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Gordon Gee: Celebrate WVU’s legacy by imagining the state’s future

By By Gordon Gee

In February 1867, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah and 12 other territories had yet to join the United States. Secretary of State William Seward had yet to even commit the “folly” of purchasing Alaska. Much of what would become our country was still unsettled prairie — the rugged land that a girl named Laura Ingalls, who was born on Feb. 7, 1867, would memorialize in classic children’s books.

On that same date, one of America’s newest states — still recovering from the Civil War that birthed it — created a land-grant university. The federal government provided the land, and the people of West Virginia dared to imagine new opportunities for their children.

Land-grant education grew from the radical new idea of opening higher education to the masses and using university-created knowledge to improve citizens’ lives.

Trying new things is risky, and often we search for alibis to avoid it. But change is inevitable, and if we are not the architects of change, we will become its victims. As the state’s land-grant institution, West Virginia University embraces transformation to create a thriving future for West Virginians.

Our situation today is not as dire as the one our country was recovering from in 1867, but we do live in a time of rapid and disorienting shifts to the world we once knew. Consider a few statistics compiled by Pew Research Center:

n Middle-income households make up a declining share of the U.S. population, and the financial gap between middle- and upper-income households has increased.

n By 2055, the U.S. will not have a single racial or ethnic majority.

n More than three-quarters of Americans now own smartphones, and about 70 percent use social media.

n By 2050, the number of Americans aged 65 or older will rise dramatically.

n More than half of all adults in the American labor force will need to get training and develop new skills throughout their work life to succeed, and more than one-third say they currently lack the education and training they need to get ahead.

n Jobs that require less education, training and experience are growing at the slowest rate and are most vulnerable to automation in coming decades.

n Employment in manufacturing has declined by about one-third since 1990.

It is not surprising that Americans are looking for new ways forward. And in West Virginia, where economic shifts have triggered a budget crisis, the need for new solutions is acute.

Higher education has never been more important as a pathway to success. College graduates ages 25 to 34 working full time earn about $20,000 more annually than those with only a high school diploma — the highest gap in decades. The unemployment rate for adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher is about 2.5 percent, about half the rate of those with only high school diplomas.

Our university is preparing students to thrive in tomorrow’s economy, where qualities such as creativity, flexibility and technological savvy will drive success.

For example, startup firms are powering much of the growth in today’s economy. So we are giving students the skills to start their own businesses through such programs as the Launch Lab, our resource center for budding entrepreneurs; our high school and college business plan competitions; and our new Women’s Business Center.

Our undergraduate general education curricula, Project 168, helps students to enrich every moment on campus with academics, personal and professional development, community service and global exploration. New majors and certificate programs are preparing our students for growing career fields — from the music industry and hospitality to data marketing communications and craft beer tourism. And we have increased access to higher education in southern West Virginia by opening a campus in Beckley.

As education is the key to individual success, an educated populace is the key to long-term prosperity in West Virginia. Research shows a direct link between the educational attainment of a state’s citizens and the strength of its economy. Well-educated workers command higher wages, and higher incomes produces more tax revenues for state budgets.

Another key to prosperity is improving health in West Virginia. WVU Medicine, the largest employer in the state, is tackling our deadliest health threats, including opioid addiction, heart disease and diabetes.

West Virginia University researchers also are breaking new grounds in alternative fuels, the neurosciences, energy, forensics, digital publishing and other fields with the potential to improve lives and fuel economic growth.

After 150 years serving West Virginians — through wars, economic fluctuations and incredible technological advancement — our university is celebrating by reimagining what West Virginia can do and become. We are making the critical, necessary decisions while focusing on our polar star: To help 1.8 million West Virginians design a thriving future that surpasses anything our forebears dreamed of on Feb. 7, 1867.

Gordon Gee is president of West Virginia University, which is celebrating its 150th birthday this year.

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