In a special State of the University address, West Virginia University President Gordon Gee heralded the accolades of the Mountaineer community but also set out a vision to reinvent the state and its flagship, land-grant university.
State of the University addresses at WVU typically take place every October, but Gee couldn’t wait seven more months to publicly applaud WVU’s ascension to an R1, or highest research activity, classification by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Learning. The ranking is shared by only 114 other universities, including the likes of Yale, Duke and Johns Hopkins, and authenticates WVU’s quality on the global stage, Gee said.
On Tuesday (March 1) at the Erickson Alumni Center, Gee encouraged the WVU community to ride this wave of momentum into strengthening three critical pillars of the University and the state: education, health care and broad-based prosperity.
“As our recent achievements show, West Virginia University is on an upward trajectory,” Gee said. “Our momentum gives us the power to lift our entire state. Our land-grant heritage deeds us the moral obligation to do so.”
In front of hundreds of students, faculty and staff, Gee called for a “complete overhaul, not casual tinkering,” of education in West Virginia.
“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,” he said.
One link in the chain to transformation includes the opening of the WVU Beckley campus this coming fall, along with the proposed move the next year of WVU Institute of Technology to the Beckley campus. The move promises to make WVU-quality education more accessible to people in southern West Virginia, Gee said.
Transformation must also begin before students arrive on campus, he added. Here, Gee referenced Extension’s highly acclaimed Energy Express program, in addition to a recent alliance with 100Kin10, a national network working to bring 100,000 new STEM teachers into schools by 2021. WVU has committed to double the number of math and science teachers the University produces to an average of 40 annually by 2018, and 60 annually by 2020.
Gee also touted the Health Sciences and Technology Academy, which was recently awarded more than $200,000 by the Annie E. Casey Foundation to replicate the program in other states, and the ACCESS WVU Early College Program, which introduces high school students into university-level study. ACCESS has attracted aspiring Mountaineers from 69 high schools in West Virginia and eight other states.
For current members of the campus community, the University continues to hone Project 168 and ways to reward faculty and staff.
“If we truly appreciate great teaching, then we should look for ways to give teaching faculty equality of status and job security,” Gee said.
“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.”
Over the years, West Virginia has consistently ranked as one of the unhealthiest states in the country. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, West Virginia has the highest percentage of adult smokers, the third-highest rate of adult obesity, the second-highest rate of adult diabetes, the second-highest cancer death rate, the higher percentage of adults with hypertension, and the second-lowest life expectancy at birth.
According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, West Virginia also tops the nation with the highest rate of drug overdose deaths, more than twice the national average.
“These statistics are simply unacceptable,” Gee said. “West Virginia deserves better, every one of us deserves better, and we are capable of doing better.”
WVU Medicine is devoting research, clinical care and outreach leaders to combat prescription medicine abuse and heroin addiction. For example, the WVU Law Enforcement Naloxone Project provides law enforcement with the necessary training to administer naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of overdose. Meanwhile, WVU Medicine offers a telepsychiatry program that has served more than 6,000 patients in 2014 with addiction treatment.
Improving the state’s overall health and quality of life will take more than just WVU’s efforts. That’s why WVU has partnered with Marshall University to jumpstart health care research and delivery with $1.5 million in projects across the state.
“By reinventing healthcare, we can ensure that West Virginians thrive – not merely survive,” Gee said.
Action without strategy may not net the most desired result. WVU is leaning on outside firms to examine its playbook. Gee announced that the University is in conversations with McKinsey Consulting, through the Center for Big Ideas, on ways to spark an immediate reversal in West Virginia’s economy.
WVU has also cultivated a relationship with the Gallup organization.
“They (Gallup) have taken an intense interest with working with a few universities on projects impacting the future,” Gee said. “Our project with Gallup will focus on how one reinvents a university to lead the reinvention of a state.”
Banking on the successes of two existing SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) teams, WVU is forming additional teams to examine everything from how the institution recruits talent to increasing student retention to simplifying business functions. Gee said these teams will identify $45 million in cost savings and revenue generation over the next five years.
For reinvention to commence, Gee stressed that the University must remain true to its free speech roots.
“Unfortunately, these days, we see minds closing and civil discourse withering all around us,” Gee said. “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.
“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.”
McConnell highlighted the breakthroughs of faculty members such as Sean McWilliams, assistant professor of physics and astronomy. McWilliams was part of a team of scientists that detected gravitational waves – the last big puzzle piece of Einstein’s theory of relativity. McWilliams is a member of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, which confirmed invisible ripples in spacetime.
“The day after his team’s achievement was announced, Sean walked into his physics 101 class of 135 mostly freshmen students, just like he does every day – but this time they gave him a round of applause,” McConnell said.
“I am so excited to know that we inspire that spirit in our students to meet the challenge and to make this world a better place,” she said.
King said, “In the past few months, we have witnessed the impact that the work of our faculty, staff and students can have on the world and the universe. I think of WVU as covering the spectrum of research from very, very basic to very, very applied. We don’t do one thing, we do many things.”
King introduced the following researchers who took part in a meet-and-greet following Tuesday’s remarks: Cheryl Ball, associate professor of English, digital publishing; Dan Carder, director of the Center for Alternative Fuels, Engines and Emissions, diesel emissions; Sally Hodder, director of the West Virginia Clinical and Translational Science Institute, clinical and translational science; Bingyun Li, associate professor of Orthopaedics, electrochemical systems research (representing the research of Xingbo Liu, professor of Mechanical Engineering Maura McLaughlin, professor of Physics and Astronomy, neutron stars and NANOGrav; and McWilliams.
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