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State of the University Address - October 2020

October 12, 2020

When I reflect on these past seven months, I am both humbled and heartened. I am humbled because our University has maneuvered through these tumultuous times with courage, grace and tenacity. We are still learning how to live amid this pandemic.

But our learning curve is less steep, and each of you should be very proud of the role you have played in leading our institution.

I am heartened because when I see the incredible work we are doing at our University, I know that we will emerge stronger than ever before.

I believe that when our world emerges from its current state of crisis, colleges and universities will fall into three groups:

  • Those that have collapsed or have been restructured due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its related financial shocks.
  • Those that try to revert to their old normal, even in a landscape that is permanently altered.
  • And those that will thrive by setting sail for uncharted blue ocean, where unserved needs can be met and untried innovations, nurtured.

It should not surprise you that I envision West Virginia University in the third group.

For years, our faculty, staff and students have been honing a culture of change. They have cemented our reputation as a place of purpose. Indeed, it is that culture of purpose, responsibility and curiosity that has allowed us to move through this pandemic unwavering and sure.

This unique moment in our history offers an uncanny match between the world’s needs and our strengths. West Virginia University will lead the way to healing during this crisis.

A virus attacks our bodies by hijacking healthy cells and replicating throughout our bodies. In recent months, the COVID-19 pandemic has similarly invaded our lives, as financial, social and emotional challenges have intensified the shock to our system.

First, mental health challenges have increased, and their toll – particularly on our young people – will be among the most serious aftermaths of the pandemic.

This summer, after months of pandemic-driven lockdown, an American Psychological Association survey found that two-thirds of Americans say COVID-19 is a significant source of stress in their lives.

And more Americans report feeling frustrated, angry and scared than they did when the pandemic started. The problems are especially acute for young people. The Pew Research Center found more than twice as many young adults reporting high levels of psychological distress, such as anxiety, sleeplessness, depression and loneliness, compared to those 65 and older.

Protests nationwide gave another shock to our system this year, as they shone a spotlight on racial inequities and reaffirmed the need for true social justice throughout American society.

The pandemic also touched off financial aftershocks that have yet to be fully calculated and understood.

And finally, society is infected by a toxic political and cultural environment unlike anything I have ever seen before.

How do we successfully confront these challenges that are buffeting us from so many directions?

By celebrating what we do well, by learning from our mistakes and by daring to envision a bold new future.

We should embrace the steady leadership our University has shown throughout this crisis and our willingness to change course when conditions warranted it.

I am pleased with the robust program of testing, cleaning, distancing and much more that has enabled us to provide an on-campus learning experience for freshman and graduate students this fall.

After our initial testing phase, we implemented a strong surveillance testing program, reaching about 1,500 people per week in Morgantown. Surveillance testing in Beckley and Keyser is also continuing throughout the semester.

We are offering rapid testing for anyone who exhibits symptoms and frequent, ongoing testing for groups that may be at higher risk. We are also partnering with the Monongalia County Health Department and the West Virginia National Guard to provide free testing every Wednesday for faculty, staff, students and community members who want to test for any reason.

Continuous monitoring has helped us react quickly to problems, such as a disturbing upward trend in positive tests, due in part, to large, off-campus indoor gatherings that violated University guidelines.

Responding to that trend, we quickly paused on-campus instruction for undergraduates. Numbers improved, allowing us to resume on-campus learning. And the numbers continue to improve leading to fewer active cases and fewer isolations.

I commend each of you for taking the health and safety precautions seriously. These measures, in addition to robust testing, have allowed us to continue with the fall semester.

I also want to credit the strong partnerships we have with our city and state officials. Morgantown is a college town – and with that comes a responsibility to our local community. We will continue to collaborate to ensure our local citizens, school children and business community are able to move forward in a safe manner. We value the relationship we have with our local community and will do all we can to continue to be a good neighbor.

I recognize it has not always been easy – but I appreciate the diligence you have shown to make the semester successful and our community safe.

Throughout this crisis, we have retained our laser-like focus on the pillars of our land-grant mission — education, healthcare and prosperity in West Virginia. Just last week, we announced one of our largest gifts ever — one that will shape our state’s future.

A $25 million gift from Intuit executive Brad Smith and his wife, Alys, will fund innovative new programs to ignite West Virginia’s economy, develop world-class recreational infrastructure and expand outdoor educational opportunities.

Through the newly named Brad and Alys Smith Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative, the donation will provide initial funding for a remote worker program.

This groundbreaking initiative, in partnership with the State, aims to leverage West Virginia’s outdoor assets to bring fresh talent to the Mountain State, cultivate dynamic, purpose-driven communities, and fuel the entrepreneurial thinking of West Virginia.

This gift is just one example of our shared purpose that is producing shared successes and shared joys.

Another incredible example is the record $195 million dollars in external funding that our researchers secured this past fiscal year. When you consider what our faculty members have been going through this year, this achievement shows just how strongly they are committed to solving problems facing our state and nation.

Take, for instance, Dr. Sally Hodder who recognized data as a critical key to battling COVID-19 before West Virginia even reported its first case. Months later, her vision has taken to the national stage, as her team earned a $1.5 million NIH grant to head a multi-state centralized data resource to identify the best treatment options for COVID-19 patients.

This is in addition to the NIH CTR award of $4 million to build the infrastructure supporting our Clinical Trial and Translational Science Institute.

Meanwhile, Larissa Casaburi, a School of Medicine researcher, is using artificial intelligence to build a machine learning model that predicts COVID patients’ outcomes based on multiple variables.

Daniel Totzkay, an assistant professor of communication studies, recognized that the spread of the coronavirus has led to extensive misinformation. With a RAPID grant from the National Science Foundation, he is investigating how rural populations in Appalachia are learning about and adapting to this emerging public health crisis.

Our researchers also have been developing new tests to identify who has COVID-19 and who had it in the past but recovered.

Ivan Martinez, an associate professor in the WVU Cancer Institute and School of Medicine, and Peter Stoilov, an associate professor of biochemistry, have pursued a new diagnostic test that can recognize the novel coronavirus in a nose-swab sample.

Heath Damron, an assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Cell Biology, has led our University’s effort to develop an antibody test for COVID-19. They are using their test for pre-clinical vaccine studies and other COVID research projects.

Beyond COVID, our long-time standing as a research leader in engineering and technology helped us create another transformative success: The Research and Certification Center for the Virgin Hyperloop. This project creates an opportunity for West Virginia University to lead a consortium of higher education institutions focusing on the future of transportation.

Now, I know to the cynics of the world Hyperloop seems nothing short of science fiction. But I assure you, it is not. It will take time, energy and money, and it will require continued imagination. But let me remind you that the same things were said about Steve Jobs, Apple and the smart phone. This will be a revolutionary advancement in transportation for our state and for our world. To have this forward-thinking Hyperloop project embedded in West Virginia will make an immense difference to both our economy and our psyche.

Our shared commitment to solving problems is helping us address the mental health crisis among college students.

In February, before the pandemic started, our University announced a major financial investment in our mental health programs to increase access to care; promote resiliency and higher-level coping skills; and increase student support within the University community.

To combat pandemic-enforced isolation, our Refresh Series offers a tremendous number of safe virtual or physically-distanced activities for students this semester. In a typical week, students can go geocaching at the Arboretum, create art with the Crafty Lumberjacks or take a virtual yoga class, among other options. The well-being of all Mountaineers is our highest priority, and we will continue to support our entire community.

Supporting our entire community also calls us to more deeply commit to ensuring a culture of diversity, equity and inclusion – one that will make each member of our university family and those who come here feel supported, rewarded and recognized.

For that reason, West Virginia University will be investing in resources to address critical issues related to racism and inequality on its campuses. We have a responsibility to ensure our campus community reflects the best of us. We must commit to creating a culture free of racism, bias and social injustice.

This summer, we announced the creation of “action-oriented” working groups in response to the ongoing racial injustice in the country and on our campuses.

The groups, comprised of students, faculty, staff, alumni and community members, focused on academics, campus environment, campus and community partnerships, development of Black leaders and university policing.

A hub at houses detailed information about the working groups and will provide important updates on initial recommendations and subsequent initiatives.

But I would like to share a few examples with you today.

The academic working group suggested creating a Diversity and Inclusion Toolkit to assist faculty in understanding issues of diversity and inclusivity, along with a guide of resources and best practices for faculty instruction related to diversity topics.

The campus environment working group recommended implementing a strategic recruitment plan for Black students and exploring partnerships with high schools to create a pathway to the University.

Our campus and community partnership working group has advised we adopt a “Principles of Community” statement to set expectations for members of the West Virginia University family and prominently include this statement in all advertisements and orientations.

The team that worked on ideas for developing Black student leaders has suggested using a “personal growth groups” model to develop mentoring opportunities for creating positive and lasting effects on our Black students.

And the university policing working group will be creating a WVU Public Safety Committee to provide transparency, vision, guidance to, and oversight of the delivery of public safety services to the University. It will also accelerate the level and frequency of training for WVU Police and Office of Emergency Management – given the multifaceted role it plays with students and others on campus.  

These are just a few of the many ideas that emerged from our groups this summer.

We are not done — and I am committed to ongoing action. And while work begins on these initiatives, we have already moved forward in other areas.

In July, WVU’s Board of Governors welcomed Dr. Patrice Harris as its newest member.

Harris is a three-time WVU graduate who just completed her term as the first African-American woman president of the American Medical Association.

The WVU Intercollegiate Department of Athletics has developed a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee, while other groups on campus formed a mentoring program for students of color.

The Carruth Center has created a new position to work with students of color and made available specific support and resources for Black students, while this year’s Festival of Ideas lecture series welcomes speakers to discuss issues including police reform, race relations in America and systemic racism.

And Diversity Week, which is under way, will include events and programming addressing racial injustice.

I acknowledge there is much work to be done, but let us move forward in hope that the actions we have taken — and those we will take – will bring us closer to becoming a more inclusive campus community.

While celebrating shared successes and working toward shared goals, we must also create shared space for ideas and conversations. In this election season, debates on campus are becoming louder and more intense. Being true to ourselves, we cannot ignore divisions, but we also cannot let the fashion of the moment prevail.

We must constantly return to first principles and to the recognition that universities are places of ideas – all ideas – and that we must be open to listening to and supporting those discussions.

Enforced conformity to any political catechism is antithetical to our university’s basic mission. This type of conformity damages teaching, learning and research – and it does so even for individuals who wholeheartedly agree with predominant views.

Letting any view go uncontested invites intellectual flabbiness. Silence invites mob rule and ideological uniformity in a space which should be a bastion of open and vigorous debate.

At this difficult time, as many of us cope with emotional, financial and medical stresses, it has never been more important to treat each other with civility. The best balm for our raw wounds is kindness. Amid seeming chaos, we must take time to value each other and to value the work we are doing.

One of the things I have come to realize starkly is, as Harry Truman famously said, the buck does stop here. But leadership comes not only from the top, but also from you. By showing your students, colleagues and team members that we believe in them – by communicating daily and showing an authentic concern about others’ well-being – you can truly help us move from fear to hope.

In this age of the coronavirus, we all must be curious about others’ motivations and actions. We need to understand the worldview of the people that we lead, because that worldview motivates and shapes their actions.

We must not only communicate but we must continually ask what people see as obstacles to success. How are the people of our university envisioning the future and their place in it? And how might this have shifted due to the present challenges as well as the opportunities?

Once we do this, we can use this moment to truly create a time of improvement instead of massive misgivings.

When the pandemic began in March, we made advances in technology and efficiency in 10 weeks that would have taken 10 years under normal circumstances. Going forward, we must evaluate what worked and what advances we should continue pursuing. We must review our mistakes and what we learned from them.

As I have said before, I do not believe there will be a return to normal, or even a new normal, but a new world. The pandemic will end. The financial issues will continue to morph. The social challenges will become even more relevant. Nothing will be the same.

But we must never stop reaching for the next normal.

We must embrace our shared calling and our fundamental mission to move our state and world forward. This is no doubt a challenging time, but it is also our time to demonstrate our resiliency. We need to refute those who count us out by showing that we can be counted on as a University and a State to support our community’s greatest needs.

Believing that our actions can change the arc of the university for the better, we can reimagine a better world for future generation. And knowing that our University can change the arc of the future for the better, we can harness our unique talents as never before.

Let us move forward together in kindness, in shared purpose, and in hope toward a better tomorrow.