By Mackenzie Mays
SPENCER — At the Roane County Library on Thursday, Gordon Gee got a basket stuffed with local honey, jam and a Black Walnut Festival hat.
“And that’s apple butter from my farm,” said Brandy Brabham, a member of the county’s West Virginia University Extension Service program, which helps run programs like 4-H and promotes community development on behalf of the school.
Gee, who was officially named the full-time president at WVU in March, has committed to a statewide tour — so far, visiting 46 of West Virginia’s 55 counties this summer. He blogs about his experiences on WVU’s website, visiting various businesses, schools and university alumni across the state.
Gee, 70, served as WVU president once before, in the 1980s. After a controversy over remarks he made last year as president at Ohio State University — where he was the highest-paid college president in the country — Gee returned to WVU after then-president Jim Clements left to oversee Clemson University.
Gee’s stop in Spencer on Thursday — which has a population of fewer than 2,500 — was not unlike many of the small, rural towns he’s visited on his tour. Those are the places where it is most clear to him what WVU means to the state, he said.
“It’s almost a spiritual experience for me — to know that, when I wake up in the morning, if I do what I’m doing well, that other people’s lives will be better. I mean, really, it’s very powerful to me,” Gee said. “I get very emotional about it because there’s very few people in life who can have that kind of opportunity to know that their lives are meaningful by making other people’s lives meaningful.
“You know, at this point in my life, and I say this in the right way, this is not something that I needed to do. It’s something that I wanted to do. I see this as a unique gift to me, so I want to do the very best job I possibly can.”
Gee, who also has overseen Vanderbilt University, Brown University and the University of Colorado, said he believes WVU has more power over a state than any institution he’s seen.
“Out of all of the universities that I’ve served, which are a lot, and of all the universities I’ve seen, which are a lot, I think that there’s undoubtedly a greater connection of opportunity and necessity between this university and this state of any institution I’ve seen,” he said. “We simply carry an immense responsibility. And so that’s a real privilege, but it also means we have to produce. We have to be engaged. We have to do what we’re doing right. We have to be involved with business and industry and the public schools.”
While Gee sees his return to the Mountain State as a homecoming, he admits that the university he leads now is not the same one he was in charge of decades ago.
“One of the challenges I’ve had to face is the fact that I knew the university 35 years ago. It’s not my mother’s university. It’s not the university that I knew. So I had to kind of de-learn it in order to relearn it,” he said. “This is a much different institution and a much different time for the university. It’s a much better institution in so many ways. Thirty years ago, you sent your student to the university to get an education and have a good time. I think that, today, you send your student to the university to get a great job and to have an opportunity to make a difference. Education and higher education in a lot of places, including this state, was thought of as an add-on or even as a privilege. Now, I think it is a necessity for both the students, that we’re training and educating, and for the state to be able to grow and enhance its own ability to be competitive in the world.”
West Virginia is changing, too, Gee said, which means the university’s role — which he perceives as “without a doubt, the central economic driving force” in the state — also is changing.
“West Virginia has always been the energy state. It is going through an economic resetting, and we will always remain an energy state but, now, energy means coal, it means gas, it means opportunities of Marcellus Shale. It also means there are environmental issues that we have to confront,” Gee said. “The opportunity for the university to engage with ideas and creativity to allow West Virginians to grow jobs, that’s really what we want to do.”
Gee admits the ongoing tour, which should be finished by Labor Day at the latest, is tiring, but said it won’t be his last. He said he plans to visit at least half of the counties in the state each summer.
“This is not a one-time tour. The thing about it is that people find you a curiosity, the first time around. The second time, though, you really get a chance to get to know people and learn a great deal and then see programmatic progress,” he said. “The honest way to talk about it is it’s both exhilarating and exhausting because this is a lot of travel, a lot of commitment, a lot of time and energy. But, really, I have just really enjoyed myself.”
To follow Gee’s tour, visit http://presidentgee.wvu.edu/55-county-tour-of-west-virginia.
Reach Mackenzie Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-4814 or follow @MackenzieMays on Twitter.