WVU’s E. Gordon Gee speaks on the record

MORGANTOWN – He’s among the most recognized college presidents in the nation, he wears a bow tie and he has a plan to move West Virginia University forward in the next five years.

He’s E. Gordon Gee and in his first full-length interview with any media outlet since his return in January as president of West Virginia University, he goes on the record Sunday with The Parkersburg News and Sentinel.

Gee, who was president of the university from 1981-85 before moving on to other schools, discusses his reasons for returning to Morgantown after retiring last June from Ohio State University, his priorities for WVU and the school’s niche in the higher education marketplace, the cost of higher education and the story behind the bow tie.

During a 30-minute question and answer session at his Stewart Hall office, the full transcript of which will appear in Sunday’s edition, Gee said his top priority is for the university to become both “one place” and also “agile and simple.”

“We’re a very complex place and unfortunately we’ve built a lot of silos. We are a series of colleges and programs connected by a PRT (Personal Rapid Transit and not by common values. We need to move from being a cacophony to a chorus, we need to start singing together,” he said.

“I tell everyone we are an elephant, and we need to become a ballerina because we will not remain an elephant, we can only go another way and that’s become a dinosaur,” he said. “We’re going to have to embrace change or else we’re going to become irrelevant, and irrelevancy is not something I accept.”

Gee also discussed the importance of a traditional liberal arts education when it comes to the future of democracy.

“We’re in a world that is very competitive. There are 1.2 billion Indians, 1.3 billion Chinese, and we’re not in direct competition with them but we are, and we’re only 320 million souls in this country. So therefore the world of ideas is very important to us, the world of creativity is very important to us, so that notion of having a liberal arts-based education. You have engineers who can read Shakespeare, you have humanists who can understand the technical world and together this notion of an educated citizenry which forms the basis of our democracy is going to be even more critical going forward,” he said.

“If you don’t do that, we stand a chance of losing both our ability to be able to compete but also our ability to be able to sustain our democracy. We need to make sure everyone has the ability to think and to ask great questions. That’s the most important ability we can pass on.”

Gee said WVU can contribute to the state’s economy through not only research but getting that research into the marketplace.

Just take a look at the one thing we’re doing right now, horizontal drilling. That was really developed in universities. The confluence of great ideas created in universities, and then those universities creating jobs and opportunity, is a real calling and I think this is the real responsibility of West Virginia University,” he said.