MORGANTOWN — West Virginia University President Gordon Gee’s 2019 State of the University Address focused on one word: Hope.
“I am proud that we rank among the nation’s leading research universities,” he said. But WVU’s purpose is more than its prestige. “That purpose is producing hope.”
Hope is needed, he said, because of where West Virginia stands. Last month, West Virginia’s quarterly growth rate was the lowest of the 50 sates, at zero. “Our very round number stands out like a yawning chasm opening beneath all of our feet.
“We need to apply our unique resources to this purpose every day. Research shows that “hopeful people are happier, less lonely and more effective at reaching their goals. … Most of all, hope is a catalyst for change. And change is what we need. … I believe this university must always create a positive vison of the future.”
Creating that vision requires action, he said. “Only by acting can we nurture hope in ourselves and in others.”
Gee didn’t outline any new programs for WVU. Instead, he reviewed a list of programs and research under way that are helping WVU create hope.
He said later, “What I wanted to try to say today is that all of these programs have a purpose is creating a better West Virginia, but also creating opportunities for people to achieve things, and that’s where the hope lies.
One program deals with “Blue Zones,” five places around the world deemed healthiest and happiest, tied to diet, exercise, adequate sleep and other productive habits.
WVU is working with the city of Morgantown to become the first Blue Zone-certified community in the world, Gee said. They are working to craft ideas to support widespread health and wellness, and to turn those ideas into reality.
Beyond health, Gee said, WVU must also work to engineer prosperity. West Virginia ranks lower than any neighboring state for STEM graduates. So WVU is partnering with peer institutions to produce more STEM degrees by 2025, and introducing more degree and certificate programs for demand careers.
Gee also touched on the recent college admission scandals, student safety worries, and the overall declining opinion of universities as worthless touchy-feely institutions. “Our inability to connect with today’s society has weakened our voice about the public good that higher education provides.”
Gee cited economist and higher education expert Richard Vedder who said, “Land grant universities could win back the people’s favor by acting as the people’s universities again.”
That means answering such questions as ‘”Are we providing value?” It means becoming more student-centric and aligning academics with the university’s purpose.
During a Q&A session, Gee returned to the admissions scandal. He said it was driven by two things. One is the misguided ranking systems, such as the one by US News & World Report, that focus more on tuition than product. No public universities are in the US News top 20.
The other is “snowplow parents” who bully and bribe universities and turn their children into automatons in order to have cocktail party bragging rights about the prestige places their kids attend. “This notion if you don’t get into one institution you are worthless is a damn shame. … If you really want to get a great education, don’t go to the Ivies. Come to the land grant institutions. Come to the people’s universities where you have diversity and opportunity.”
He also addressed the question of whether liberal arts are dead. “I believe absolutely the opposite.”
During the next 10 to 15 years, he said, 80 percent of the jobs universities are training people for will disappear. Reading, writing, thinking, music and art will be the foundations for the new economy.
Before getting into the meat of his address, Gee took a few moments for some other matters. One was once again accepting blame and apologizing for his off-hand remark about Marshall University’s role in the campus carry legislation battle. “I have been justly chastised for my recent comments,” he said. A university president’s role is to set an inclusive, positive tone.
The other was to congratulate Provost Joyce McConnell for her selection as the finalist for Colorado state University’s president’s job. “Damn traitor!” he said, earning laughs across the room. “She has loved it here. She has been one of the most ardent believers and supporters of West Virginia University.”
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