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State of the University Address: Purposeful Transformation

October 18, 2021
Prepared remarks by E. Gordon Gee, President of West Virginia University

Since I addressed you one year ago, we have all lived through a challenging time as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to turn our University and our world upside-down.

I am proud of how our community has responded: We are at or above 80 percent vaccination rates for our faculty, staff and students, and our numbers of COVID cases have continued to be very modest this semester. All this proves that the vigorous efforts we have taken to combat the virus have been effective and is also a tribute to the efficacy of the vaccines themselves.

The challenges we have faced from the virus have also given us a unique opportunity for reinvention and reimagination.

Victor Hugo once wrote: “Emergencies have always been necessary to progress. It was darkness which produced the lamp. It was fog that produced the compass. It was hunger that drove us to exploration.”

From our current crisis, we have learned anew how vital higher education is for saving lives and generating opportunities.

We have also learned how fragile higher education is, in a divided country whose conflicts replicate on campus grounds, and in a challenging financial climate that sometimes pits our aspirations against our resources.

And we have learned just how precious health is—the physical and mental health of all people, as well as the health of our social fabric—and how much work it takes to maintain it.

We learned these lessons and persevered through this pandemic by leaning on our Mountaineer values and the three pillars that support us every day: Education, healthcare and prosperity.

We are supporting education in West Virginia by working to reverse an alarming trend—college-going rates are declining at a time when post-secondary education is more important than ever to financial and career stability.

In our College of Education and Human Services, the Mountaineer Mathematics Master Teachers program is supporting our state’s best secondary mathematics teachers and leveraging these teachers as leaders.

We are also enhancing our services for our first-generation students, who face unique challenges.

WVU FirstGen, an initiative housed in the Office of Student Success, earned membership in the First Scholars Network, which includes more than 45 higher education institutions nationwide.

First Scholars and WVU FirstGen will work together to improve the overall campus experience for these students, inside and outside of the classroom.

And because a four-year degree is not always needed to achieve one’s goals, we have also partnered with building trades organizations to create an apprenticeship pathways program. Students completing their apprenticeship training as carpenters also earn an associate’s degree from WVU Potomac State College. We hope to develop craft-specific degree majors for all registered apprenticeship programs affiliated with the West Virginia State Building and Construction Trades Council.

In healthcare, we opened new frontiers to combat our state’s biggest health threats. For example, the WVU Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute launched a first-in-the-U.S. clinical trial using deep brain stimulation for treatment-resistant opioid use disorder.

This is an important step forward in our ongoing battle against this devastating epidemic in West Virginia, which leads the nation in drug overdose deaths involving opioids.

I had the privilege of speaking with a young man who was among the first to receive this treatment. For 18 years, he had battled drug addiction. Each time he attempted to overcome the habit, he had slipped back into addiction, even worse than before.

Now, after receiving this new treatment, he has been drug-free for two years. To hear his story is to realize that we are not just conducting research; we are applying that research to people’s lives, and it is making an enormous difference.

This summer, RNI also became the first provider in the region, and among the first in the U.S., to use deep brain stimulation to improve the treatment of Parkinson’s disease and other movement disorders.

Our University is also leading the way in early cancer detection and treatment. The WVU Cancer Institute recently unveiled LUCAS, a fully mobile unit that will traverse West Virginia providing lung cancer screening in rural areas. It is the first of its kind in the nation.

Our healthcare leaders have also worked hard to help West Virginia handle the pandemic and roll out vaccines. I am thankful to Dr. Clay Marsh, vice president and executive dean for Health Sciences; Albert Wright, president and CEO of the WVU Health System; Jim Hoyer, vice president for Start-Up West Virginia, who leads the governor’s Joint Interagency Task Force on pandemic response; and every single healthcare provider who has worked to save lives and protect public health throughout this crisis.

Advancing prosperity in West Virginia means helping the state diversify its economy.

Our University has identified artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, preventing and treating addiction and caring for an aging population among areas with great growth potential in West Virginia and beyond.

West Virginia’s natural beauty also can help us to attract the growing number of young professionals who are working remotely. Amid the pandemic, many are seizing the opportunity to work remotely from their jobs in big cities while living in areas that are less costly and crowded. The cost of living in West Virginia is 16 percent below the national average.

About 4 million Americans are working remotely, and many states are competing to become their home base.

Brad Smith, the executive chairman of Intuit’s board of directors, believes in West Virginia’s appeal so strongly that he and his wife, Alys, donated $25 million to create the Brad and Alys Smith Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative. This resulting remote worker program, Ascend West Virginia, leverages our outdoor assets to bring fresh talent to the Mountain State.

We chose three initial sites for the Remote Worker Program: Morgantown, Shepherdstown and Lewisburg. When the first application window opened for Morgantown, we received more than 7,500 applications for the 50 available spots. Strong interest in the program has caused us to expand from three to five cities.

Recently I met a couple who are among the Morgantown cohort. The husband is a data scientist and West Virginia native, and the wife is a data engineer. They both will be continuing to work for their Silicon Valley firms while enjoying life in West Virginia.

This real-life example reflects how, as a society, we have begun to examine our lives, our contributions and our desire for work-life balance.

At West Virginia University, we are in the midst of our own reflection. Education, healthcare and prosperity have been our three pillars, but the pandemic has revealed another pillar that provides additional strength for all our pursuits.

That fourth pillar is Purpose. You have heard me speak many times about the power of purpose and how it can transform your life. Today, a few of our colleagues share their stories with us.

(Video on Purpose plays.)

What do you want to leave behind? Frankie Tack sums it up beautifully. What do we want to leave behind?

As president, I want to leave behind a University that encourages people to pursue their passions and their purpose. I also want to leave behind a University that provides the opportunities to use that purpose to do good in this world. 

Therefore, we must pursue education, healthcare and prosperity with a renewed and focused determination to transform West Virginia University into a purpose-driven leader in higher education.

Let me say that again: West Virginia University must become a purpose-driven leader in higher education.

At a time when resources are so limited, needs are so great, expectations are so high, and threats are so significant, universities cannot afford complacency.

That is why academic transformation, led by Provost Maryanne Reed, recognizes that there is a fundamental change occurring in higher education, and that we need to lead with purpose rather than follow.

The mantra for our academic transformation is “improve quality while reducing costs.”

Through a data-driven process, all undergraduate and some graduate degree programs were reviewed to determine their relative “health” and prospects for future growth. College and department leaders provided additional information to inform the decision of whether to maintain, reconfigure, eliminate or grow programs in our current academic portfolio. We will be working with the colleges to implement specific actions following the Board of Governors’ approval this month.

Later this week, the Provost’s Office is hosting an Academic Innovation Summit, in partnership with Health Sciences and the Research Office. The event will bring together a carefully curated group of top faculty, researchers, academic leaders and community members to generate ideas for new academic programming, research and outreach to the state and region. The theme for the summit is “Building Resilient Communities,” and the hackathon-style challenges will be focused on five topics: Economy, Education, Energy and Sustainability, Addiction and Recovery, and Healthy Aging. Groups will pitch their proposals to a panel of judges, who will determine seed funding for sustainable projects.

The Provost’s Office and a committee of faculty and staff have also been actively identifying ways to improve student success – from retention and persistence to graduation rates. We implemented an improved process for early student interventions and launched a comprehensive tutoring website. We completed the implementation of our new Guided Major Pathways, ensuring students find the right academic home.

And, a committee of faculty, led by the Provost’s Office, is reviewing our faculty evaluation, rewards and recognition structure to re-envision how we reward and recognize faculty so that it is not a one-size-fits-all approach – but rather an equitable and transparent system designed to reward and recognize faculty who make a variety of contributions – throughout the life of their careers here at West Virginia University.

We also took bold action by merging the College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences and the College of Education and Human Services to create a new college focused on human and youth development. This will unite the expertise of both colleges and promote new in-demand academic programs, interdisciplinary research and efficient service to students. In the coming months, we will determine the identity, vision and mission of this new college, along with a name. We hope to launch a national search for the new college’s founding dean in January.

We are also transforming student life on campus by strengthening mental health resources, promoting diversity and inclusion, and invigorating the out-of-classroom experience.

To increase access to mental health resources, we launched a partnership with Talkspace. Students in Morgantown, Beckley, Keyser and those taking classes online can now use the Talkspace app to text and chat with licensed therapists via private messaging and live video from anywhere – at no cost.

The Carruth Center has scaled up in-person appointments and hired additional staff with an eye on diversity to support our students’ changing needs.

The Center also kicked off a “Let's Chat” initiative during Welcome Week which provided easy access to informal consultations at different locations around campus where counselors can listen to student concerns.

And Healthy Minds University launched this fall to work in partnership with The Carruth Center, and other University support services, to offer outpatient psychiatric treatment and therapy services for students referred there.

Healthy Minds University, operated by WVU Medicine and the WVU Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute, does not replace the services that the Carruth Center offers, but instead supplements and serves as an additional counseling resource for students.

In addition, a group of 11 West Virginia University students came together for the inaugural Student Wellness and Mental Health Advisory Board.

The board members serve as advocates for student-centered wellbeing and maintain liaisons with the Carruth Center, WELLWVU, Campus Recreation and others.

Finally, we created a website to house all mental health resources allowing for quick access to information.

We recognize that faculty and staff are also experiencing stress, anxiety, depression and other mental health and wellness challenges at greater rates, so we have been intentional about sharing information with them about support and services available as the semester has gotten underway.

We continue to transform our University by investing in resources to combat racism and inequality on its campuses.

We created a system-wide Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council that addresses and supports the needs of our campuses. We conducted a review of how diversity and equity work is valued in promotion and tenure decisions. And the newly created Faculty Justice Network offers an inviting space for racially minoritized faculty members to gather and address unique social, cultural, academic and professional development needs and interests.

These and other programs helped us earn the Higher Education Excellence in Diversity Award for the sixth consecutive year.

Another program I suspect will gain us national recognition will launch in January. Some of you may recall Project 168 which was introduced a few years ago. However, it never quite got off the ground as we had hoped.

My question has always been if you spend 18 hours in the classroom, what are you doing with the other 150 hours in the week?  I am delighted to say that today, we can answer that question.

Student Life has created an innovative approach to add purpose to the student experience while bringing our core values to life. What a student learns outside the classroom is as important as what they learn inside the classroom. Project 168 is a way to formally recognize and provide record of extracurricular effort. With the help of a coach, each student can create a self-paced, co-curricular experience that will offer a minimum of 53 opportunities to engage in 10 content areas.

But what truly makes this unique is that there will be a formalized process with the University Registrar as WVU Engage tracks participation. When requirements for each competency area have been met, students will receive a co-curricular transcript printed on official WVU transcript paper. This co-curricular transcript can be shared with potential employers and included in graduate and professional school applications. For those who complete the full curriculum, they will be invited to join a new honors organization, the 168 Society.

And as we look to transform the student experience, we are ensuring that transformation is reaching every part of the Mountaineer family, including our passionate alumni base.

The University will soon enter a new partnership agreement with the Alumni Association to enhance the alumni experience, increase opportunities for networking, build connections with students and young alumni, and foster a culture of inclusivity.

Bringing all these transformative efforts together forges a powerful sense of purpose.

And I want to ensure that every student, faculty and staff member is committed to our overall purpose, as well as being supported in the pursuit of their own.

To make that happen, we are establishing the first Purpose Institute ever located on a university campus.

We first met Courtney Spence a few years ago in Austin, Texas. She is the founder and CEO of the Spence Group, a global strategic consulting and creative agency. Courtney and her team work every day to guide people and organizations to discover and live their purpose. And I’m pleased to welcome Courtney and her team to our campus today. (recognize Courtney and team)

We are entering into a partnership with the Spence Group that will reinforce our Mountaineer values and our core brand. It will help us create a stated Purpose that will motivate us each day and remind us why we are here.

And the reality is, our University is already filled with purpose. We heard from just a few of our colleagues who lead purposeful lives. I feel it every day when I wake up and step onto our campuses. We do our work not just for ourselves – but for others. That is different than other institutions—and I should know. Having that sense of purpose IS special. Now is our time to fully embrace that feeling and turn it to action. 

On our campus, we plan to have a physical center focused on purpose. This center will help prospective students and employees, as well as current students, faculty, staff and alumni discover—or rediscover—their purpose and place in the world, and then help them chart the path forward.

While we are in the beginning stages, this initiative will bring together many facets of the University to elevate education, wellness and service to our campus and our community – all with a sense of positive intent. We are grateful to Courtney and her team for sharing their expertise.

So, in conclusion, West Virginia University has been on a transformational journey—not only during the past 19 months of the pandemic but for the past eight years.

We have celebrated the diversity that unites us as One WVU across the campus system.

We introduced the Mountaineers Go First campaign and a new brand platform to share the pioneering work we do here and the successful lives we launch.

Through initiatives such as Shared Services and The Hub we have made the processes supporting our students and our work more efficient and effective.

We have made striking improvements to our facilities and grounds, most recently watching Reynolds Hall arise to become a cutting-edge home for the Chambers College of Business and Economics next year.

We created a Humanities Center to promote and support inquiry into issues that affect our daily lives and creative endeavors that feed our souls.

We have expanded WVU Medicine to include more than 20,000 employees, almost 3,000 providers and 22 hospitals, putting world-class treatment close to home for all West Virginians.

We have nurtured relationships with donors who believe in our work, with the WVU Foundation receiving a record $270 million in new gifts and pledges in fiscal year 2021, despite economic upheaval caused by the pandemic.

We launched West Virginia Forward which has created entrepreneurial and economic opportunities that has improved our University and our state as well.

We have raised funds to create modern, forward-thinking athletic facilities that help us recruit, retain and nurture our student-athletes.  

We have forged important community partnerships and recently unveiled a new Center for Community Engagement, led by Extension, that focuses on academic opportunities that bring faculty, staff and partners together to address the most pressing issues facing communities.

Clearly, transforming is not a new concept to us. We have done more transforming than Optimus Prime.

Transforming with renewed purpose is the next, logical step—a deliberate movement toward improving higher education, improving healthcare, and improving lives in West Virginia and beyond.

We have come far. We have ground yet to cover. And we will do so with purpose, with pride and with our forever rallying cry of, “Let’s Go, Mountaineers.”

And now, I invite Maryanne Reed, our provost, and Corey Farris, our dean of students, to join me as we turn to a question-and-answer session moderated by April Kaull, executive director of communications with University Relations.