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State of the University

March 1, 2016


As you have just seen, West Virginia University is on the move. And we have reached a brand-new level of accomplishment and prestige, as you well know.

The brightest signpost of our current stature is our ranking as a “Highest Research Activity” — or “R1” — university.  We are one of just 115 R1 universities among the nation’s more than 4,500 higher education institutions.

This designation, in my view and in all of our views, is important.

First, it reflects years of innovative and rigorous work by our faculty, staff, administrators and students. Second, it will enhance our ability to attract and retain top-ranked scholars.

But, while R1 status elevates our University, it does not represent a pinnacle or an apex. We are not done. We have the potential to reach even higher peaks.

And in fact, while this accomplishment is worth celebrating, it does not even mark a plateau where we can stop and catch our breath. We cannot stop progress — because the future is coming.

And it is approaching far faster than most of us imagined. One need only scan the latest headlines to understand that the pace of change is accelerating rapidly, exponentially, across the world.

And so we find ourselves perched, not on a plateau, but on a precarious boundary between today and tomorrow. A boundary between excellence and eminence. A boundary between conventional wisdom and new ideas. A boundary between West Virginia’s problems and solutions that lead to success.

As we balance on this lofty verge, without the time to admire the view or even pose for selfies, we have only enough time for one thing, and that is charting our next ascent.

That is why I am here today — to start a conversation on our campus about our future. To ask, “Where do we want to be in five years? In 10 years?” And to begin collaborating with you to craft that journey.

To reach our destination, we will have to shred our outdated roadmaps and eschew the comfort of well-worn paths. We must demolish any obstacles that bar our way, so we can blaze new trails and conquer new frontiers.

We will face challenges here at home, from continued pressure on our budget, to the way higher education is structured in our state, to our own bureaucracy.

And we will feel reverberations from the wider world’s shocks: Turmoil in the stock market. The downward spiral of the Chinese economy. A dwindling faith in our country’s institutions that has marked this very strange election season.

But challenges can create opportunities — if we have the courage to seize them. And seize them we will and we must.  We have no time to lose. Because transforming the arc of higher education can transform the arc of our future.

As our recent achievements show, West Virginia University is on an upward trajectory.

Our momentum gives us the power to lift our entire state. Our land-grant heritage deeds us the moral obligation to do so.

President Abraham Lincoln changed American education forever when he signed the Morrill Act in 1862 and put success within reach of every person in this country. Today on March 1, 2016, we can begin to change West Virginia forever.

The people of this University community have the perseverance, vigor and knowledge to be skilled architects of our state’s future. But like the world’s tallest buildings, West Virginia can only rise from a strong and stable foundation.

That is why, today, I am pledging our University’s time and talent to reinforcing that foundation. We will reinvent West Virginia’s future by strengthening three critical pillars: education, health care and broad-based prosperity.

Prosperity will remain elusive if our workforce lacks education and our citizens are suffering from disease and despair. Young people who are sick, or whose families languish in poverty, will struggle to fulfill their educational potential. A lack of knowledge or financial resources will keep some of our citizens mired in ill health.


Health care.

And Prosperity:

They are inseparable. They are essential. And they are what West Virginia University is uniquely empowered to generate.

We will reinvent education for our young people, on our campuses, throughout our state and beyond. We will transform health care for our citizens. We will cultivate prosperity in our communities. And we will do it now because time is of the essence.

So today, I want to discuss how we radically change education in West Virginia — forever.

Make no mistake: I am talking about a complete overhaul, not casual tinkering. I am talking about transformative thinking around every aspect of academic life, from the way we reward and recruit faculty to the way we teach students.

As West Virginia’s flagship, land-grant University, this is our moment. We are the doorway to the American dream. Now, we must make the path to that doorway even straighter, throw open that door even further, and guide scholars through it even more diligently.

That is why we are opening our campus in Beckley — the new proposed home of West Virginia University Tech — to bring higher education to more people in southern West Virginia.

Our calling is to change lives through education. And as we all know, that calling extends far beyond Morgantown. It is a calling that starts before students arrive on our campuses. Indeed, it starts before they ever skip into a kindergarten classroom.

That is why we are partnering with West Virginia’s pre-K-12 educators to awaken our children’s love of learning. We encourage reading through programs such as Extension’s Energy Express. We are training more secondary science and math teachers through our UTeach program. And through a new alliance with 100Kin10, we have committed to doubling the number of math and science teachers we graduate by 2020.

We shepherd talented minority and underrepresented youth into health care careers through our Health Sciences & Technology Academy — which, by the way, was recently awarded more than $200,000 by The Annie E. Casey Foundation to replicate this program in other states.

We also invite high school students into university-level study through the ACCESS WVU Early College Program. This fall, by the way, we added online courses to our highly successful mathematics and engineering portfolio. The result is the largest number of high school ACCESS students ever.  We have attracted aspiring Mountaineers from 69 high schools in West Virginia and eight other states.

And once students enter West Virginia University, we must ensure they graduate with a degree — as well as with the personal and career skills needed to flourish in the 21st century global economy. For our undergraduates, the route to 21st century success will be Project 168.

This path beckons before the students arrive and shows them how they can enrich every moment on campus with academics, personal and professional development, campus life, community service, and global exploration.  Students who participate in Project 168 will be goal-oriented — gaining skills, experiences and attitudes that promote career achievement.

They will approach college in a mindful way and make good decisions about what to do and what NOT to do in their week. And they will compile a tangible record of what they learn and how they grow here.

Project 168 was developed for students, but the question it poses truly applies to all of us: How can we best use our limited time and our unique talents to make a difference?

That is a question we need to ask as we revamp our reward and recognition structures for our faculty members.

Different people have different strengths, and it makes sense to reward people for what they do best, whether it is teaching or research or service. Our reward systems for faculty and staff should reflect our deepest values.

If we truly appreciate great teaching, then we should look for ways to give teaching faculty equality of status and job security.

If we truly value fresh perspectives, we must give our younger colleagues greater responsibility and chances for recognition.

If we truly want to respond nimbly to societal needs, we must be able to create centers, and institutes and working groups that are tenure-granting units.

And if we truly prize performance, we must be totally merit-based as an institution and remove policies that impede improvement — and that includes being prepared to pay for quality.

We must reform the way we search for faculty and academic leaders, and we must have a strategy to “re-recruit” our faculty and staff every day. You are this University’s rock stars, and we want to keep you here, and we want to keep you on our stage — not just be a launching pad for your world tour.

In fact, I want to keep you here even after your work is done, by making Morgantown a cool place to retire. And I want to draw upon your wisdom by enlisting you as a mentor for our undergraduates. Just imagine the encouragement and guidance an army of emeriti faculty could bring to our students.

We want to keep you here because you change our students’ lives. And, in the years ahead, we will need you to meet our students’ ever-changing needs.

Because just as we finally get a handle on these so-called Millennials, it is time to meet a new cohort — Generation Z, today’s teenagers. Research shows that they are a completely different animal.

Gen Z values college most as the means to secure a good job, but its members also have a sincere love of learning. They want to have careers that suit their interests rather than the needs of others. That means that they tend to envision careers in technology, such as computer science and video game development, whereas our present students are more likely to seek careers in health care, engineering and education.

Gen Z is enormously entrepreneurial. About 20 percent of this new generation — think about this — already has their own businesses and another 20 percent plan to own a business in the future.

And Gen Z students are digital natives. The latest technology is something they expect and embrace, not merely adopt.

So, what does this mean for our University? It means even more and faster change. A curriculum flexible enough for constant revision. Technology that is on the leading edge. It means new ways of thinking, I submit.

Our University must shift swiftly and effectively to meet our obligations to this new generation. We are already revising and reinventing the student experience. We are transforming the dreaded first-year orientation course by engaging the wisdom of faculty across campus and focusing on five key learning goals.

We are seeking input on Live and Learn Communities that will integrate the Resident Faculty Leader program more closely with programming from our colleges.

We are encouraging our students to adopt a culture of service through the 12 (BIG!) Days of Service initiative. These service projects also take us one step further toward fulfilling our goals for the Million Hour Match. As part of fall 2015 academic courses, our students logged more than 4,000 hours of community service. That is an investment of more than $92-thousand dollars in the community — and a priceless gain in life experience for our students.

And we will continue to inspire the exploration of the arts and humanities, allowing our students to integrate our Appalachian and world cultures into the very fabric of our days.

In every facet of our education mission, every one of us must strive to be better.  To innovate. To invest. To envision a different paradigm.

We are West Virginia’s education experts. Therefore, we must lead.

We are One West Virginia University. Therefore, we must stack hands and work together.

We are One West Virginia. Therefore, we must merge opportunity with ability so that we may bring hope and optimism to those we serve.

The second pillar we, as a University, must address is transforming health care in West Virginia — forever.

What could be more powerful than to fulfill our land-grant mission by defeating problems that cause suffering and cut lives short?

As we know, those problems are legion. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, our state has:

  • The highest percentage of adults who smoke
  • The third-highest rate of adult obesity
  • The second-highest rate of adult diabetes
  • The second-highest cancer death rate
  • The highest percentage of adults with hypertension
  • And the second-lowest life expectancy at birth.

And, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we also have the nation’s highest rate of drug overdose deaths, more than twice the national average. These statistics are simply unacceptable and they are daunting. West Virginia deserves better — every one of us deserve better — and we are capable of doing better.

Big challenges call for bold approaches. WVU Medicine is directing its top research, clinical care and outreach leaders to organize resources against prescription medicine abuse and heroin addiction.

We are caring for addicted persons and reforming pain care to reduce further abuse.

We are treating people on campus and across the state, and giving communities tools to fight overdose deaths. And we are conducting groundbreaking research into prevention and treatment.

Because West Virginia has the dubious distinction of leading in abuse and overdoses, our University must become a national leader in preventing and treating opiate and opioid addiction.

To do that, we are training law enforcement officers to carry and administer Naloxone which can reverse the effects of overdoses. Through the Opioid Medication Therapy Management program, our pharmacy experts are helping to develop pain management guidelines for the state of West Virginia and conducting medication reviews with patients and prescribers.

Through our telepsychiatry program, patients in rural areas received accessible, confidential and trustworthy addiction treatment close to home.  In 2014, more than 6,000 patient visits took place through telepsychiatry.

Our Department of Behavioral Medicine offers a Comprehensive Opioid Addiction and Treatment program, whose leaders are working with the West Virginia University Injury Control Research Center and experts from many fields to predict who is at risk for addiction — and to stop it before it starts.

We must make a difference in the prevention and treatment of this addiction in our home state. And we will continue to work diligently to do so, I can assure you.

Another deadly health threat we must stop is heart disease. To prepare for battle, we are recruiting world-class physicians, such as Dr. Vinay Badhwar, an internationally recognized master cardiac valve surgeon, to join our outstanding heart team and to lead our new Heart and Vascular Institute.

And our gold-and-blue nation also is empowering people to improve their own health and that of their communities. We are partnering with groups like Try This West Virginia — I love that — and Sustainable Williamson to provide resources and expertise for community-led efforts.

We have also come together with Marshall University to jumpstart healthcare research and delivery with $1.5 million dollars in projects across the state.

By reinventing health care, we can ensure that West Virginians thrive — not merely survive. Because standing steadfast in survival mode is no longer an option — which brings me to the final priority.

This is our moment to help West Virginians thrive by changing our state’s economy — forever. We have the power to nurture resiliency and reposition our state for broad-based prosperity.

West Virginia has witnessed firsthand how changing job markets can trigger a cascade of economic and social problems — and those problems have strained our ability to connect people to jobs.

Our University is launching a conversation with community members who have endured these industry shifts. From Weirton, to Harper’s Ferry, to Charleston’s West Side, we are pairing University resources with front-line intelligence from residents to capitalize on economic trends.

I believe West Virginians can be a model for communities and people across this country of how to be resilient, determined and successful.

Last summer, we established the WVU Innovation Corporation, which is a new tool that will enable us to increase the amount of contract-based testing and evaluation that we perform for industry and government agencies, with a special focus on increasing our funding from the Department of Defense.  

This is one more example of how the University is serving as an economic engine for West Virginia by leveraging our fundamental research capabilities in a very new way, and by building stronger relationships with industry and government.

We also have been in discussions with McKinsey Consulting, through our Center for Big Ideas, on ways to spark an immediate reversal in West Virginia’s economy. 

We have cultivated a relationship with the Gallup organization, the premier polling organization in this country, if not the world. They have taken an intense interest in working with a few universities on projects impacting the future. Our project with Gallup will focus on how one reinvents a University to lead the reinvention of a state.

And, thanks to an expected major donation from a friend of the University, our Center for Big Ideas is gearing up to study how one restructures state government to make it effective, efficient and forward-thinking in this era of dynamic change. And we want to do all of this before the election because we want to present a pallet of opportunities for our new governor.

Creating prosperity for all will also require our University to become more effective and efficient. We must transform all that we do.

That is why I have asked my leadership team to think about how we can revolutionize how we support the work of our faculty and staff. By forming SWOT teams, we will examine everything from how we recruit talent to how we increase student retention to how we simplify business functions.

The goal is to identify $45 million dollars in cost savings and revenue generation over the next five years so that we can reinvest those dollars into the work that is mission critical.

We will move quickly, while seeking input from a variety of constituencies as we discover new strategies and generate ideas. The SWOT teams are meant to encourage dialogue within the campus community about how we approach our future — a future that must be shaped by our collective ideas if we are to truly position this University as a thought leader in higher education.

So that is why I am sharing my ideas with you today, and I want you to share yours with me. Nothing about our future should be set in stone. 

Beginning this month, I, along with others, will be holding Campus Conversations around these priorities and other important topics. It is critical that we have open, honest communication if we are to transform this institution.

Only by re-examining and reinventing our work, can we become a catalyst for political, social and economic transformation in West Virginia.

So in conclusion, it is my hope that our continued dialogue on these matters will set a standard for open and forthright campus discourse, regarding even the most contentious of issues. 

Our country’s founders understood that free and open discussion is the cornerstone of democracy, and they enshrined our right to free speech in the U.S. Constitution.

Free and open discussion is also the cornerstone of a University. 

On campus, people come together to argue and rebut, to debate and debunk. That is how we learn. That is how we challenge our own ideas and open our minds.

Unfortunately, these days, we see minds closing and civil discourse withering all around us. We see it in presidential primary debates that resemble episodes of Jerry Springer. We see it across the Internet, which has become a platform for rude and sometimes vicious commentary. We even see it on our nation’s campuses, where some students demand “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” to protect them from opposing viewpoints. 

However, I believe in our students. I have great faith in this generation. What is more, I have faith in the University experience.

A University’s role is not to make people comfortable; it is to make them think. Our responsibility is not to shield students from the harsh winds outside. It is to teach them how to weather strong disagreements. 

Any attempt to deny free speech protections to others is a threat to our own freedom.

It is a threat to education. And it is a threat to democracy itself.

President Lincoln, who led at a time of greater division and despair than we can even imagine, said: “Our defense is in the preservation of the spirit which prizes liberty as a heritage of all men, in all lands, everywhere. Destroy that spirit and you have planted the seeds of despotism around your own doors.” 

Our University is a miniature version of the wider world, drawing students from 110 countries, 50 states and 55 counties. On the great issues of the day, you will find as many views on campus as there are students and faculty.

Varying opinions cannot rend our community because our differences are outweighed by the values we share. We are respectful, inclusive and fair — always mindful of our true sense of self.

We are curious, asking questions, seeking new opportunities and suggesting ideas to build a better future.

We are supportive of each other as we build a team-oriented environment that is One West Virginia University.

We are good stewards for the University, choosing to use our collective resources for the betterment of all.

And we are making a difference. We work swiftly to create real solutions for real problems.

We are changing what it means to be a land-grant institution. In fact, I like to think we are Mr. Lincoln’s university on a modern-day mission to drive change that matters.

I am proud of our new research classification, enormously proud. I am proud of our faculty, our staff and our students who have devoted their time and talents to this institution so that it may grow. I am proud of our elevated reputation on the national scene.

But I am MOST proud of the values that guide our work — and the potential we have to change life forever for 1.8 million West Virginians. Doing our best for them is our noblest calling and our proudest distinction. And our link to them is an unbreakable lifeline that sustains us all, as we scale ever higher mountains.