiction and is at risk of developing a substance use disorder later in life.

To break that cycle, Project TRAIN has expanded its program, not only helping K-12 teachers support students affected by addiction, but training staff at youth camps statewide to support children in this situation. Through cross-county Extension partnerships, TRAIN’s coverage extends to at least 35 counties in West Virginia.

When we do great work, people notice and appreciate it. They want to be a part of it.

Our alumni and friends have shown their appreciation through the nearly $214 million they gave to the WVU Foundation in the past year, making it the second-highest year of giving in the University’s history. Their gifts will benefit education, health care and prosperity to make a positive difference across the Mountain State and beyond for years to come.

Our alumni understand the value of the education they received here and want to help a new generation succeed.

For example, Ellen Archibald, a 1989 law school graduate from Minneapolis, gave more than $200,000 to establish two social justice awards -- one for students at the College of Law and one for students enrolled in the School of Social Work programs at the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences.

For the School of Social Work award, preference goes to minority students – specifically Black, Indigenous and people of color – who are completing a field placement or internship focused on social justice such as behavioral health, legal justice, and trauma-informed care settings.

At the College of Law, the award provides a stipend for law students completing internships in public service or with public interest organizations in West Virginia. Preference goes to BIPOC students working in unpaid positions.

Our values in action show that we are more than an institution of higher learning — we are an institution of higher purpose.

You may remember that during last year’s State of the University remarks, I introduced purpose as our fourth pillar, standing alongside education, health care and prosperity.

While many institutions and corporations are now talking about purpose, we have been talking about – and living – purpose for a very long time.

We believe education is not just about pursuing a major. It is about pursuing the path you want to travel for a lifetime. It is about knowing who you are and using your strengths to their fullest potential.

Our inaugural Week of Purpose explored new perspectives, discussed health and well-being and demonstrated how to use our talents as identified by Gallup’s CliftonStrengths. For those of you who are familiar with the Strengths assessment, it will come as no surprise that Woo is in my top 5.

The physical site of our Purpose Center, the first for a university campus, is slated to open in the spring. In the meantime, we will continue to explore our purpose and make connections to the resources needed to be successful.

And as we concluded our Week of Purpose, we then turned our attention to the opening of our new WVU Medicine Children’s Hospital. The nine-story, 150-bed facility features a cardiac intensive care unit, an epilepsy monitoring unit and the state’s only Level Four neonatal intensive care unit.

This brightly colored home to children’s healthcare delivers the greatest gift we can bring to our communities: hope. 

That word “hope” drives us.

It drives us to take strategic risks, like the creation of the new college that blended the best of our strengths into an incredible new asset: the College of Applied Human Sciences.

It drives us to invest in a new technology infrastructure through our Modernization program, a strategic improvement that will forever change the way our campus operates.

It drives us to ensure our students achieve by creating change that includes the appointment of Joy Carr as our first director of University Advising, the launch of a very helpful chatbot named Morgan and increased support for students in foundational STEM courses.

So, in conclusion, from my unique presidential perspective, I can see past the realities we face to the vision of what we can be.

We are a distinguished, R1, flagship institution that nurtures potential and thrives with purpose.

We must never question whether we are making a difference. I can say without a doubt that there is no other university that is more committed and deeply rooted in its mission to help the students and the people of its state.

Let me reiterate that: No other university is more committed and deeply rooted in its mission to help our students and our state.

That mission is our polar star.

The last two years have been unimaginably difficult as each of us battled different challenges.

Collectively, though, we moved forward. No matter the difficulties, it is simply in our nature to persevere – to be resilient. This determination is rooted in West Virginia, within West Virginians. And within us.

I promise you that is unique – and I thank you for doing all that you do to further cement West Virginia University as the flag-ship institution of West Virginia.

We work and serve among an unparalleled community of experts across our West Virginia University family. So let us continue to embrace our land-grant purpose and surmount all the challenges on the horizon.

And, like all those who scaled our state’s peaks through the years, let us boldly ascend toward a higher quality of education, a higher quality of life and a brighter future for all.

We have ground yet to cover, of course. But, make no doubt about it, we have come far. And we should be so proud of what we have accomplished.  

I am certain that with shared effort, we will go forward with purpose, with pride and with the timeless rallying cry of all Mountaineers: “Let’s go.”

Featured Video

During his address, President Gee unveiled this video highlighting the perseverance and successes of students, faculty and staff during the COVID-19 pandemic.