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State of the University Address - October 2019

October 14, 2019

A video highlighting the University's progress over the last five years preceded remarks by President Gordon Gee and Provost Maryanne Reed.

Opening Remarks by President Gee

Abraham Lincoln once said: “The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time.”

Looking back at how far we have ascended over the past five years, it is easy to view our progress as inevitable and to forget the nearly 2,000 days we have all spent striving to arrive at this point.

And, if distance obscures details behind us, current conditions may make the view ahead even hazier.

Certainly, clouds are gathering on higher education’s horizons.

The number of students graduating from high school has been declining, and after a brief spike over the next few years, the drop will accelerate sharply.

As competition for students increases, experts say regional research universities and tuition-driven institutions will take the largest hits. That is because their traditional applicant base is among the least likely to travel far — and has become among the most skeptical about higher education’s value.

In a recent survey by Third Way, only 55 percent gave American’s higher education system a favorable rating. Only about half said that universities provide a “good” or “very good” return on students’ investment. And market research shows that return on investment is a high priority for members of today’s debt-averse Generation Z.

In this environment, America’s land-grant universities must evolve to offer what our citizens are seeking.

That brings us back to Abraham Lincoln, who signed our people-centered academic institutions into being more than 150 years ago.

We all remember the son of illiterate parents from the country’s vast frontier, Lincoln called education “the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in.”

In America’s darkest moments, in the turmoil of civil war, he expanded the promise of public education to higher education, extending opportunity beyond the wealthy and well connected.

After seven terms as president at five different institutions, I have observed American higher education from nearly every vantage point. And I am here to say: Mr. Lincoln’s universities have an unparalleled potential to advance the common good.

While many elite academic institutions are laser-focused on conducting cutting-edge research, turning away all but the most privileged, and reimagining themselves as global enterprises, land-grant universities can give America precisely what it needs right now.

Unfortunately, leaders at too many land-grant universities have allowed the quest for prestige to divert them from the power of purpose.

At West Virginia University, however, purpose has been our polar star, guiding us upward over the past five years and ever-closer to the pinnacle of excellence.

Over the next five years, we must approach the future as Lincoln advised us, one day at a time, one step at time, one hard decision at a time. I am sure he would agree that land-grants should be leading the way toward opportunity for all, not following in others’ well-worn paths.

A quote widely attributed to him, perhaps spuriously, nonetheless captures his unpretentious wisdom: “Whatever you are, be a good one.” Be fiercely land-grant, Lincoln would urge us.

Differentiation, not amalgamation, will be our trusty compass on the journey ahead. How else might Lincoln advise us to proceed, if he returned today — and after he digested the changes in technology, social mores and presidential behavior?

I forgot my stovepipe hat, but if you will allow me to cosplay as a somewhat less lofty Lincoln, I believe I can intuit some of his possible recommendations.

First: Build bridges, not walls. Lincoln well understood the structural flaws of divided houses. Surely, he would have no patience with the silos we build to encircle ourselves and the walls we erect between our universities and those they serve.

Twenty years ago, the Kellogg Commission urged land-grant universities to return to their roots, engaging in reciprocal relationships with communities to solve local problems and prepare students for real-world challenges. As the commission’s original chairman, I believe the insular nature of universities is still preventing many of them from fulfilling many of our people’s needs.

Lincoln would recognize the importance of sparking prosperity through partnerships, as we are doing with government, businesses and other educational institutions through West Virginia Forward.

Re-engaging with communities does not mean abandoning our efforts to do great research. But I am sure that Lincoln would urge us to focus on research that benefits our citizens. For example, West Virginia has among the nation’s highest heart disease rates, as well as an unusually high incidence of low-birth-weight babies. Studying 20,000 fifth-graders, Amna Umer in our School of Medicine Pediatrics Department found that children who had a low birth weight exhibited more cardiovascular risk factors in fifth grade. This insight will enable doctors to intervene both during pregnancy and throughout childhood to improve prospects for at-risk children.

Second, Lincoln would remind us that our unique strengths drive the quality of our work.

As he once said, "Every man is proud of what he does well; and no man is proud of what he does not do well. With the former, his heart is in his work; and he will do twice as much of it with less fatigue. The latter performs a little imperfectly, looks at it in disgust, turns from it, and imagines himself exceedingly tired.”

If education and engagement are priorities, he might wonder, why do our faculty recognition and reward systems privilege researchers instead of those who put their hearts into teaching and service? The minutia of promotion and tenure might bore Lincoln, but he would surely understand the need to transform our academic policies for the 21st century.

In fact, I suspect his third suggestion for us would be to overthrow complacency in all its forms.

Lincoln knew the dangers of clinging to outmoded patterns. As he told Congress early in the Civil War, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise—with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.”

In higher education, thinking anew means unshackling ourselves from two entrenched tyrannies. We must topple the tyranny of the department and the college by restructuring our institutions. Rather than organizing our teaching and learning functions for obsolescence, we must imagine the world in 20 years and then reverse engineer. And we must topple the tyranny of the gerontocracy by infusing our institutions with younger faculty members, staff members and administrators.

I may seem an unlikely advocate for a youthquake in higher education. But I know that younger people bring fresh perspectives to the table, and in the noble task of diversifying our institutions, we should seek wide generational diversity. While overcoming complacency, however, we must dodge the tyranny of the trendy, shunning fads with no long-term viability and a potential to do harm.

Fourth, Lincoln would likely encourage accountability to our citizens by advising us to reduce costs wherever possible.

Lincoln called bureaucracy “selfish,” so I suspect he might ask: Bureaucracy kills, so why do we not kill bureaucracies in universities?

Fifth, I think he would urge us to throw out U.S. News and World Report.

The greatest and most pernicious undermining of higher education in the recent past has occurred because of this and the other so-called ranking systems. We must reject the relentless pursuit of money and prestige, chasing rankings that we know are deeply flawed, at the expense of genuine educational excellence. The rankings race obsession in higher education is erecting barricades along that road to the American dream. Selective admissions policies and competition for top students has led many institutions to emphasize merit scholarships at the expense of need-based awards.

Many public universities have become places that serve the middle and upper classes but fail to provide opportunities for the very people land-grant universities originally targeted. Only six out of 50 flagship universities are affordable for most students, according to a recent Institute for Higher Education Policy report. This is important because income inequality is increasing, as top earners’ salaries skyrocket above everyone else’s stagnant wages.

Higher education is still a launching pad toward higher earnings, but its high cost is leaving many students with disastrous debt and creating an educational and a wellness divide that is as cavernous as our nation’s economic one. According to a study by The Hill: Those without a college degree are less likely to marry. They are far more likely to use tobacco. They are more likely to abuse drugs. They express less life satisfaction.

If Mr. Lincoln returned among us today, many shocks would await him — but among the most painful would be the re-imposed barriers between people from humble circumstances and the privileges of education.

He would surely encourage us to open our doors to students approaching from alternative paths. And he would agree that, as land-grant universities initially emphasized agriculture in America’s rural past, today’s institutions should focus on market-driven programs giving students in-demand skills.

Artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, preventing and treating addiction and caring for an aging population are critical priorities with great potential for growth in West Virginia and beyond. In our state, you hear a lot about the need to create jobs, which is real, but the state also has many jobs that are wanting for people. We have not trained them in the right way.

First, of course, we must get people to enroll in and persist in secondary education. Our climbing retention rate shows that the living and learning experience at our University is engaging and nurturing students. We must continue to help our students thrive by improving our health and wellness programs.

Lincoln, who suffered from depression at times, would appreciate our attention to students’ well-being. According to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, higher education counselors today are treating more students than ever before for mental health challenges, primarily anxiety, stress and depression. According to a major survey by Cigna, Generation Z — the current college-going population — reports higher levels of loneliness than any other age group. In fact, our student reporters featured this very topic on the front page of the DA today.

As important as our student experience is, we must also start educating people for success long before they ever appear on a college campus.

Teleported to the present, Lincoln might not understand coding. Famously knowledge-hungry in his youth, however, he would love the way WVU Extension has introduced more than 200,000 youth nationwide to basic computer science concepts through plugged and unplugged activities.

Increasing our commitment to youth development would meet with approval from our 16th president, who said: “A child is a person who is going to carry on what you have started…The fate of humanity is in his hands.” We must also realize that, in today’s economy, career preparation does not end with graduation. Through strengthened graduate education and such engines as Extension and the WVU Alumni Association, we must help people achieve a lifelong sense of purpose with continuing education and retraining opportunities.

Finally, I think Lincoln would quash the notion that change must start with “strategic planning.”

Strategic planning at universities functions less often as a compass and more often as a speed bump that impedes progress. Instead of strategic planning, we need strategic action. Instead of long-term objectives, we need immediate solutions.

By now, it should not surprise you that Lincoln himself left us a fitting clarion call. “It is not ‘can any of us imagine better?’ but, ‘can we all do better?’”

I know that at West Virginia University, we can. The rugged terrain we have traversed over the past five years proves it. With purpose as our compass, a new map will guide our steps and bring our destination into focus. To tell you more about the signposts ahead, please welcome Provost Maryanne Reed.

Remarks by Provost Maryanne Reed

Thank you, President Gee.  It’s an honor to be here, to share the podium with you and represent the university’s academic enterprise. I’ve been in my role less than four months, but I’ve been a member of the faculty and WVU community for more than 26 years. I strongly believe in President Gee’s mission and vision that WVU is and should continue to be a place of purpose.  My history here is living proof that WVU is also a place of opportunity and possibility.

Beyond helping implement the President’s vision, the task of my office

is to strengthen and support our collective efforts to provide each student with a high-quality academic experience and to produce research and knowledge that advances the state, the region and the world.

As you know, the University faces a number of challenges.  Like many other land-grant universities, our state funding has declined over the past several years and isn’t likely to improve any time soon.  We’re also facing an enrollment challenge because of declines in the high school population in the regions we typically recruit from.  And we face a perception challenge, since some people are beginning to question the value of a college education in response to rising costs and growing student debt.

This would seem to be an untenable situation. But like President Gee, I, too, am an optimist. WVU has always been scrappy and resourceful, acting more like a lean start-up than a 152-year-old institution, steeped in tradition and shackled by bureaucracy. Where others see barriers and obstacles, we see opportunities.

To take full advantage of these opportunities, my team — in conjunction with the President and his leadership team — have established several strategic priorities for the coming year. And to make things simple, I’ve listed each priority under the new four “R’s.”  They are: Relevance, Reputation, Revenues — and Relationships.

Relevance

We have an obligation to provide our students with a rigorous and relevant education that prepares them for the careers and opportunities of today — and tomorrow.

To that end, we are working closely with faculty senate to update our general studies curriculum, to provide students with a strong academic foundation and the professional skills and entrepreneurial mindset they’ll need to be successful in a world being transformed by technology.

My office is also developing a program to seed and support new and growing academic programs that are highly relevant, market-driven and designed to bring new students to the university.  The initial focus will likely be on programs that prepare students for careers in emerging fields, such as cybersecurity, addictions counseling and forensic journalism. To capture the market early, we’ll need to move quickly to identify these new programs and shorten the time it takes them from concept through approval. I applaud Faculty Senate for already making significant moves in that direction.

Since Generation Z students are true digital natives, we’re also taking a serious look at our online programming efforts, to ensure we have the capacity and support structures necessary to grow enrollment in online programs and courses.  We believe that the demand for online academic programming is only going to increase, and as a university, we need to be prepared to respond to that demand, or risk becoming irrelevant.

Reputation

We also need to enhance our academic reputation — so we can continue to attract bright and talented students — and faculty — maintain our R1 status, and further develop our research enterprise to drive progress and opportunity in the region and world.

This year, my office is leading a major review of our graduate programs, with the goal of increasing the number of students enrolled in Ph.D. programs, while developing master’s degree programs that provide students with in-demand professional skills and expertise.  As part of our review, we’ll look at how we can better support our doctoral students, which may necessitate raising graduate stipends and enhancing graduate student support services.

We’re also working with our research office to identify and invest in research and creative activity that address real-world challenges that have particular implications for communities in our region.  Such areas could include: artificial intelligence and its impact on manufacturing, mining, and jobs; opioid addiction prevention; energy and sustainability; food access; clean water research; and solutions for healthy aging.

Revenues

Maintaining a strong financial bottom line is critical to the future success of our University. One significant way we can enhance our financial picture is to increase student retention.  Helping students advance through their degree progression in a timely manner is the right thing to do; it’s also the smart thing to do.  The math is simple.  If we retain more students, we retain their tuition revenue, allowing us to reinvest those dollars into academic programming. 

This past year, we had a retention increase of more than three percent.  That translates to about three million dollars this year, or 12 million dollars over four years.  As President Gee likes to say, if we can increase our retention 10 percentage points from nearly 80 percent to 90 percent, our financial future would vastly improve.

Retention isn’t just an academic issue.  For example, we recently commissioned a survey of graduating seniors who shared their reasons for staying at WVU.  The data showed a number of things, including that struggles with mental health are prevalent among a wide swath of our students. It also showed that many of our students are juggling two to three jobs and need greater flexibility in course scheduling.

My office will be rolling out a series of strategic actions this year designed to increase student retention and persistence. But we’ll also work with units across campus, such as Student Life, Financial Aid, the Carruth Center and WVU Medicine, to strengthen support structures that enable all students to be successful, including first year-freshmen, transfer and non-traditional students. 

Ultimately to improve retention, we will continue to need your help. As teachers, advisors and mentors, you play a huge role in our student’s learning and their success.  As just one example, we believe your commitment to mid-term grade reporting last year contributed significantly to our retention growth this year.

Relationships

My 4th “R” may be the most important one of all.  It’s about the people, who are at the core of everything we do, and the relationships we create that are fundamental to a healthy, happy and productive work environment.

Last year, I co-led a strategic transformation process, commissioned by our then Provost, Joyce McConnell.  That effort engaged people across campuses to envision a new and improved WVU.  I was inspired and uplifted by the process, which highlighted our shared pride in the institution — as well as our collective vision for how to create a more integrated and inclusive university community.

One direct outcome from that process was the creation of the new position of Associate Provost of Faculty Development and Culture – currently being held by Dr. Melissa Latimer.  It’s a position designed to help faculty better navigate tenure and promotion, to support your efforts and aspirations, position you to be competitive for prestigious fellowships and awards, and help you transition to leadership roles, should that be your desired path.

Over the next several years, we’ll also be working with Faculty Senate to review our faculty evaluation and promotion policies and processes — to ensure that we’re recognizing and rewarding faculty who pursue a variety of pathways — in teaching, research, innovation, and engaged outreach that has impact and is vital to our land-grant mission. 

In the end, we will only be able to meet our challenges and capitalize on our opportunities if we work together, with a shared sense of mission and purpose, and through honest, open, and respectful dialogue.  I truly believe that every problem has a solution – and those solutions lie within all of us.  We are all responsible for shaping the culture and making WVU a warm and welcoming community, as well a place of purpose that is positioned for future growth and opportunity.

President Gee's Concluding Remarks

Thank you, Maryanne.

The view from our elevation in five years’ time will reveal a very different landscape than the one surrounding us now. All the struggles we experience along the way will be dwindling in our dust, as new heights loom before us. But those struggles will prepare us for all challenges yet to come, if we confront them head-on.

“You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.”

These words assure us Lincoln understood the inevitability of change. Rather than urging us to preserve outmoded traditions, he would surely urge a future-forward revision of our University, one that sets the 21st century example for the land-grant system that he helped to create. A can-do spirit has always helped this nation thrive; and that spirit shines forth from his gift to us: America’s crown jewels, our land-grant universities.

To continue fulfilling our mission as West Virginia’s university we must advance down a trail that leads our University closer to Mr. Lincoln’s ideal. We must dare to say no when time-wasting detours tempt us from our path.

Along the way, the only rankings we should consider are the ones that show West Virginia near the bottom on measures of education, health and prosperity. Helping our state rise in those rankings is our tireless quest on behalf of 1.8 million West Virginians.

Over the next five years, we must brave new frontiers in knowledge. We must navigate toward the shifting horizons that new generations are seeking. And we must ensure that each day drawing those we serve closer to the future also draws them closer to health, prosperity and hope.

Watch Full Speech