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Expert: Higher ed crucial for economic gains


The Herald-Dispatch

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. —  An expert in building academic partnerships and using educational resources to spur economic development in climates similar to that of West Virginia visited Huntington on Wednesday to discuss his experiences.

“An investment in higher education is an investment in your future,” said Dr. Malcolm “Mack” Portera.
Portera, who is chancellor emeritus of the University of Alabama System, is widely recognized for his achievements in economic development, job creation, global initiatives and academic partnerships. He spoke at Marshall University’s Brad D. Smith Foundation Hall about a program that links community resources with higher education to expand economic activity.

“I believe the highest concentration of talent in a small, rural state is at its colleges and universities,” he said. “I would challenge you and encourage you to look for ways to contribute more to your local and state economies.”

While at Mississippi State University and at the University of Alabama, Portera has focused his efforts on growing new manufacturing investment in the U.S. Southeast, and his long history of involvement in industrial development has contributed to the location of $15 billion of capital investment in that region.

“The strategy has to be retention of existing companies, the recruitment of new investment and commercialization of innovation,” he said. “Never concern yourself with receiving credit, and always partner with the state and local economic development efforts.”

Portera was asked what West Virginia needs to do as a poorer, rural state to spur economic development and advance the economy.

“I don’t like to call a state a poor state,” he said. “I prefer to call them economically challenged states, and in an economically challenged state, the colleges and universities have a special responsibility to assist with the creation of jobs and economic development.”

Portera challenged Marshall University officials to find ways to accomplish its goals. He helped create the Materials in Information Technology Program, a key component of Alabama’s industrial development efforts.

“Find ways that are complementary to the teaching and research mission of the university,” he said.

Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert said, “Marshall is committed to being a leader in advancing our state by contributing to an educated workforce and assisting with economic development. I have known and worked with Mack Portera for many years. He has a real passion for connecting the resources at colleges and universities to help stimulate economic growth. It’s a relevant message for our state and region about where we want to take West Virginia’s economy.”

Gilbert said Marshall accepts Portera’s challenge.

“One of the challenges he was able to overcome was attitude,” Gilbert said. “You have got to be able to express a vision and get people on board and then carry that mission out. We don’t have to look at what is holding us back. We have to look at the possibilities and look at sources we may not normally look at to get a vision that will excite people. We have supporters and partners already in alumni, industry, business, community and political that can help us to make things happen. We are going down to Birmingham to look at the Innovation Depot there. We need an Innovation Depot here in Huntington. It’s a small start, but it’s a way to suggest to people locally that we can provide incubator space and provide more opportunities to entrepreneurs and to stimulate the economy that way. I think there are many different angles that we can approach it, and we have to be optimistic about what we can do.”

West Virginia Sen. Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, attended the event and said Marshall is not facing the challenge alone.

“I think the challenge is very equally placed to legislators as well,” he said. “If you want to look at growing your economy and workforce, you better be thinking twice about cutting higher education.”

Bill Bissett, president and CEO of the Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce, also attended the event and said he shares Portera’s message of the importance of higher education in economic development.

“While many of us already believe that public institutions of higher learning can be strong economic engines, what we learned from Dr. Portera was great examples of how he led other learning institutions to create new jobs and opportunities that also made higher education more relevant and connected to the communities where they are located,” Bissett said. “It is important to recognize that he achieved these accomplishments in similar economies like we have in West Virginia. In addition to some optimism about our economic future, we also have a road map as to how it can be done.”

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