By Wendy Holdren
BECKLEY, W.Va. — Community colleges train people to do jobs. Universities, however, generate the ideas that create the opportunities for those jobs.
That’s the philosophy of West Virginia University President Dr. Gordon Gee, and that’s precisely his goal in moving the state of West Virginia forward.
“This university is in a unique position to make an impact in this state,” Gee said Thursday in a meeting with The Register-Herald’s editorial board. “We’re really focusing on economic development, and developing a strategy in that regard.”
WVU has hired McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm, to conduct a “deep dive” on West Virginia, Gee shared with The Register-Herald.
After he receives the firm’s recommendations, he plans to share them at the Economic Summit in August at The Greenbrier, then later in the year as the Legislature convenes.
“How do we think about West Virginia? How do we reinstate it? How do we reposition it?” Gee asks. “We have a tremendous amount of vitality in the state. We’re just not managing it right.”
He continued, “I think all of us know some of the problems. Not all of us know all the problems. What we’re trying to do here is we’re trying to figure out not so much the problems, but we really do need to finally have a stacking of hands to think about solutions. It’s not about the university — the university is the umbrella.”
While Gee anticipates the findings of the McKinsey report, he said West Virginia must focus on its assets.
From the state’s energy assets to manufacturing possibilities and community activities, Gee said that’s what the McKinsey study is all about — “providing the seeds of ideas to change the opportunities that exist.”
“We don’t understand how good we are,” he said. “We spend a lot of time talking about our problems, and not enough talking about the opportunities and solutions we have.”
In dissecting the state’s 1.8 million population, Gee said every problem in the country can be found here in the Mountain State. Indeed, he said, “We have raced to the bottom.”
But, Gee added, West Virginia is a state small enough to change the arc of its future almost overnight.
“If you’re the mayor of New York, you can’t change a damn thing. You can nibble at the edges. Or if you’re in Los Angeles, it’s like playing whack-a-mole,” he said as he mimicked the motion of whacking here and there.
“But here, we can do it.”
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As Wheeling native and WVU Student Government President Blake Humphrey sees it, the state silos itself into regions — Northern Panhandle, Eastern Panhandle, southern West Virginia, etc.
Humphrey, a recent WVU graduate now seeking his master’s degree, said these regional mindsets need to dissolve.
“Whether I’m in the tip of the top in Chester in Hancock County or whether I’m in Welch in McDowell County — it’s still the same state and we still have the same passions and motives, and that’s to make our state a vibrant place to be — a place where my peers, my friends want to stay in.”
Finding a way to get the 65 percent of young West Virginians leaving the state to change their mind is one of Dr. Gee’s many goals.
“We’ve exported four things,” Gee said. “We’ve exported oil; we’ve exported gas; we’ve exported coal; and we’ve exported talent, and we’ve got to stop that.”
Many West Virginians already believe in the state, he said. They’ve left not because they wanted to, but because they had to.
“Everything in the world boils down to two things — talent and culture. We have a lot of very talented people here, but we have to create a culture in which their talent is recognized and which is valued and which they believe we believe in them.”
Courageous decisions must be made, Gee says, decisions that require investment.
“We have to start thinking about moving from a deficit mentality to that notion of investment. Investment is the strategy to get people to believe in who we are.”
With its academic medical center, Gee said, WVU is the largest employer in the state. The university, not only in terms of jobs, but also in terms of opportunities, has a large footprint in the state.
“We’re training teachers, physicians, engineers and lawyers who will be the future, but also our goal is to really develop a strategy.”
He said to bolster the economy and create opportunity for those teachers, physicians, engineers and lawyers, investments must be made.
“The university, without a doubt by any measure, is the most significant place to invest money right now. Public schools are important. Roads are important. Every other thing is important.
“But without the intellectual infrastructure, and without the capacity to keep our young people here, and without the capacity to create people who can create jobs… Universities create the ideas that create the opportunities for people to do jobs.”
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WVU, Gee believes, has a responsibility in the creation of jobs and prosperity, as well as working toward solutions for some of West Virginia’s greatest problems.
He said the university is working closely with Marshall University on solutions in the opioid epidemic. WVU is also working toward solutions for the state’s overwhelming rates of obesity, hypertension, diabetes and more.
WVU has led the way in heart and vascular care, and will now focus on cancer in kids.
“Too many of our people have to leave the state to get that kind of care,” Gee said.
But ultimately, he’d like to take a more proactive approach, rather than reactive.
“We’re in the wellness business. Our No. 1 priority is to start thinking about how we can get people to start thinking about their well-being. That’s where we have failed. We’ve provided health care for the purposes of getting people well, rather than providing opportunities for people to stay well.”
Gee said as WVU Tech settles into the Beckley campus after its move from Montgomery, the university has discussed opportunities to work together with area hospitals. He said a number of different affiliation arrangements, rather than acquisitions, must be in place.
“We don’t need to buy everything,” Gee said when asked about the possibility of purchasing Raleigh General Hospital. “We don’t need to Bigfoot everything. We need to make sure we have arrangements.”
He also believes opportunities lie within the Boy Scouts’ Summit Bechtel Reserve, where 40,000 young men will venture in July, along with 5,000 volunteers and corporate leaders who will experience Wild and Wonderful West Virginia.
“I’m on the executive council of the Boy Scouts of America,” Gee shared. “The Summit is a gem that we need to use to revitalize this state. The Boy Scouts have invested half a billion dollars in the finest facility in the world, and another half billion in leadership programs.”
As the Boy Scouts, volunteers and corporate leaders come to West Virginia, Gee said they’ll see the beautiful mountains and the unbelievable opportunities for outdoor recreation.
He believes they’ll see the value here, but West Virginians must see that value, too.
“We’ve always had a mindset, living in West Virginia, we’re close to Washington, Pittsburgh, New York and Chicago. We have to flip that so they say, ‘Isn’t it wonderful that Pittsburgh, Chicago, New York and Washington are so close to us?’ We have to talk about ourselves differently. We have to make West Virginia cool.”
— Email: [email protected] and follow on Twitter @WendyHoldren