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State of the University Address — September 2017

September 11, 2017
Prepared remarks by E. Gordon Gee

I am pleased to be with you today, at a critical time for our University system and for our state. 

Today is the 16th anniversary of a dark day in American history, one that changed our nation indelibly in many ways. Amid discussion and debate about the long-term consequences, it is important to pause and remember the courage that first responders and many ordinary people showed on that September 11th, charging into danger to help others.

Reflecting on their actions reminds us that, in the words of Nelson Mandela, courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.  At this moment, none of us are facing the life-threatening peril that people faced sixteen years ago. 
But, as we sit here, we are facing a crisis in West Virginia — actually, several interlocking crises, from economic stagnation to an opiate epidemic that claimed more than 800 lives last year to educational disparities and staggering health threats.

As West Virginia’s flagship, land-grant University, we exist to improve lives in our state, by strengthening education, delivering healthcare and advancing our citizens into prosperity.

Our state’s current position makes our mission an urgent obligation. But for me, as well as for you, it is more than that — it is a passion. Like all West Virginians, we want to move our State forward as quickly as possible. But our quest for the promised land will leave us wandering in the desert unless we pause from time to time to confirm our direction.

That means asking ourselves some questions: What does prosperity mean? What changes should we make? As a University, how can we best help our state move forward?

Over the past few months, I traveled the roads of West Virginia, as I do every summer on my County Tours. 

But this year we spent time having Community Conversations. We talked about the issues that matter most to West Virginians. We gathered feedback, and I would like to share some of what we heard in this brief video.   

As you can see, no matter who we are, where we live or what we do each day, West Virginians share one unwavering quality: We love West Virginia. Having lived around the country, I can testify that no state inspires love and loyalty like this one.

The people who dwell among these magnificent hills and hollows deserve lives as soaring and as strong as our landscape. They deserve the economic security, stellar education and first-rate healthcare that would allow them to approach life’s starting line on an even footing with all Americans.   

But, at this moment, many of them lack those essentials. And I believe there are three reasons why that is so.  

First, our state suffers from what I have called negative elitism. And by this I mean, we cannot understand why anyone would want to work or live here. Instead of supporting success, we are all-too-ready to tear it down. Any psychologist will tell you that a child growing up with ridicule and shame will start to live down to that poor self-image.    

Likewise, we in West Virginia have believed our own bad press for so long that we have manifested degrading headlines into a reality that begets only more negative press. 

Rather, I believe we have a great story to tell.  We have talented people and valuable assets.  It is time we start telling our story to the world.   

The second obstacle facing West Virginia – and indeed, West Virginia University – is that we lack intestinal fortitude. Deciding to change is difficult. And resistance to change is as entrenched in academia as it is elsewhere.  Moving in a new direction might upset the apple cart, and we fear losing or bruising any apples.   

But fretting over a dwindling harvest makes it impossible to plant new seeds. If we want to transform this state – and this University – if we want to lead rather than trail among our peers – we must nurture fresh opportunities, and prune the dead wood restricting our growth.   

Our third obstacle has been the unwillingness to try for fear of failure. You all know that I am not a fan of drafting verbose strategic plans that end up in binders lining dusty shelves. I want to create strategies that turn into immediate actions. Some such strategies succeed. Some fail. But failure is not as perilous as inaction. 

As someone who has made mistakes in my own life, I can attest that failure produces learning, adaptation and strength. Inaction only produces inertia.   

As Franklin D. Roosevelt urged in the bleak atmosphere of 1932: “Above all, try something.”     

And so we are.   

This year, West Virginia University partnered with the State Department of Commerce and Marshall University to commission the McKinsey & Company in a search for a fresh look at our problems and pathways to solving them. Only private dollars, rather than state appropriations, funded this effort.   

Together, we have blazed a path that we call West Virginia Forward. And this path has three objectives.   

First, we need to reinforce the foundation that supports economic growth, including our infrastructure, talent base and business climate. 

The second objective is to identify potential sectors in which West Virginia can grow to diversify our economy.     

And, finally, we must draw a clear roadmap, helping partners around the state navigate these new pathways toward our shared destination: A prosperous West Virginia.    

West Virginia Forward grew from a fact-based process uniting expertise from around the world with deep awareness of West Virginia’s unique identity.         

Our state has many robust industries that we can grow — such as aerospace maintenance, automotive parts manufacturing and metals manufacturing. 

We also have sectors that are growing more slowly here than nationally, but where we can succeed is by differentiating ourselves from the competition. One such area is downstream oil and gas manufacturing, specifically in carbon-fiber-reinforced plastics and fine chemicals.   

New sectors that the State can capture that promise high growth are cybersecurity, cloud services and data centers, and higher-end tourism.   

For example, we are already working to support storage facilities that are critical for attracting petrochemical and related industries to the area. Our Energy Institute, led by Brian Anderson, is playing an important role in that effort.   
Another obvious target for development is tourism. We have a beautiful state with tremendous opportunities for visitors to discover and explore. West Virginia Forward gives us data-based solutions for increasing tourism in all our state’s varied regions.

We all love our State.  We love its beauty.  But when using the metrics through which the outside world judges – the quality of life in West Virginia has been comparatively lower than other states. This limits our ability to attract talent. 

That is why a big part of West Virginia Forward will involve working with partners across the state to improve housing availability, road conditions, access to broadband, access to clean water and the health of our citizens.   

But perhaps our biggest opportunity is also what I have always described as our biggest asset: our people.  The people of West Virginia are loyal and hard working. 

However, circumstances such as a mismatch between labor supply and demand, the opioid crisis and large waves of out-migration have left that asset in short supply.   

I know this to be certain: If we can create jobs and the space where businesses can thrive, West Virginians will come home. I cannot count the number of West Virginians I have met who would love nothing more than to return to their native state. We must work together to bring them home.   

We can do this by building our future talent pool, especially in STEM areas, and expanding vocational training. We need to improve the health and skill of our existing workforce to attract employers, and we need to engage our universities’ alumni to reach out to the talent we have lost.   

These are heady thoughts – but they are also attainable – if we move quickly from thought to deed.   

So, why am I telling you all of this? I am telling you this because our state and our University are at a tipping point. And it is only through courageous and thoughtful leadership that we will make real change. 

That leadership is sitting here in this room.

Among us we have some of the brightest minds and the best ideas that can turn despair into hope; apathy into ambition; and recession into recovery.

Due to our land-grant mission, we have the ability to move ideas from bench to market – ideas that can help 1.8 million West Virginians. And we have the responsibility to demonstrate why investment in higher education is a valuable investment. 

I am telling you this because West Virginia University will play a vital role in helping advance our state to prosperity.

The next steps in West Virginia Forward include asking each stakeholder to undertake projects to solve problems and implement recommendations. 

At West Virginia University, I commit that we will focus on innovation and research, local business support, talent expansion and alumni outreach.   

I am making that commitment because our community’s collective talent obligates us to be leaders, not followers.

Our research-based expertise empowers us to be innovators, not mere observers, in the transformation of our state.Our passion for improving lives makes us advocates, not just interested bystanders, in the quest to attract investments in our state’s future.

I have stated many times this year that we cannot cut our way to prosperity. 

The Legislature has reduced state support at our University alone by more than $38 million in the last four years. So far, we have been able to absorb these reductions while maintaining our educational quality by making tough choices and emphasizing our core mission to advance education, healthcare and prosperity.         

But reductions merely patch over the problems in our state budget, rather than solving them. 

We need to enlarge our budget pie, rather than fighting over the size of our servings as the whole thing crumbles.  
Instead of wringing our hands, we need to stack hands. And instead of slapping Band-Aids on our wounds, we need to heal them once and for all.     

At West Virginia University, that means taking action, rather than dwelling in the more familiar academic landscape of words and plans.And I am proud to report that we are acting. In accordance with our core University values, we are strengthening our academic programs, improving our student culture, breaking new ground in research and changing lives.

Despite budgetary challenges, we remain accountable to students by offering a great educational value and producing stellar outcomes for students.

For the fourth straight year, for example, West Virginia University’s Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources has been ranked in the top 10 percent of all engineering schools nationwide for offering the best value for the money for undergraduate degree programs.

More students and families are recognizing the quality education we offer and the healthier student culture we have created.During a remarkably smooth Welcome Week, our University system achieved record numbers of first-time freshmen enrollment – with more than 6,200 across campuses in Morgantown, Beckley and Keyser. 

Our incoming class also features higher test scores, higher average GPAs and more international students. 

And in Morgantown, we welcomed the largest Honors College class in history, 921 students, even after raising admissions standards.Once on our campus, students experience unique learning opportunities and distinguish themselves in national and international competitions.

Take for example, our Experimental Rocketry team who captured first place in the 10,000-foot launch category at the Intercollegiate Rocket Engineering Competition this summer. 

And we were the only school in the nation to send two teams to NASA’s Mars Ice Challenge, a three-day event that challenged teams to extract water from simulated Martian subsurface ice. One of those teams took home the victory.

Our commitment to global education is opening the world to students in exciting ways, from Business and Economics students who attended the European Innovation Academy in Turin, Italy, to sports management students who toured the Dominican Republic to explore the role sports play outside American boundaries.

In not only our students but in young people from around West Virginia and the nation, we nurture the curiosity that drives discovery. Through our strategic partnership with the Boy Scouts of America, students and faculty members helped Jamboree campers learn about everything from climate and ecological issues to forensic crime-solving and energy-saving vehicles this summer.

And our faculty researchers demonstrated where curiosity can lead through groundbreaking work involving rare earth elements, leukemia treatment, greenhouse gases, disaster-resistant structures, gravitational waves and many other fields of knowledge.

Earning the elite “Research 1” status among our peers was a milestone, not a stopping point, and we are fully committed to maintaining that hard-earned designation. We will continue to invest in the institutes and centers that address our nation’s most critical needs with the most innovative ideas. And we will consistently develop the research that changes people’s lives for the better.

We placed special emphasis on humanities research by creating a center to support innovative, collaborative work in all humanities fields, where research funding has unfortunately declined.

To create the Humanities Center, we leveraged endowed funds. This is a perfect example of the increasing importance philanthropy plays amid state budgetary challenges.

With fewer than six months remaining, the State of Minds campaign has been incredibly successful, generating $1.125 billion. The Campaign’s success was bolstered by nearly $140 million in new gifts and pledges last fiscal year, the second-highest level in Foundation history.

Recent gifts have ranged from an alumni estate gift to support first-generation college students to a gift supporting geology fieldwork from alumni who benefited from their own fieldwork experience to a gift creating a graduate fellowship in honor of a beloved genetics and developmental biology professor.

Gifts like these show the appreciation that people have for our work. And, for the first time, Mountaineers will have their own opportunity to show appreciation during a Day of Giving on November 8. This 24-hour period will bring together the University family to donate gifts that will help the institution carry on its mission into the next 150 years. 

We are also fostering appreciation among members of our community by creating the best possible environment for personal success.As I have often said, we cannot adequately reward and recognize today’s high performers with a structure crafted in the era of freshman beanies and student curfews. As every other aspect of higher education has changed, so must our faculty and staff culture reflect the nuances of today’s higher education landscape.

Our culture survey last fall reflected a desire for greater empowerment among faculty and staff, and a need for more feedback, coaching and recognition.

Since then, we have eschewed mere talk in favor of action to improve our culture by revamping the employee recognition program through the Go Beyond portal, mandatory supervisor training and advocating successfully for the freedom to design our own policies for hiring and compensation — policies that incentivize performance and enhance employee engagement.

The survey was so helpful that soon we will launch a second one that all faculty and staff members on all of our campuses can take. This second, broader survey shows your thoughts matter, your opinions effect change, and your voices do command attention and respect on our campus.

And let us never forget that for 150 years, our core land-grant value has been service. And nowhere is the impact of our service more profound than in our efforts to strengthen West Virginians’ health.For example, the opiate epidemic is a serious threat to our state’s well-being, and combatting it is one of our University’s top priorities. Recently, we have made several new strides.

First, we are pooling resources with the Uniformed Services University. Its Defense and Veterans Center for Integrative Pain Management has created new pain treatment protocols using the latest techniques in battlefield medicine.

Also, the West Virginia Clinical and Translational Science Institute has expanded its medication-assisted treatment services, which combine behavioral therapy and medication to treat individuals with substance use disorder.

And our University is leading a federally-funded effort to prevent HIV and hepatitis C outbreaks related to the opioid epidemic.

And this summer our healthcare enterprise reached a new level of recognition. For the first time in the health system’s history, a WVU Medicine program earned a place in U.S. News & World Report rankings. The magazine ranked the urology program at WVU Medicine-WVU Hospitals 26th in the nation.

This ranking shows that WVU Medicine is well on its way to becoming a nationally-recognized healthcare provider.

A heart for service animates work throughout our University, from getting McDowell County children excited about soccer, to helping businesses in southern West Virginia rebound from flooding, to providing people in a Uganda village with clean water.

Service begins when we elevate our vision of what is possible.  It flourishes when we recognize our assets and explore new opportunities.

Above all, service embodies the courage needed to make a change.

In this pivotal moment, we must embrace our strengths and tackle our problems in the firm faith that we can make a difference. We have all seen that resilience that transcends difficulty and disaster.

We saw it in our University-wide response to flooding in southern West Virginia last year.

We see it as people pick up the pieces after Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma.

We saw it 16 years ago, when people came together to help turn mourning into healing.

Our forebears showed resilience 150 years ago, following a brutal civil war, when they created a land-grant University to enlarge their children’s future.

And today, in a society often fragmented and fractious, we can embrace resilience by applying ourselves to the cause we share. 

With our road map in hand, we can all advance in the same direction.   

With hard work, we can clear new pathways.   

We will continue to ensure that all West Virginians treat each other with respect, which is a core University value. We are committed as an institution to advancing a culture that celebrates all people and supports the free expression and exchange of ideas and knowledge. 

We are not gazing backward.   

We are not freezing in fear.   

With the resilient spirit that typifies Mountaineers, we are moving West Virginia Forward — together.   

And our journey will take us beyond our highest aspirations.   

Let’s Go.