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West Virginia School Board Association Winter Conference

Prepared Remarks
February 19, 2016

Thank you, Beverly, for your kind greetings, and thank you, President Green, for inviting me to participate in this discussion. I am delighted to be here with men and women who devote their time, energy and passion to educating young West Virginians. You are important people—in more ways than one. When I was preparing for my remarks by reading “Shooting an Elephant,” Orwell’s very first line struck me:

“In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people—the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.”

Suddenly, it hit me: I must be very important. And I have been for a very long time—throughout my three decades of higher education leadership. I bet you are all VIPs, too. Because education leaders attract advice like a new mother in a roomful of grandmas. People tell us we are doing too little. Doing too much. Doing the wrong thing. Doing the right thing the wrong way. People in government offices lob ever-changing solutions toward our classrooms. No child left behind. The race to the top. Standardized testing. Charter schools. Common core. Anything but Common Core.

Many students come to us with heavy burdens: Troubled families. A lack of role models. Hunger. And, through it all, budgets shrink. Our state’s school-age population declines. The workforce ages. Citizens disengage. It is enough to make you want to declare your own personal snow day and stay home under the covers. But we all know that giving up is not an option. And neither is rushing into bad decisions—like shooting an elephant—just to prove we can make a decision at all. Our work is too important. Too many people are counting on us. Because, despite the headlines and hardships, public education remains a beacon of hopes, dreams, and progress. In fact, we live in an era when ideas will be the catalysts of virtually all future economic progress.

The fact that a small-town guy from Utah can become president of half the universities in this country is a testament to the American dream. Public education opened the American dream to every one of us, forever. Future generations need us to keep it within reach. And I do mean “us.” Colleges and universities cannot meet all of society’s needs alone, and neither can primary and secondary schools.

A new sustainable system of education requires our unrelenting pursuit of deeper partnerships – with one another, with business and industry, with government, and with our communities. Educational enlightenment is a lifelong process. It is not wedged between kindergarten and 12th grade. We must stop thinking in terms of public education versus higher education. We must build bridges between colleges and universities and public schools and boards of education. It is all interconnected.

At West Virginia University, we are encouraging reading through our Energy Express summer program. We are training more secondary science, technology, engineering and mathematics teachers through our UTeach program. We are shepherding talented minority and underrepresented youth into health care careers through our Health Sciences & Technology Academy. We are giving high school students a head start on college coursework through ACCESS WVU, which allows them to earn credits before setting foot on campus. We are exploring every avenue to give West Virginia’s children the skills they need.

Our state’s history has shown that we can succeed in improving education when we focus on shared goals. West Virginia made pre-K education available to all four-year-olds. We have increased our high school graduation rate, though at a slower rate than many other states. As we tell students, we can achieve anything if we work hard enough. So, let us work together to reinvigorate and reshape our schools. Let us create a fully rounded ecosystem of education that is truly lifelong, one in which our interdependencies are our greatest strengths. If students are to excel in college, they must get the best possible preparation from the very beginning. Pre-K is a great start, but the critical period for brain development occurs even earlier, in life’s first three years.

Recently, the percentage of infants and toddlers living in low-income families has risen. These children face many disadvantages that can impede their success in school. For example, children in high-income families hear 33 million more words by age 3 than those in low-income families. Just as children are learning to play, the playing field is already skewed against some of them. As someone with toddler granddaughters, I find that tragic. High-quality early childcare can help to level the playing field.

A recent Kids Count report showed that our state has a dire shortage of high-quality childcare programs for its youngest children. Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman found that investing in our youngest children produces greater returns than investments in any other age group. Let us advocate for those investments. As children go through school, let us challenge and inspire them with the best possible science, technology, engineering, and math instruction. STEM is the future—for our children, our state, and our nation. In order to meet its workforce needs, the United States will need approximately 1 million more STEM professionals than are projected to graduate over the next decade. Without them, it will be difficult to maintain America’s traditional world leadership in innovation.

At the same time, we must resist the temptation to bolster STEM by gutting education in the arts and humanities. The arts make our lives richer, more compassionate, more fulfilled. They are, in fact, what make us uniquely human. Throughout students’ schooling, we also must open their eyes to global perspectives. The United States can out-think the rest of the world, but not by closing in on ourselves. And when students get to high school, we must urge them to take more rigorous courses.

In a 2012 ACT survey, only one-fourth of the college instructors said their incoming students are well or very well prepared for first-year courses. But even the most well prepared student will not earn a degree if he or she cannot afford to attend college. In West Virginia, we are celebrating the 15th anniversary of the PROMISE Scholarship—a wonderful tool for increasing educational access. We must fight against any further erosion to the program. We in higher education must also make sure that students who enter college leave with a degree. I used to joke that universities have deans of admission, but not what we really need—deans of completion. I am proud to say we have actually created such a position at West Virginia University.

Finally, we must all tell our stories. It is up to us to explain the value of education, to individuals and to society. We need to describe in concrete terms how education changes lives, improves communities, feeds the world, sustains art and culture, and cures diseases. Education equals empowerment.

From panhandle to panhandle and throughout every hill and valley, education has the ability to lift up all West Virginians and improve their lives. We have not a moment to waste. The urgency grows every day. And, for West Virginia, failure is not an option. Over the past two summers, I have visited each county in our state—often more than once. I have shaken the hands of business people, embraced teachers and nurses, and high-fived young students. I have looked into their eyes and carried their stories back to campus. I have seen how much people love this state. I know how much all of you love this state. And I understand why—because I love it, too. But I have also seen that West Virginians are crying out for new ideas and effective leadership like never before. And I can sum up what they need most in one word: Hope. Against all odds, after enduring so many hardships, the people of West Virginia are optimistic about the future. West Virginians are among the most resilient people I have ever met, but we must give them a reason to keep hoping.

In the simple language of advertising, it is time to Go Big or Go Home. West Virginia needs fearless innovators. We need strategic risk-takers. We need to take aim at that most fearsome of tyrannies—“the way we do things here.” In short: We need leaders. That is where you come in. You would not be serving our schools if you did not care about your community, your state, and its future. It took me years to become confident in my leadership role. Whether you have been a board member for a long or short time, I am sure you are continuing to learn and grow every day.

So I thought I would share the most important lessons I have learned about being a leader. Maybe they can help you avoid some of my mistakes—and help us protect West Virginia’s elephant population.

1. Get comfortable with who you are and what you represent.

Good people get things done. But truly extraordinary people bring something more to their work than the will to achieve. They bring such their humanity. They bring humor, caring, humility and the courage to be one’s self.

I learned this most important lesson during my first tenure at West Virginia University. This institution gave me my first chance to serve as a president when I was only 36. I do not know what they were thinking. Early in my first tenure at West Virginia University, a couple of old-time professors came by and said, “You’re not doing very well.” When I asked why, they said, “You don’t look and act like a university president.”

So I tried to change and become a little bit more stoic and standoffish, and what I discovered was that I was miserable and I was also failing. So I just went back to wearing my argyle socks and my bow ties, and I have remained a university president for a long time.

2. Be serious, but do not take yourself too seriously.

You cannot allow yourself to believe everything your election flyers say about you. You possess all the frailties of humankind. On my summer tours of West Virginia, I have had my share of silly moments, from attempting my best Mothman imitation in Point Pleasant to making the acquaintance of piglets in Braxton County. Often, moments like these help you bond with people in ways that lofty speeches and airbrushed portraits never will.

3. Have thick skin, nerves like sewer pipes, and a good sense of humor.

Criticism, as I noted earlier, is part and parcel of leadership. It can be difficult to remain calm, especially when you are new to your role. I still remember the first time a student newspaper reporter criticized me. A certain amount of criticism has continued from institution to institution. Do not let the letters and e-mails that stream into your office push you into unwise decisions. You have more information than the letter writers, and if they had the same information, they would probably make the same decisions you are. Remember, though, that some criticism can be constructive.

On my summer tours, I have learned that a vast chasm remains between our campus and other parts of the state. To people in towns like Pineville and Welch, Morgantown is a ‘big city.’ Despite their fondness for gold-and-blue and the Flying WV, they feel a disconnect. I am determined to change this. Sometimes, criticism and concerns can show you the way to move forward and make your operation stronger. But when it comes to non-constructive criticism—ignore it.

4. Have passion for your work.

University of California President Clark Kerr believed that a university president should avoid becoming too involved with his or her university. That might have worked for him, but it would never work for me, and I doubt it will work for you. I urge you to have passion for your work and unequivocal faith in its importance. Because I truly believe that West Virginia University changes lives, I am its biggest cheerleader—and I never put down my pom-poms.

5. Understand that your experience differs from others’ within the school system.

Organizations are like prisms—they reveal unique aspects from every viewing angle. You have a great vantage point as a leader, but there are some things you do not see. For example, university presidents do not have to deal with some bureaucratic encumbrances that students and staff members face. That is why it is important to reach out. Treat everyone you work with as a teacher, regardless of their title or background.

6. Do not believe that people will always treat one another with respect.

Early on, I thought this would happen automatically. Unfortunately, on many occasions, my belief proved to be naïve. I changed my passive expectation to an active one: We will treat others with respect. Our role as leaders is to make things right before they go wrong, or to eliminate the possibility of wrong occurring, to create and maintain a culture where measures for equality would be too integral to our daily operations to be thought of as controversial. Life is tough enough without having to be around egotistical, abrasive, or duplicitous people.

7. Do not tolerate non-performers.

Great people will not stay with an organization that tolerates sub-par performers. When mediocrity becomes acceptable, great people will leave, and the non-performers will lower your standards. Do not let this happen.

8. Recruit and retain people, outstanding people.

The ultimate litmus test for leaders is the ability to recruit and retain people who are stronger than themselves.

9. Respect traditions, but do not let them imprison you.

We must always guard against tradition becoming a barrier to progress. Leaders must look to liberate energies imprisoned by long-held habits, and habits of mind. “But we’ve always done things this way!” is not an acceptable rationale for anything. Today, in our country, rules have replaced leadership. Regulations and outdated laws have us handcuffed. No one ever asks, “What is the right thing to do here?” Instead they wonder, “What does the rule book say?” I say it is time to toss out the damn rule book.

I love to tell the story of how when I arrived at West Virginia University I was told I had to take a driver’s test. They said everyone who works here has to take it. I asked why. The answer was that the University received an insurance discount—but that discount was so small, it was dwarfed by the loss in hours of staff productivity. Guess what? No more driver’s test. We must ask the question, “Why?” We must cut through the red tape that is holding us prisoner. We must move from nonsense to common sense.

I strongly believe that freedom begets human creativity and goodwill. Making our own choices empowers us to take risks, to innovate, to fail—and to get up and try again. We must put aside personal agendas, break down silos, and work as ONE West Virginia, for ONE West Virginia.

10. Remember that work is not the highest value in a successful life.

Do not push yourself and your work so hard that you have insufficient time to think, to read, to create, and to share the joy of other human beings. Do not spend so much time serving others that you neglect yourself and your loved ones. Any achievement without personal growth and the joy of relationships is empty.

I learned these 10 leadership lessons the hard way. I hope you can put them into practice more quickly because West Virginia’s children are counting on you. Education expands opportunity, stimulates the economy, and creates jobs. But it does even more than that: It frees every girl and boy in our state to pursue their boldest dreams.