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State of the University Address - March 2019

March 19, 2019

A video highlighting the University’s research initiatives as an R1 institution preceded President Gee’s address.

It is wonderful to see the many accomplishments represented in the video. It is a powerful reminder of the good things we are doing here at West Virginia University.

Now, this is where I could lead into another inappropriate joke. But right here in my script someone has written, DO NOT MAKE ANY INAPPROPRIATE JOKES ABOUT ANYONE, ANY SCHOOL, ANY MASCOT, ANYTHING. PERIOD.

And right now, every member of our media relations team is not breathing.

Though we laugh, I have been justly chastised for my recent comments – by the media, by colleagues and by West Virginians.

I understand and appreciate their disappointment in my words – and I apologize. Sometimes, as human beings, we make mistakes and missteps.

But I believe that the role of a University president is to set a tone that is inclusive and positive. I strive to always do that, and I am hopeful we can agree to move forward.

Because there is too much at stake for us to be at odds.

Last month, when the government released the latest gross domestic product statistics, West Virginia’s quarterly growth rate stood alone among the 50 states.

It was zero.

While quarterly GDP rates are volatile, our very round number stands out like a yawning chasm opening beneath West Virginians’ feet.

Declining mining and manufacturing jobs have triggered shocks that threaten to swallow our state’s prosperity, health and well-being — and leave even our hopes for the future buried in the rubble.

West Virginia University cannot let that happen.

I am proud that we continue to rank among the nation’s elite research institutions, with the Carnegie R1 ranking that only 130 of the nation’s 4,500 colleges and universities attain.

Our work’s purpose, however, is more important than its prestige.

That purpose is producing hope.

And West Virginia needs us to apply our unique resources to this purpose every day.

Recent research, some of it conducted here, shows that hopeful people are happier, less lonely and more effective at reaching their goals.

Students who rate “high hope” on psychological tests earn better grades than their classmates.

Hopeful athletes are more competitive.

Hopeful professionals are more productive, more engaged, more resilient, more creative, less likely to experience burnout and far less likely to call in sick.

Living a life filled with hope pays a health dividend.

Hopeful people release more endorphins and have a greater tolerance for pain.

They tend to choose a more nutritious diet and, according to a recent study by the Harvard School of Public Health, are less prone to hypertension, diabetes and respiratory infections.

Moreover, hope appears to strengthen the immune system, promoting more rapid recovery from any illnesses or injuries.

In 2008, a vehicle accident left my daughter, Rebekah, in critical condition and claimed her husband’s life. Understandably, grief plunged her into a deep depression. She said later, “There were days I woke up and I wanted to die.”

When her resilience took over and hope flourished, it proved to be as vital to her recovery as any medication or rehabilitation exercise.

And her experience with tragedy has made her a more compassionate physician, a more forthright advocate for public health, as well as a wonderful mother.

It would be naïve to say that hope cures all ills and solves all problems. It does not.

Hope can be neither denial or delusion.

And it is not mere optimism. I am a very optimistic person, but optimism is a matter of attitude. It foresees a better future and confidently looks forward to realizing its highest aspirations.

On the other hand, hope can flourish amid uncertainty, as wildflowers can sprout in unlikely places from deserts to lava-strewn islands to cracked sidewalks.

Hope takes root in reality, draws whatever nourishment it can from the soil, and stretches toward the sun.

Hope is a desire, a wish, an expectation. But most of all, hope is a catalyst for change.

And change is what we need. We must close the gap between hopelessness and hope.

That is why we must generate hope for all those who depend, directly or indirectly, on the work performed across our University system.

I believe the university must always create a positive vision of the future. I have often said West Virginians tend to undervalue themselves and their potential for success.

We cannot let caution or skepticism deter us from visualizing a happier population, a healthier environment and a better world.

We must approach our challenges with our uniquely resilient Mountaineer character, which has been honed by adversity and infused with a will to help others.

Once we have a vision, we must act. Pope Francis says sloth is the arch enemy of hope. Doing nothing, procrastinating or simply being passive sends a dreadful message to everyone we serve.

Acting simply means leading. Universities are well-versed at asking questions but hesitant to move from answers to action. Only by acting, can we nurture hope in ourselves and in others.

And once we are ready to act on our vision, we must do so by bringing people together. In our personal lives, engaging with others reduces anxiety and amplifies happiness. We can only reach our fullest potential by having the support from others.

Sadly, as social media has connected us more widely, other societal forces isolate us as never before.

In a survey conducted by Cigna, almost half of Americans said they sometimes or always feel alone. More than 40 percent feel isolated from others. And younger people are more likely to express these feelings than older generations.

In a book about the loneliness epidemic, Senator Ben Sasse said: “Increasingly, we’re shackled to the feeling that we don’t belong anywhere, and we’re not bound to people who can anchor us in a place we can call home.”

Our University must help people forge meaningful bonds. In pockets of this state where despair has settled, we must find those bright lights who are willing to make a difference.

By connecting them with our work and the people who need help, small and large miracles starting to occur.

In addition, another Cigna survey reports that poor health is our society’s biggest risk factor for loneliness and isolation. That is why leaders at our University and WVU Medicine are passionate about enabling our citizens to live a healthier, happier life.

To do so, we are focusing on regions very different from our own — the world’s blue zones, first identified by National Geographic fellow Dan Buettner.

In these five longevity hotspots, people are more likely to eat plant-based diets, incorporate exercise into their lifestyles, get enough sleep and adopt other productive habits.

By encouraging such behaviors, we can help West Virginians improve and even lengthen their lives. That is why West Virginia University is working with Morgantown to become the first Blue Zones Certified university community in the world.

In the fall semester, the Blue Zones Project team met with local experts and stakeholders, including our faculty, staff and students, to gather information and craft ideas for supporting widespread health and wellness.

Going forward, our experts will work with the City of Morgantown to make these ideas a reality.

We are seizing opportunities to collaborate on such priorities as alcohol and tobacco policy enforcement, accessibility to healthy food and improvements to pedestrian and bicycle safety.

Meanwhile, our Office of Health Promotion and Wellness is working to synthesize all health and wellness programs on campus and to leverage resources for maximum benefit to our faculty, staff and students.

This includes Adventure West Virginia and Collegiate Recovery partnering to develop outdoor therapy opportunities for our students in recovery — something few of our nation’s colleges offer.

And, our Tobacco Task Force is developing smart resources to combat tobacco and vaping on campus.

Our researchers are innovating to attack many health threats by evaluating a first-of-its-kind blood test detecting colorectal cancer, assessing a supplemental treatment’s efficacy in fighting cervical cancer and using machine learning to predict treatment outcomes for patients with narrowing heart valves.

But perhaps the most heart-wrenching health emergency our nation is facing is the opioid crisis.

West Virginia has a front-row seat to the despair afflicting so many homes and communities. However, our researchers are confronting the opioid epidemic from every possible angle.

At the Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute, Vice President of Neuroscience Dr. Ali Rezai led a team, including Dr. Richard Vaglienti, to explore whether an injectable, non-opioid micropellet can help sciatica patients, thus alleviating the needs for addictive pain killers.

In the Department of Pediatrics, Amna Umer is helping infants with neonatal-abstinence syndrome get the treatment they need.

Her team’s goal is to make West Virginia the first state to have a tool to collect real-time information on fetal substance exposure.

And in the Statler College’s computer science and electrical engineering program, Fanny Ye is developing novel artificial intelligence techniques to combat opioid trafficking.

West Virginia University must be the leader on this issue. It is too important for us to fail.

While health is the soil that nurtures hope, opportunity is the light that attracts it upward into full bloom.

That is why we must also work to engineer prosperity for West Virginia.

A key driver for growth is educational attainment. Neither this state nor this nation can expect to have a healthy economy or standard of living until – and unless – our people have the education and the skills needed to compete today.

Our state has fewer science, technology, engineering and math graduates than any neighboring state. Meanwhile, the demand for STEM professionals continues to grow.

Our University has been working to increase educational access by partnering with peer institutions on projects such as “Powered by Publics,” a national initiative to close the achievement gap and produce more degrees by 2025.

To better connect our graduates with jobs, we continue to introduce degree and certificate programs in high-growth areas, such as graduate certificates in business data analysis and data technology management.

And by donating his time and resources, alumnus John Chambers has given us an incredible opportunity to effect change as a start-up University.

As we build an innovative ecosystem, we are advancing digitization and an entrepreneurial mindset through a business accelerator and other programs at our John Chambers College of Business and Economics.

The College’s educational programs are opening the world to students such as Demitrus Jones, a junior majoring in entrepreneurship and innovation.

Demitrus is studying in Hong Kong this semester as a Gilman Scholar. He is learning about global markets with an eye to strengthening the clothing brand he has developed as an undergraduate.

This is the first international travel experience for Demitrus, a first-generation student whose hometown — appropriately enough, considering our subject today — is Mount Hope.

West Virginia University researchers are also engineering prosperity, especially through technological innovation that stimulates economic growth and strengthens infrastructure.

In Physics and Astronomy, James Lewis and Aldo Romero are developing machine-learning software for the U.S. Department of Energy.

Applications will include fossil energy production, electrical energy storage, and solar cells, ultimately advancing technologies throughout the U.S. economy.

In Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, Vinod Kulathumani helped to develop an ultra large-scale sensor network for detecting storm water overflow in real-time.

In addition to military applications, this technology has potential for monitoring civilian infrastructure in rural regions such as West Virginia.

His work with researchers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory earned an R&D 100 Award. Known as the “Oscars of Innovation,” these awards honor the top 100 proven technological advances of the past year.

And while scientific and technological advancement is vital to our state’s economy, it is insufficient as a balm to our state’s spirit.

Seeing our sense of purpose flourish in works of art and culture can feed a person’s soul. Through art, we express ideas and values.

We discover the past, make sense of the present and form our dreams for the future. We see critically through unfamiliar eyes and enlarge our capacity for empathy.

That is why forging creativity is another critical step toward producing hope.

As a music lover, I especially value the new statewide musical talent competition the College of Creative Arts is launching to promote the arts in our communities.

Talent West Virginia, sponsored by WVU Medicine and WVU Health Systems, is open to West Virginia residents and college students attending a West Virginia institution.

Not only will competitors have the chance to earn recognition, but students in our music industry program will gain the skills needed to produce a major talent competition.

Meanwhile, through research in the humanities, we encounter difficult questions and begin to formulate answers.

History professors Katherine Aaslestad and Tamba M’bayo, who both won the top fellowship from the National Institute of the Humanities, are exploring how societies recover from disasters — respectively, the Napoleonic Wars in Germany and devastating epidemics in Sierra Leone.

Indeed, nothing makes people think more deeply than art and the humanities. And the University’s role is to make people think — not make them comfortable and complacent.

Most people know that Dwight D. Eisenhower led allied forces in Europe during World War II and later became president of the United States.

But you may not know that in between he held a truly difficult job — that of a university president.

When he led Columbia, the Red Scare was threatening academic freedom on many campuses. After helping to liberate Europe from tyranny, Eisenhower valued the free exchange of ideas above all.

He said: “Columbia University will forever be bound by its loyalty to truth and the basic concepts of democratic freedom. No intellectual iron curtain shall screen students from disturbing facts.”

In our own time, as campuses again become sites for battles about speech, we must preserve our freedom to discuss and disagree. Doing so preserves our capacity to inspire and instruct.

By letting all voices ring out on our campus, we demonstrate faith in reasoned discussion — an activity sorely lacking in many parts of our national life.

We witnessed this as we battled the issue of Campus Carry during the recent legislative session. Passionate positions were held by those who opposed and supported the legislation.

And while there were moments of discontent and disrespect, we were able to remind each other of our core values and allow everyone the opportunity to share his or her opinion.

Standing as a beacon for civil discourse is a fitting extension of our history — because nothing is quite as uniquely American as land-grant universities.

Forged amid tremendous domestic conflict they produced citizens who went on to heal our disrupted and divided nation and set it on a path to greatness.

We can play the same role now by understanding the needs of those we serve. And the greatest of those needs is a belief in a better future.

Many of my fellow University presidents avoid talking about our institutions’ role in creating hope. It is too “touchy-feely.” And that attitude, I submit, is one reason universities have lost so much public support.

Combine that with the latest stories of admission scandals, misuse of state funds and numerous student safety incidents, it is no wonder there is a disconnect between our institutions and the people’s needs.

Our inability to connect with today’s society has weakened our voice about the public good that higher education provides.

If we do not take charge of the narrative of the value of a public education at a land-grant university, we will continue to receive the coverage that leads to mistrust and pessimism.

Economist and higher education expert Richard Vedder believes land-grant universities could win back the people’s favor by acting as the “people’s universities” again.

Let me say that again: Land-grant universities could win back the people’s favor by acting as the “people’s universities” again.

In this time of division and distrust, I want West Virginia University to lead a vibrant national conversation about the value of public higher education.

And the first question we need to honestly ask ourselves is this: Are we providing value? Are there issues within higher education that fundamentally need to change if we are to gain the people’s trust?

The answer to that question is yes.

It is beyond time to reinvent the land-grant university. We have a long and storied 150-plus year history. And while we should cherish and preserve our past, we do not need to preserve the thinking that is no longer productive today.

The past few weeks have reinforced for me the need to truly transform higher education. I am speaking true reform.

We must align academics with purpose. We must become even more student-centric.

We must be intentional in creating an inclusive and diverse community – one where everyone feels welcome and accepted.

We must combat loneliness by creating a continual student experience.

We must focus on our purpose so that we can stand strong to make the hard, difficult changes that will change the face of higher education and the future of West Virginia University.

I believe we are the “people’s university.” But we make it challenging with bureaucratic red tape, negative attitudes and a lack of urgency.

If we are to win back the people, we must pivot. Change will not come easy.

It comes with disagreement, discourse and disappointment. But it also comes with innovation, enthusiasm and reward.

So, in conclusion, West Virginia University has the ability – and the credibility – to lead this conversation.

And I ask that each of you consider how you will influence our trajectory.

In a state that no longer manufactures products the way it used to, West Virginia University’s faculty, staff and students have no choice but to manufacture transformation.

We must pioneer progress. We must stand together with a strong sense of self and a steady hand.

We must prevail with purpose.

And in doing so, West Virginia University will be the “people’s university” producing hope for the 1.8 million West Virginians who deserve all we can deliver – and more.

And now, I’d be happy to answer any questions.