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State of the University Address

Prepared Remarks
By E. Gordon Gee, President of West Virginia University 
October 10, 2016

As you have just seen, West Virginia University has been a whirlwind of accomplishments, new initiatives and critical partnerships. We have built bridges, closed gaps and stacked hands to move this institution in a new direction.

Because, despite all the gloom and doom of this strange political season, we should believe that our world’s best days lie ahead.

Despite the issues bedeviling our state, we should believe that West Virginia’s best days lie ahead.

And despite budgetary challenges, we should believe that our University’s best days lie ahead.

We should believe because we have applied laser-like focus to what really matters: our core land-grant mission to reinvent education, health care and prosperity for West Virginia.

Our priorities drive our progress.

Under prosperity, consider entrepreneurship, which is an increasingly important economic engine. In 2015, startup firms created 1.7 million jobs or 60 percent of total employment growth in the nation.

This year, we nurtured entrepreneurship and economic development through our new Women’s Business Center, funded by the U.S. Small Business Administration, and our Health Sciences Innovation Center, a home for biomedical startup companies.

Consider workforce readiness. The skills employers seek are changing. According to a 2014 survey, only 7 percent of hiring managers found that job seekers have the ideal skill set their industries require.

This year, we forged partnerships with Boeing, the U.S. Army Special Forces, and Pierpont Community and Technical College to build a workforce with in-demand skills.

We also launched new majors and certificate programs to prepare our students for growing career fields — from the music industry and entrepreneurship to data marketing communications and craft beer tourism.

Under Education, we made Project 168 the blueprint for our student experience — one that includes personal and professional development, community service and leadership opportunities.

And this fall, we see three powerful signs that our student success initiatives work: Enrollment, retention and academic quality are all rising.

We have reversed a decline in overall enrollment and made progress in building a more diverse campus. First-time applications from underrepresented students were up 70 percent this year, and the number of admitted underrepresented freshmen rose by 27 percent.

Across the West Virginia University system, our total enrollment has increased. For the first time ever in our history, we had the largest freshmen class, with more than 6,000 students.

Our divisional campuses played a critical role in this increase. Both WVU Tech and Potomac State College also welcomed larger freshman classes this year. And, in its inaugural year, WVU Beckley exceeded our expectations by enrolling nearly 200 students.

In Morgantown, international student enrollment increased to more than 2,200. And I fully anticipate that number to increase significantly with the arrival of our new Vice President for Global Strategies and International Affairs, William Brustein.

Under William’s direction, we will exponentially expand our global footprint, engaging with scholars and students from all nations.

In addition, we welcomed the largest incoming class with the highest high school GPA in history. Our Honors College numbers have surged to include about 18 percent of the freshman class.

And once they arrive on campus, our talented students are flourishing.

Last spring, Mountaineers earned an unprecedented 30 national scholarships, including Goldwater and Udall awards. In the past five years, the number of our students applying for major scholarships through the Aspire office has more than tripled.

Global academic competitions also brought out the best in our students.

For the second year in a row, our student team won the Level 2 competition for the Sample Robot Return Challenge, part of NASA’s Centennial Challenges. The team brought home a $750,000 prize, the largest NASA has awarded in the five-year history of the Challenge.

Our student Soils Team brought home two titles from the National Collegiate Soils Contest — the overall team championship and the individual championship for senior Katie Stutler.

And six Honors College students traveled to the Netherlands for The European International Model United Nations Conference, where junior Lauren Griffin was named distinguished delegate in the Humans Rights Council.

Our students succeed because our faculty members are awakening them to the fact that knowledge and hard work produce solutions.

For example, Xingbo Liu, in mechanical and aerospace engineering, is developing a fuel cell capable of converting natural gas into electricity or liquid fuel in a single step.

Parvis Famouri, in computer science and electrical engineering, and Nigel Clark, provost for WVU Tech, are creating an engine to produce electricity for the home of the future.

Both projects earned awards from the U.S. Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program, which funds only the best and most innovative ideas.

As a leader in water research, our University has created the Institute of Water Security and Science, which will establish a strong cross-disciplinary research network to shape the future of water resources and stewardship.

Our leadership on energy and water issues even stretches across the equator to South America. Our Energy Institute has teamed up with the Itaipu Dam in Paraguay and Brazil — one of the top hydroelectric power producers in the world. Faculty and students from at least four of our colleges and schools will collaborate on projects involving water resource management, water reclamation, solar power and more.

Clean air is as important as clean water, and West Virginia University is on the cutting edge in developing power systems that protect air quality. One year after their work brought to light the biggest scandal in automotive history, our researchers at CAFEE are launching a new Vehicle and Engine Testing Laboratory.  This marks a big advancement in capacity for basic research and real-world testing.

Meanwhile, our neuroscientists are exploring another wild frontier — human mind and memory.

We have consolidated all of our neurosciences research under a new West Virginia University Blanchette Rockefeller Neurosciences Institute with the goal of curing Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.

West Virginia’s aging population faces many health threats, and reinventing West Virginia’s future means attacking those threats head-on. So that is what our scientists are doing — in the laboratories and in our communities.

More than 1 in 10 West Virginia adults has diabetes. Joseph McFadden, professor of biochemistry in the Davis College, is studying insulin resistance using a non-traditional model — a cow.

This work could not only help dairy farmers raise healthier cows but also improve doctors’ understanding of type 2 diabetes in humans.

Autism affects 1 in 68 West Virginia children. Susannah G. Poe, associate professor of pediatrics, developed and leads our intensive Autism Services Delivery Clinic, which has gained national attention for its success in training the next generation of autism professionals.

Opioid addiction killed more than 700 West Virginians last year alone. Rolly Sullivan leads our Comprehensive Opioid Addiction

Treatment Clinic, which is expanding to battle this national epidemic. Dr. Sullivan is visiting doctors across the state and using teleconferencing to give physicians the training and support they need to treat drug addicts.

To address these issues and more, we are collaborating with partners across the state such as Marshall University and the Charleston Area Medical Center. We also are working hand-in-hand with coalitions such as Try This West Virginia, Sustainable Williamson, Healthy Harrison and the Coalfield Development Project. These alliances are vital to the health of our communities and our citizens.

And just last week, a national study of major academic medical centers and community hospitals ranked WVU Medicine-West Virginia University Hospitals as the sixth top academic medical center out of more than 200. We stand in the company of Mayo Clinic Hospital-Rochester, University of Michigan Hospital and NYU Langone Medical Center. And we accomplished this amidst record patient volumes and supporting our state through flooding and blizzard natural disasters.

Our faculty scholars are also responding to human suffering on the global stage. More than 10 million Syrians have fled their homes in the wake of the deadly civil war raging in that country. Karen Culcasi, associate professor of geography, has been documenting the daily challenges and inspiring resilience of Syrian refugee women in Jordan. Her findings have demonstrated to others how displacement affects gendered performances, while also humanizing both the women and Syrian refugees more broadly.  

And in the Center for Big Ideas, in collaboration with the Rockefeller School of Policy and Politics, we continue to engage with communities and partners to listen, develop ideas and put those ideas into practice. For example, we recently met with

Senator Shelley Capito to discuss the lack of broadband availability in the state of West Virginia. The absence of technology affects the education of our children, the ability to deliver healthcare and the ability to drive economic development. 

We must — and we will — continue to work fervently to create solutions that benefit all.

In every discipline across our campuses — from the Humanities crafting the written word to lift the soul to the Sciences discovering the latest breakthrough — faculty, students and staff are fueling change.

And people believe in our power. 

That is why the West Virginia University Foundation’s State of Minds campaign has been so successful, surpassing its $1 billion goal more than a year before it ends. And our $50 million “Dream First” scholarship initiative also exceeded its goal at nearly $51 million.

The dollars donated by our alumni and friends resulted in nearly 700 scholarships being created for our students. Fifty-two faculty chairs and professorships were launched. More than 210 research funds were generated to help in discovering the world’s next big solution. And these commitments will continue to benefit the University for years to come.

This campaign has propelled our University into an elite group:

Just 36 public, four-year universities have raised $1 billion or more in a private fundraising campaign. And we are not done.

We are going to keep raising funds until the campaign officially ends in December 2017 — and continue that pace after the campaign ends.

But the question I pose to you today is this: For what purpose?

For what purpose do we conduct research?

For what purpose do we teach?

For what purpose do we raise 1 billion-plus dollars?

If it is to stand among the few who can tout such acclaim, we did it for the wrong reasons.

If we are teaching because it is what our contracts say we must do, we are here for the wrong reasons.

If we are conducting research without thinking of how it can improve and impact people’s lives, we are here for the wrong reasons.

My friends, I have spoken many times about changing the arc of higher education. I have spoken about initiating new opportunities so that both the institution and the state can rise together. But it is time to stop talking and start doing. And we are.

Our 12 Transformation Teams have been working hard to think about how the University can increase efficiencies and improve effectiveness.

For example, we have eliminated the need to encumber requisitions in excess of $25,000 in the state accounting system. We have consolidated five separate business offices into one serving five units. And to assist in the hiring process, we have reduced a 14-page PIQ form down to two and implemented a new, electronic hiring process called WVU Hire.

But it is now time to accelerate.

As someone who has been in this business for many years, I can assure you that higher education is going through a transformation. Some institutions will survive; some will not. And we have a choice: We can be at the forefront leading the charge. We can be the architects of our own success. Or we can be left behind.

The latter is not an option for me. And it should not be an option for you, either.

Change is not just a word — it is an action. It is indeed the heartbeat of this institution. I realize that change can be challenging. But let me make this point clear: the change we seek is necessary.

It is necessary to ensure that we are making the right investments in education, in research and in our talent.  And real change comes from YOU — not from me. You have to understand that change is essential. It is vital. And it is coming. 

Like a world-class athlete, we cannot rest on our laurels. Nineteen-year-old rifle team member Ginny Thrasher, who won the very first gold medal at the Olympics, said later: “My goal has always been to be the best I can be. ... And that doesn't change no matter how many medals or what color the medals or where you get the medals.”

Being the best demands unwavering focus. It demands courage. It demands seizing the moment. At West Virginia University, this is our moment.

And make no mistake: It is a formidable one.

Decades of declining state support have culminated in recent years with $30 million dollars in reductions to our base budget. An enrollment loss last year took its toll. Operating costs have increased. Continued increases in tuition would reduce our competitiveness and erode our accessibility to West Virginia families.

And our students’ exceptional academic credentials means that more students are receiving tuition assistance through scholarships.

In hard figures, our budget situation is this: By 2020, we must reduce spending by $45 million, annually.

However, this is not a time to retreat from our land-grant commitment or to curtail our momentum. It is our moment to reimagine what West Virginia University can do and become. In fact, even if we had all the money we needed, I would insist we still be reallocating our resources. This is not a problem — it is an opportunity.

I have been through this exercise of budget reallocation a number of times. I have tried the strategy of “Woe is me.” Let me tell you: It does not work. What does work is accepting only one goal: to improve quality.

And we will improve quality by remaining positive, making the tough decisions and becoming indispensable. 

So, how do we become indispensable as an institution? We do so by focusing on our three pillars of Education, Healthcare and Prosperity.

In the coming days and months, we will continue working to increase student enrollment and retention across the state.

We are the first in the country to have a Dean of Completion — Joe Sieaman — and we are working hard to deliver student success including adding tutoring centers on all campuses, streamlining advising and assisting students earlier when they begin to struggle academically.

Furthermore, I do not want to see a single bright young West Virginian leave our state to attend college.  And as One WVU, we must leverage all of our statewide resources — from Morgantown, Keyser, Martinsburg, Charleston and Beckley — to recruit and retain the best and brightest.

I recently challenged the men and women of WVU Extension — our standard-bearers throughout the state — to help us in recruitment. And today, I extend the same challenge to each of you: Help young West Virginians fulfill their highest promise at West Virginia University. 

For those who choose our University, they will find rich learning and meaningful learning opportunities. Whether it be on campus, online or through our ACCESS WVU Early College Program, our University provides vast opportunities for academic and personal growth.

They will also have the chance to grow professionally. At the Alumni Association, students can now join the Gold and Blue Crew, a student alumni association that provides a professional development series featuring alumni and private networking events with alumni.

This interaction not only connects our students with an invaluable resource, but also establishes a rapport with the University that will last a lifetime.

And when our students arrive on one of our campuses, they will find an institution that is inclusive and supportive. It was a joy to be at the grand opening of our LGBTQ Center last month. As the doors opened, it signaled to all that West Virginia University is a diverse institution that supports and appreciates individuality.

And we will always have an environment where we can debate civilly, protest peacefully and learn from others whose opinions and choices differ from our own.

To keep our best faculty and staff, we must invest in competitive compensation and change our cycle of recognition. We have talked for many years about the need to recruit the best talent – and be willing to compensate accordingly. We also need to ensure we are re-recruiting the top talent we currently have — and we must re-recruit you every day.

We must change the way we do searches and remove the constraints that impede the process.  We have to fundamentally change our tenure and reward structures. There is much to do if we want to reshape higher education.  

Under our second pillar of healthcare, we will continue to build the best programs in the country. Under the leadership of Vinay Badhwar, the WVU Heart and Vascular Institute is gaining national recognition.

Last month, Dr. Badhwar became the first physician in the state to implant a new minimally invasive device for treatment of a leaking mitral valve, called mitral regurgitation. This procedure does not require incisions in the chest or use of the heart-lung machine, so recovery time is improved.

We are building strong programs not only here in Morgantown but also in communities across the state. Just last week, we added the ninth hospital — and the first in the Northern Panhandle – to join WVU Medicine.

We have also formed partnerships with Camden Clark Medical Center, Potomac Valley Hospital and Jefferson Medical Center, to name a few. 

And we are building strong programs for cancer care, women’s health, children’s health and critical care. We will continue to lead the way in helping treat those fighting addiction, as well as those battling obesity and diabetes.

We recently launched Good Measures, a program founded by West Virginia native George Bennett. This program combines a digital platform with human support to help make positive changes in eating and exercise behaviors. By bringing creative concepts such as these to our state, we can begin to address the health needs of our citizens and affect real change.

And in the coming days, we must pioneer our future by investing in strategic priorities — the programs, talent and infrastructure that will enable us to reinvent our state’s future and rebuild the prosperity that all 1.8 million West Virginians deserve.

Though we have reached the “Research 1” status that does not mean our work is done. In fact, it has only just begun to maintain that hard-earned designation. Faculty research productivity must be at an all-time high. We will continue to invest in the institutes and centers that address our nation’s most critical needs with the most innovative ideas. We will increase our doctoral productivity. And we will consistently develop the research that changes people’s lives for the better.

We will also work diligently to transform our state’s economy.

I realize that may sound daunting, but I assure you it is an area where we can be a good partner.

By leveraging our expertise, we can bring the necessary entities together to examine new avenues for economic development.

We will grow our partnerships with federal government agencies, as well as with NGOs and businesses. We will listen to our communities and then together create a plan that meets their needs.

Investing in our core mission also means jettisoning activities that fall outside that core. Recently, with the dedication of the Nath Sculpture Garden on the Evansdale Campus, an old joke came to mind.

A man asks a sculptor: “How do you make a statue of an elephant?”

And the artist replies: "Get the biggest granite block you can find and chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant."

We need to chip away at everything that does not look like the West Virginia University we envision. But let us also remember what I always say: We must move like a ballerina, not an elephant in a tutu.

Transforming an institution is the responsibility of the whole.

It is my responsibility — and it is your responsibility.

That means training ourselves to see the big picture. It means looking at everything with new eyes. It means harnessing the power of collective vision by seeking input from faculty, staff and students.

That is why I encourage you to frequently visit our Bureaucracy Busters website. Not only can you submit your own ideas and questions, but you can monitor what we are doing.

As a University, we have been making significant strides in becoming more nimble. We have implemented new programs and procedures. We have made difficult decisions. And we — the collective we — must continue to make those decisions if we are going to accelerate and transform the landscape of higher education — if we are going to thrive as a University, and not merely survive. 

We all must be active participants. I want every person at West Virginia University — no matter their roles — to feel empowered to make this institution worthy of our city, state and the world beyond.

Together we must lead West Virginia University into a new era of a land-grant university that brings renewed life to our original mission and set a standard for others to follow.  

Which brings me back to: For What Purpose?

This summer, among some of the worst circumstances imaginable, we learned anew how compassionate, courageous and united Mountaineers can be.

When floods ravaged southern West Virginia in June, everyone reached out to help, including our students, faculty, staff and alumni.

We raised funds, which alumnus Ken Kendrick augmented with a $500,000 challenge match. Through the organized efforts of the Student Government Association and the Center for Service and Learning, we immediately collected and delivered supplies to flood-stricken areas, and we helped with cleanup. Our Forestry Department helped clear fallen trees, freeing up access. WVU Medicine caregivers provided vaccines and other assistance.

Reed College of Media faculty and students helped rebuild hope through the intimacy of photography. Our football team donated uniforms. And the Pride of West Virginia performed at the State Fair in Lewisburg — because raising spirits is as important as raising money.

In the face of enormous adversity, we renewed our purpose.

And Pharmacy student Rebecca Berhanu did the same.

As she scrolled through her Twitter feed this summer, a frequently recurring hashtag caught her eye.

The hashtag was #WVStrong, and it led Rebecca to stories of lives devastated by flooding. Stories of Mountaineers uniting to help their neighbors. Stories of rebuilding, renewal and hope.

These stories inspired Rebecca so profoundly that she wrote a song called “West Virginia Strong.”

Mon Hills Records, our student-run record label in the School of Music, recorded the song. It is available on iTunes and from other digital music services. And Rebecca is donating every cent she receives in royalties to help the victims of southern West Virginia’s floods.

I am so pleased that Rebecca is with us today. We sent a note to get her out of class. And she has graciously agreed to share her song with us.

Please help me welcome Rebecca to the stage.

(Rebecca Berhanu sings "West Virginia Strong.")

Thank you, Rebecca. We are so very proud of you and your accomplishments.

I think we all can agree that Rebecca’s music is inspiring.

And just as we were inspired to come together to assist our fellow

West Virginians with flood relief, let us bring to bear that same resilient spirit to assist with opioid addiction, our state’s economic challenges and our students’ paths to success.

Whatever the opportunity may be, if we always return to our purpose — if we ask ourselves “Why am I here? What can I do to help? How can I be indispensable to the mission of this institution?” — I firmly believe we can transform West Virginia University — and this state we all call home.

I firmly believe we will be West Virginia strong.