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State of the University Address in D.C.

September 29, 2022
Prepared remarks by WVU President E. Gordon Gee

Thank you, Hilah and congratulations on receiving the Young Alumni award. It is a tremendous testament to your leadership and dedication. Thank you for your service to your alma mater. 

And thanks to each of you for being here this evening. It is always a special pleasure to gather with our leaders in the nation’s capital, and I appreciate you taking the time to learn more about our University’s vital work generating hope in West Virginia.

I would like to extend a warm greeting to our congressional leaders who are with us tonight: Senator Shelley Capito; Senator Joe Manchin; and Congressman David McKinley.

Would you all help me share our deep appreciation for their leadership with a round of applause?

I also want to welcome the chair of our Alumni Association Board of Directors, Darren Feeley. Darren, we appreciate your leadership and the wisdom you share with the University. 

Please help me welcome Darren, as well. 

From your vantage point at the center of American democracy and decision-making, you know better than anyone how challenging the past few years have been. 

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted every aspect of society. But, with the help of our Congressional delegation and the resilience that typifies our state, we have emerged stronger to advance West Virginia and our nation.
After all, adversity is nothing new to our citizens.

As that well-known West Virginian and Gordon-Gee-look-alike Lou Holtz once said, “Show me someone who has done something worthwhile, and I’ll show you someone who has overcome adversity.”

At West Virginia University, recent events have only reinforced how vital our work is.

And we have learned just how precious health is — the physical and mental health of all people, as well as the health of our social fabric — and we now know how much work it takes to maintain it.

We persevered through these past two years by leaning on the three pillars that support us every day: Education, health care and prosperity.

And we did so in large part thanks to a Congressional delegation whose members may not always agree on every policy, but who share a unified vision for improving West Virginia.

For example, during the pandemic, our students faced unprecedented worries about educational costs, their own health and safety, and their families’ struggles. 

Thanks to our delegation, higher education funding for institutions and students was included in the majority of emergency COVID-19 bills, enabling our University to meet these challenges and assist our students and their families.  

More recently, the CHIPS and Science Act passed – strengthening our economy and national security, while expanding the geography of innovation.  

The science provisions provide historic funding increases for science agencies such as the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the National Institute of Health and NASA. 

For West Virginia, as a participant in the NSF Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, or EPSCoR, the big win is a huge investment in research funding over the next several years. 

Talking about the impact on states like West Virginia, NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan said, “Developing capacity everywhere — not just on the coasts, not just at the biggest universities — will bolster American competitiveness while growing regional economies from the bottom-up and middle out.” 

We are also grateful that 2023 Senate and House Appropriations bills included funding for so many of West Virginia University’s priority federal research and student aid programs.  

Innovation programs such as the National Institutes of Health Institutional Development Award and the Fossil Energy and Carbon Management Research and Development program, to name just two, will expand our national reputation as an R1 research university.  

Groundbreaking research requires complementary investments in research infrastructure, which is why the West Virginia University and WVU Hospital System projects, for which Senators Manchin and Capito helped to direct funds, are so important to our state’s economic development. 

Because of the senators’ work, advanced scientific equipment and campus improvements will further elevate our University’s research standing and ability to drive progress.

I can best show how your leadership and investment matters by telling you about some of our researchers’ current projects and their potential to change our state’s trajectory.

For example, our 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, and our University has one of very few mineral processing groups in the United States. 

Events such as the war in Ukraine show the importance of the U.S. gaining control of the critical materials supply chain and avoiding the disruptions involved in relying on other nations.

Energy researchers also are experimenting with grasses raised on reclaimed mine lands that can be turned into biofuels and other value-added products. These carbon-hungry grasses also help to sequester carbon in the soil, assisting to combat climate change.

As our energy experts address environmental threats, our health care researchers are pioneering approaches to West Virginia’s biggest health threats, such as the opioid crisis.

For example, at the 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 addictions are resistant to conventional treatment. 

West Virginia’s aging population makes preventing and treating Alzheimer’s disease another major priority.
That is why I am so glad that RNI is conducting the world’s first clinical trial pairing focused ultrasound treatment with Alzheimer’s antibody drug therapy to a targeted area of the brain.

Our researchers’ work is unlocking new potential for the treatment of this terrible disease. 

Our University has made its mark in many other areas, from hosting a national Appalachian Studies Conference to discovering fast radio bursts among the stars in astrophysics – research that was featured in Nature, Nature Astronomy and other top journals.

Your leadership and investment has made research like this possible, and your continued involvement is crucial to our work in educating our students and changing our state’s direction for the better.

At a time when resources are so limited, needs are so great, expectations are so high, and threats are so significant, we know that universities cannot afford to be complacent.

Fortunately, complacency is not a quality associated with Mountaineers.

Our state’s people have always drawn upon the spirit of our rugged and beautiful mountains.

As a University, we honor the independent spirit of West Virginians. And every day, in every aspect of our work, we live and demonstrate our Mountaineer values of service, curiosity, respect, accountability and appreciation.

That is why we have worked to transform academics to improve the quality of education at West Virginia University.

We also have transformed student life on campus by strengthening mental health resources, engaging in diversity and inclusion, and invigorating the out-of-classroom experience.

West Virginia University is more than an institution of higher learning. We are committed to being an institution of higher purpose for our students, our faculty and staff, and our state.

To that end, we will open the first Purpose Center located on a university campus later this spring.

This center will help students, faculty, staff, alumni and members of our communities connect their passions with their talents to chart a path forward. 

The path forward for our state can be an upward climb –but if we work together, we can surmount the challenges on the horizon.

This will be increasingly important as our state faces one of its most significant educational challenges in the years ahead. 
The nation is facing a steep decline in college admission and retention rates at a time when post-secondary education is more vital than ever. 

It is important not only for one’s personal financial and career stability but also for the stability of our nation’s future.
Pandemic disruptions sparked a marked reduction in applications for our state’s Promise Scholarship. 

But this problem has outlasted the pandemic’s peak and, in fact, began before any of us even had heard of COVID-19.

In fact, the college-going rate in West Virginia has been declining for a decade, while the high school graduation rates have remained steady. 

Only 46 percent of the college-eligible students in West Virginia are choosing to attend college. 

That is down 2 percent from last year and 10 percent over the last decade. 

While acute in West Virginia, this reflects a national trend. 

The Hechinger Report recently reported that prior to the pandemic 60 percent of 14-18-year-olds agreed education was necessary beyond high school. 

Today, that percentage has dropped to 45 percent.

Enrolling more students in college matters so that the next generation possesses the knowledge and skills needed to lead in the workforce and in our communities.

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. 

Unfortunately, factors such as rising costs have provoked skepticism about the value of higher education.

The Hechinger Report also identifies that 50 percent of Americans believed college was worth the cost prior to the pandemic. Now, only 32 percent agree.

The cost of attending West Virginia University is still lower than that of many of our peer universities, but cost will be an ongoing concern for students and aid will be an ongoing priority for the WVU Foundation.

At West Virginia University, we are fortunate that private giving has enabled financial aid and scholarship funding to increase as tuition has done so. And we will continue to fundraise for the dollars that will assist our students the most.
Beyond supporting students financially, we also are focusing on the unique needs of rural, underrepresented students. 

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.

So, in conclusion, we have leaned on our pillars of education, healthcare and prosperity for a long time. Yet the current landscape revealed another pillar that provides strength for all our pursuits.

That fourth pillar is Purpose. 

We are pursuing education, healthcare and prosperity with a focused determination to transform West Virginia University into a purpose-driven leader in higher education.

And like the first people to scale our state’s peaks, we are boldly ascending toward a higher quality of education, a higher quality of life and a brighter future for all. 

We have come far. We have ground yet to cover. And with leaders like you as our partners, we do so with purpose, with pride and with our timeless rallying cry of all Mountaineers: “Let’s go.”