Op-ed: For 150 years, WVU has guided the state toward a brighter future

On Feb. 7, 1867, West Virginia University opened its doors, and a handful of West Virginians entered their state’s new land-grant University. This fall, we welcomed more than 6,000 freshmen alone to our three campuses in Morgantown, Beckley and Keyser.

The number of students we serve is only one metric demonstrating our University’s growing impact. Through research, healthcare and outreach, we are changing lives in ways no one could have imagined when Abraham Lincoln signed the act creating land-grant education.

But one constant has held true for 150 years – through wars, economic fluctuations and incredible technological advancements: West Virginia University has been and remains a polar star guiding West Virginians toward a brighter future.

That mission is the driving force for everything we do to advance education, healthcare and prosperity, the three pillars necessary to sustain a thriving West Virginia. Shoring up those pillars is particularly important now, as our state endures a difficult economic transition.

Nationwide, employment in manufacturing has declined by about one-third since 1990. Since 2008, 11.8 million jobs have emerged in this country. But only 80,000 of those jobs require only a high-school education. The rest require either a college degree or substantial post-secondary training.

Positioning West Virginia for the future requires that we stack hands to create new solutions. Certainly, we have no shortage of problems to solve.

In a Gallup study measuring physical, financial and social factors, West Virginians have reported lowest well-being in the nation for eight years in a row.

Forbes ranks us last in its Best States for Business list, and the Institute for Legal Reform calls us the least business-friendly state in the nation.

Our college-attainment rate is also the lowest, with fewer than 20 percent of citizens age 25 and older holding a post-secondary degree.

And, when it comes to health, we have a population ranking at or near the top in prevalence of diabetes, hypertension, obesity and drug overdose deaths.

Our state is crying out for change. But change does not mean shifting numbers or raising our ranks in various polls.

Change means elevating our vision of what is possible.

It means leveraging our assets and exploring new avenues for revenue and market growth.

It means addressing our state’s biggest health crises: opioid addiction, diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

It means erasing educational inequities in our school systems so we can position our youth for success – from preschool through professional programs.

Above all, it means abandoning a self-image of our state as “less than.”

Instead, we must embrace our strengths, apply them to our problems and believe that we can make a difference.

We are not rising out of despair.

We are moving forward.

In healthcare, we are establishing such cutting-edge resources as a Neurological Critical Care Unit.

Our researchers are advancing efficient, sustainable energy production through projects that turn natural gas into valuable products.

Mountaineers are opening children’s eyes to the joy of discovery by facilitating robotics projects for schoolchildren, giving virtual music lessons to rural students, operating the longest-running conservation camp in the nation and helping to educate more science and math teachers for our state’s schools.

And as we move forward, in these and many other ways, we will always follow our University’s own polar star — our mission to advance education, healthcare and prosperity for all.

When the people of a new state created a land-grant university, they dared to imagine a better world and chose a bold new path to take them there.

With a similar pioneering spirit, our University and our citizens can move West Virginia forward to secure financial ground, improved health, a stellar educational system and a future beyond our current imagining.

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Gordon Gee is president of West Virginia University.

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