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Opinion: Last

By E. Gordon Gee, President, West Virginia University

“Last” can be defined as a conclusion; a time when things are done. However, as I prepare for my final – or last – year at West Virginia University, I am not focused on concluding my tenure as a university president. Instead, I am focused on ensuring the work we are doing at West Virginia University – to ensure every West Virginian has access to a world-class education, to improve the future of our beloved state and to contribute to our American democracy – will last. 

My life’s calling has been to change lives through education. And for 44 years, I have been inspired to work every day alongside others who have shared that calling with me. There is no doubt that higher education is at a pivotal moment today. At such a moment, it is important to remain grounded in the principles that form the foundation for our university.

President Abraham Lincoln changed American education forever when he signed the Morrill Act in 1862 and put access within the reach of every person in this country. The measure set aside federal lands for the creation of colleges to benefit agricultural and mechanical arts. Functionally, it created the land-grant university. And since 1862, land-grant universities like West Virginia University have been the doorway to the American dream. From personal experience, I believe land-grant universities stand out among American higher education due to their unique roles and responsibilities to their home states. Higher education can transform lives in incredible ways, but we must acknowledge its role in our collective society.

At a time of widespread political division and unrest across the world, the role of universities is as important as ever. I do not understand how to make a Tik Tok, but I do understand what the purpose of the university experience is. 

Universities are here to make people think. We should welcome challenging conversations and teach our students how to disagree without being disagreeable. We cannot allow students to only take a degree with them when they leave our campuses. It is paramount we ensure they also leave with the personal and career skills needed to flourish in the 21st century global economy. 

And so, I feel an even greater calling to speak to what I believe higher education must do to reach its potential and fulfill our responsibilities to our students, our country and our world. At West Virginia University, we are creating a roadmap to what the modern land-grant University should be. This is the result of the incredible dedication of many individuals: students, faculty, staff and the citizens of West Virginia, uniting behind a common purpose. 

In my office in Stewart Hall, you will find on the wall an American flag with 35 stars. It dates to June 20, 1863 – 161 years ago today – the day West Virginia became a state. Stitched during the Civil War, the flag represents the importance of keeping our country together and the promise of new – a new state and a new beginning.  

While West Virginia University is technically four years younger than our state, our destinies forever will be tied. That is what it means to be a flagship university. And we remember this in our work every day. Our faculty conducts research to directly benefit our state and our world at large. Our students engage in community service and experiential learning to help make our home a better place. We do not just reside in West Virginia, we live here. We cherish our role as contributors to our community. 

Each summer I visit the 55 counties in our beautiful state. These visits allow me to connect with so many inspiring West Virginians. I am there to listen, and I hear directly from West Virginians about the dreams they have for the future of our state and the expectations they have for their flagship University. Those dreams and expectations are the centerpiece of our work at West Virginia University. 

I wake up every day with a serious sense of responsibility to serve our 1.8 million West Virginians. That is not only my purpose, but the collective purpose of all of us at West Virginia University. That is why we have four pillars on which we focus: Education, Healthcare, Prosperity and Purpose. Education so that every West Virginian will have access to a world-class collegiate education. Health so that every West Virginian can find world-class healthcare right here in their home state. Prosperity so that our state’s economy thrives while developing more opportunities than have ever existed in our state’s history. And finally, purpose so that we create a better West Virginia for our children and grandchildren.

I am inspired by my fellow Mountaineers who have joined in pursuing these ideals. Our faculty, staff, students and alumni give us hope that a better future is not just possible, it is our destiny.  Because, simply put, there is greatness among our West Virginia hills.

As we have worked diligently in pursuit of our shared purpose, it has become abundantly clear that West Virginia University is an incredible force for good. As an R1 institution, we stand in the same research category as schools like MIT, Yale, and Stanford. With this prestigious classification, we focus on applied research. We are discovering ideas that will directly affect peoples’ lives. 

A great example is our work in neuroscience led by Dr. Ali Rezai. Our team is the first in the world with clinical trials for treatments for addiction, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. This work will not just benefit our state, but the entire world, and of that I am immensely proud. I am also proud that last year WVU reported a record $231 million in externally support expenditures, which are primarily designated for research. And we intend to break that record again this year.  

Our University is well-equipped to remain innovative and relevant into the future. Our majors provide pathways to vibrant careers, as well as the essential skills necessary to be good citizen in our society. Our academic programs like robotics, forensics and digital forensics, and data sciences are allowing Mountaineers to enter the 21st century economy with a leg up on their peers. 

I believe in the importance of higher education, and I believe even more deeply that it plays a critical role in the health of our American democracy. Higher education is responsible for developing not just the workforce of the future, but also our future leaders. Certainly, we need excellent leaders in the civic space, but we also need them in every space of American life. We need exceptional leaders with the ability and agility to navigate the incredible opportunities the 21st century presents. I know collectively higher education can play a crucial role in elevating our future workforce and leadership. Ultimately, we will do that by ensuring we are placing success within the reach of every American as President Lincoln envisioned all those years ago.  

Over my years in higher education, I have learned many lessons. One lesson I consider to be of utmost importance is that we must have a shared purpose if we are to succeed. At West Virginia University, we strive to improve the lives of West Virginians. It drives what we do every single day. If we embrace a shared purpose centered in service and learning, higher education will undoubtedly reach its greatest potential. We are doing that at West Virginia University, and we are making progress that will last for generations to come. 

WVU President E. Gordon Gee in 2024

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Feature image caption: WVU President E. Gordon Gee in 1981

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