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State of the University Address - October 2018

October 8, 2018

Another fall season is upon us bringing bursts of color and a buzz of excitement as our students have found their rhythm on our campuses. As I reflect on other transformations since we met last year, I find that our University is shifting at a rapid pace – even if it does not always appear that way. From modernizing West Virginia higher education to increasing academic and behavioral standards for our students, West Virginia University has been on a quest to align our values with our purpose – and, in turn, bringing our land-grant mission to the forefront.

By living our Mountaineer values of service, curiosity, respect, accountability and appreciation, we have attained new peaks of excellence.

We have worked to maintain a competitive salary structure for faculty and staff while enhancing our culture and adding benefits such as scholarships for dependents.

Through the WVU Foundation’s State of Minds Campaign, we raised $1.2 billion to support student scholarships, attract and retain top faculty scholars, advance research and more.

We have held campus conversations to engage as many people as possible on critical issues, such as our budget, innovative business practices and strategic planning.

We have pursued groundbreaking research that will have a positive impact on not only West Virginia, but our nation and the world.

We have addressed our state’s health needs by opening facilities such as the WVU Heart and Vascular Institute.

And we have welcomed the brightest freshmen class, tripling enrollment in our Honors College over the past three years.

We have made hard decisions and developed collaborative partnerships. And we have reaped great rewards in a short amount of time. Yet we continue to face barriers placed by those who prefer complacency to courage.

Surging forth can make us a target for criticism. However, cowering behind outdated solutions would make us unworthy of the public trust placed in us.

As Winston Churchill said, “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”

I am proud of the way West Virginia University is standing up for what matters to our students, to our faculty and staff, and to the citizens of this great state.

Today, we are standing up for service by combating West Virginia’s biggest problems, including economic stagnation and the opioid epidemic.

Consider, for example, our new minor in addiction studies, which the College of Education and Human Services launched this fall. The minor, open to undergraduates from all majors, presents a broad-based view of addiction theories, assessment and treatment.

Training will emphasize both prevention and clinical interventions for opioid and other substance use disorders and will focus on interprofessional approaches to social work.

It is well known that our state leads the nation in opioid overdose deaths. Less well known is that we have less than half the national average number of addiction counselors per capita. This minor will address the dire need for professionals to help individuals and families coping with substance use disorders.

In addition, the School of Social Work has earned federal funding to support 10 students committed to practicing in this field in West Virginia and the surrounding region. Led by Frankie Tack, clinical assistant professor and coordinator of our addiction studies minor, students will participate in interdisciplinary workshops focused on opioid and other substance use disorder prevention and treatment. This is real life – and our faculty and students are leading the way in changing the destructive realities into futures with hope.

Consistent with the West Virginia Forward findings, the University is helping to build the innovation ecosystem that is so critical to our state’s future. Currently, too few businesses are born here, and too many fail or leave.

While we are working to empower new investments, start-ups and commercialized technologies, we are also meeting the needs of stakeholders here and now. For the first time, we are creating a guide that will showcase West Virginia’s investment opportunities, large and small, in one place.

By 2019, a comprehensive toolkit will outline the entrepreneurship assistance available across the state. This will give entrepreneurs a one-stop shop for investment, grant, debt and equity sources. 

Efforts such as this will help state business leaders focus on the future.

As alumnus and Cisco Chairman Emeritus John Chambers says in his new book “Connecting the Dots”: “It’s not easy, but if you start by shifting your focus to the big picture and look for clues to what’s around the corner, you’ll have a head start on those who are focused on preserving the past.”

One exciting new project is a partnership between the Evansdale Innovation Center and the LaunchLab to host the first National Science Foundation Innovation Corps training program.

Guided by trainers from Cornell University and established entrepreneurs, the I-Corps training will help our scientists and engineers identify opportunities that can evolve from academic research, gain business skills, examine business models and test hypotheses about customers in the real world to ensure products have a strong market demand prior to commercialization.

Our University is also addressing what the West Virginia Forward blueprint calls “a burning platform opportunity” in our state — the cyber sector.

In change management terms, a burning platform represents not just an opportunity for change — but an imperative to act or risk negative consequences.

Recognizing opportunities to broaden the job market and garner a bigger IT workforce, our University is now offering a new online master’s degree in business cybersecurity, which the FBI has named the most wanted talent of the 21st century.

We are also preparing students for West Virginia’s burgeoning tourism industry. According to the World Trade Organization, adventure tourism is the fastest growing segment of the tourism industry.

Through our new bachelor’s program in adventure recreation management, students will master the administration of outdoor recreation businesses.

We are offering this degree at our WVU Beckley campus to take advantage of incomparable natural resources where students will gain hands-on skills for careers such as adventure programmers, outdoor retail store managers or therapeutic adventure counselors.

As an outgrowth of our close relationship with the Boy Scouts of America, we are also creating an organizational leadership major within our Bachelor of Science in Business Administration degree.

This will prepare graduates for careers as executives in youth development organizations such as Scouts, 4-H and other other non-profits.

Students will gain real-world experience from a hands-on curriculum and will have an opportunity to intern nationwide as well as globally. 

The program’s strong focus on youth leadership development sets it apart from most other academic leadership programs. Our program is uniquely equipped to develop executive business skills in accounting, marketing, logistics and other areas essential to leading large, diverse organizations.

By developing programs that meet the demands of the market, we are establishing pathways that can lead to a job in West Virginia, improving both the University’s outcomes, as well as our state’s economy.

And to maximize West Virginia’s economy, we must also improve the health and well-being of our citizens.

In a state where heart disease is the leading cause of death, little is more important than making state-of-the-art cardiac care available close to home.

That is why WVU Medicine recently announced plans to start West Virginia’s first heart transplant program at the WVU Heart and Vascular Institute.

Currently, 22 state residents are waiting for a heart transplant. Those patients generally must travel to Pittsburgh or Cleveland. Offering heart transplantation is a huge advance toward a healthier West Virginia.

In addition to service, West Virginia University encourages the curiosity that drives researchers to develop life-saving technology and spirit-expanding artistic creation.

For example, Alzheimer’s disease is a dreaded diagnosis and a major public health problem in a state with one of the nation’s oldest populations. That is why it is so important that our campus has been selected as the first site for an innovative clinical trial to treat it.

Dr. Ali Rezai, director of the WVU Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute, will lead the initiative in collaboration with INSIGHTEC, an Israel-based medical technology company, to begin the clinical trial using focused ultrasound to treat Alzheimer’s.

The Institute also is doing landmark research into wearable sensors that monitor brain function. Neurosensors are a rapidly evolving technology used in such everyday devices as fitness trackers.

In fact, the information from biometric sensors has many potential uses. Assistant Professor Josh Hagen, director of the Institute’s Human Performance Innovation Center, is working to correlate and model data from sensors to optimize performance among elite military personnel and athletes. During Dr. Hagen’s work with previous NCAA teams and Elite Military groups, biometric data was over 80 percent accurate in predicting on-field performance, and has significantly reduced heat injuries in the military.

And our researchers also are exploring the life-changing power of art.

Assistant Professor of Art Education Terese Giobbia is studying how using art in the classroom can bolster middle school students’ belief in themselves.

Through her project, students create ceramic totem poles and sand mandalas, intricately designed pieces of art. After they are made, they are destroyed to symbolize that nothing is permanent, a practice used by Tibetan and Buddhist Monks.

Throughout the process, students keep journals to explore their feelings. The goal is to gain insights that may lead to more positive outcomes for these young people.

Helping young people live their best lives is central to our University purpose. That is why West Virginia University is standing up to nurture respect for self and others among our students.

My first priority is always to our students. Reflecting on nearly forty years as a university president, it is easy to pinpoint the darkest days of my career: Each time a promising young life is cut short and a family devastated forever.

In recent years, fraternities across the nation have acquired an increasingly toxic reputation because some members engage in dangerous and illegal behaviors, including binge drinking and hazing rituals that have cost too many young men their lives.

In the spring semester, our West Virginia University administration received reports of drug and alcohol abuse, physical altercations, disorderly conduct, sexual misconduct and hazing.

We had two choices before us. One was shutting down Greek Life – an option we believe will only send things further underground.

The other was working together as partners – the University, students, alumni and national fraternity leaderships – to keep students safe while creating a community that aspired to be more than what was represented in the national narrative.

When we became aware that some of our fraternities were not adhering to our values, we formed a working group to redefine fraternity and sorority life on campus. The final recommendations included raising academic standards for members, providing increased oversight and continuous educational programming on critical issues, and continuing to defer the membership period when new students join until the spring semester of freshman year.

Most of our campus fraternities agree with the increased standards, which have been improving the fraternity and sorority atmosphere and image on our campus. In fact, our sororities have been fiercely supportive of our initiatives and have seen growth in their numbers.

And we were diligently working with local and national leaders to continue conversations on areas that still caused concerns.

That is why it was so disappointing when five fraternities chose to dissociate from West Virginia University to form their own independent interfraternity council – despite ongoing conversations with national leaders.

Therefore, the University took decisive action to withdraw recognition from those fraternities for at least 10 years.

This was not an easy decision. I had hoped to arrive at a positive resolution. And I am aware that the national organizations are writing letters to disparage our actions.

But let me be clear: Some of our students are being asked to make a difficult and impossible choice by their national headquarters: Choose your fraternity or choose your university. It is a choice no student should have to make.

However, the majority of our students want to do the right thing. It is unfortunate that some national leaders are creating scenarios that are pressuring our students to do otherwise. But make no mistake, I know we are doing the right thing by setting a higher standard.

I know this because I had the opportunity – indeed the privilege – of meeting with the parents of Nolan Burch last week. TJ and Kim Burch are on a mission to ensure that no other parent has to travel the road they are now on. Their 18-year-old son, Nolan, died because of hazing and inaction on our campus in 2014. 

I do not want us to ever forget Nolan and his story. In remembering him, we remember that irresponsible choices lead to irreversible consequences. That is why we are partnering with the Burch family this fall to launch a campaign that will provide awareness and educational resources to end hazing. My hope is that this effort will not only advance our own campus mission, but also be used on campuses nationwide.

We have worked hard to change our culture – as well as our national reputation. I am proud of our students and the measures they have taken to change perceptions. I am proud of our faculty and staff who have provided valuable feedback to change our culture. It is imperative we continue to work together so that positive advances can continue.

It is my belief that difficult decisions drive lasting solutions. That is why West Virginia University must press for accountability in our public higher education system. Transformation is necessary so that institutions can fulfill their own unique missions to West Virginians while making efficient, effective use of the limited state resources available.

Fortunately, state leaders are working to fix the broken system of higher education in West Virginia.

The Blue Ribbon Commission on Four-Year Higher Education that Governor Justice formed in July will create a higher education funding model and an efficient governance model that positions West Virginia to compete for the best employers.

As our state has exported coal, oil and natural gas, we have also been exporting our most precious resource: talent.

Transforming education will reverse this exodus.

In truth, our state does not have a job problem. It has a skills problem that leaves many high-paying jobs unfilled. While not everyone needs a four-year college degree, everyone needs some post-secondary training to succeed in today’s economy.

Our state does not have a surfeit of colleges and universities. It has a dearth of students. One reason is that our current system does not encourage institutions to differentiate themselves. For too long, we have all tried to resemble each other.

Contrary to any rumors you have heard, West Virginia University has no intention of taking over any institution, forcing the consolidation of any institution into our university or forcing other schools to use our university’s administrative services. None of those actions are in the best interest of West Virginia or our University, and I do not favor any of them.

I do, however, believe that under the status quo, West Virginia spends too much effort duplicating oversight that fails to move the ball forward for our students and our state.

The Legislature sets our appropriation, statutes govern our actions, and many accreditation and federal government standards guide our work. Each institution has a local board of governors, comprising members appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, and often include representatives of faculty, staff and students.

Local governance is the most responsive and effective governance, and West Virginia University believes that each institution is best governed by its own board.

As to higher education funding, the Charleston Gazette-Mail editorial page summed it up best recently: “If WVU needs to stop making the rest of the state feel like, ‘You’re next,’ the rest of the state needs to understand what it means to have a prestigious flagship university — one that is attractive to students from around the country and around the world.”

To that, I say Amen.

Indeed, West Virginia University should not be penalized for its success or its perceived ability to handle reductions easier than other schools. All schools are underfunded.

And while declining state support has adversely affected West Virginia University, it has devastated regional and community institutions.

But the current funding formula proposed by the Higher Education Policy Commission staff seeks to fix the effects of declining state support for regional and community institutions by reducing West Virginia University’s state allocation even further. Such a tax on West Virginia University will only hobble our state’s ability to succeed in the long run.

Recently, surpluses have made a welcome return to the state budget. Assuming these trends continue, I believe the Legislature and the governor could make no wiser investment than reinstating some of the reductions made to higher education.

Earlier this year, Marshall University President Jerry Gilbert, a co-chair of the Blue Ribbon Commission, recommended a plan to increase funding at Bluefield State, Concord, Fairmont, Shepherd, West Liberty and West Virginia State by approximately $12 million in total.

I support this plan because investing just a few million dollars in our regional schools would mean a tremendous amount to those institutions, their students and the communities they serve.

As we ask for our leaders to reinstate some prior reductions to higher education funding, we will work hard on the Blue Ribbon Commission, seeking to find efficiencies and redirect additional resources from the central level to the local level.

West Virginia’s future prosperity is directly tied to improving higher education in this state — and we will commit to working tirelessly to ensure that we do so.

Every day, in every aspect of our work, we are standing up for our West Virginia University values. And as we head into this year, we still have much work to do.

We have academic, research and financial objectives that we want to achieve. And change in higher education does not come easily. It is often fraught with missteps, miscommunication and misunderstandings. Therefore, we must refrain from accusations and instead, ask how we can best assist. 

We must think with an entrepreneurial mindset. Build collaborations versus silos. Create innovation versus stagnation. Charge ahead with courage versus standing by cautiously.

We must continue to discover real-life solutions in our research that enables our world’s citizens to lead improved lives. We need to create beautiful masterpieces of art, of music and of the written word – to inspire the soul to seek answers and understanding. And we must work purposefully to breathe vigor into the words of our land-grant mission.

This afternoon I have shared many accomplishments of which we should be proud. And in closing, I want to share one last thought on what we must overcome if we are to be truly successful in our quest.

We must overcome the fear of failure.

We are not programmed to fail. We tend to be achievers and want to be successful. We interpret failing as the exact opposite of success. But we need to take strategic risks if we are to move this University forward. And with every risk, there is the chance it will not work out the way we planned. In those moments, instead of falling into despair or placing blame, we need to look at the lessons the failure is trying to teach us. With each misstep, we find a new direction that may lead to the answer we are seeking. Without mistakes, we cannot learn, and we will not grow.

Coretta Scott King said, “My story is a freedom song of struggle. It is about finding one's purpose, learning to overcome fear and to stand up for causes bigger than one's self.”

We do indeed face struggles – and they are real. But we know our purpose as an institution. We know the important and critical causes that are indeed bigger than all of us. Now we must overcome our fear and pursue our vision with a commitment to each other and a courage that knows no bounds.

So, let us continue striving with determination toward our purpose — let us live our land-grant mission – and in doing so, we will change the trajectory of our beloved state and enhance the lives and well-being of all who love this place we call home.