MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia University President Gordon Gee, while delivering the State of the University address, was adamant there is no room for complacency even as budgets dwindle, employee hiring policies are certain to change and national politics spark upheaval.
“We’ve become entirely too complacent in our actions and passive in our rhetoric. In hopes of offending no one, we say very little of value. In hopes of not being a political target from the left or the right, we step aside,” Gee declared before more than 100 people at the Erickson Alumni Center Wednesday, March 22.
Gee addressed faculty, staff, reporters and others at about the same time Governor Jim Justice indicated no Republican representatives accepted his invitation into a war room budget discussion. Republicans have offered a framework for a budget that addresses a $500 million deficit, but specifics have not been revealed.
While Gee said he can appreciate the budget deadline lawmakers are up against, he is quick to remind the state legislature WVU has taken a $30 million cut in state funding in the past three years. He, among others, anxiously awaits a solution to the current budget hold up.
“You know, I’ve been in states where they go on forever. You know, I like to sleep at night,” Gee joked. “I think it’s important for them to come to a conclusion. But, we want to do it right. You don’t want to use the 60 days as a bludgeon just to get something done and get out of town. It has to be done right.”
The State of the University address follows a joint statement released by Gee and Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert that indicated students would feel the brunt of further budget cuts through increased tuition.
Gee said lawmakers should not snub higher education at budget time.
“We are the economic engine. We hire more people. We’ve created more economic activity. We have a greater return on state investments than anything else in the state. So, you support the things that brought you to the dance.”
Meanwhile, staff members will be watching closely to see how the passage of House Bill 2542 will impact them.
“We supported legislation that would empower us to design our own policies for hiring and compensation – policies that incentivize performance and enhance employee engagement,” said Gee.
He added that common, traditional practices propagate mediocrity.
“It means building a merit-based University. It means rewarding people for what they do best. We need to value each faculty and staff member as an individual, with individual strengths he or she brings to our institution,” Gee explained.
Gee used his speech to emphasize the university’s expansion, recruitment and retention efforts.
“There also is no better example of meeting the needs of our state than by those who serve at our divisional campuses. As we complete the move of our Montgomery campus to Beckley this summer, we are opening new opportunities to students in southern West Virginia and the surrounding region.”
Since Gee’s last State of the University address, President Donald Trump has taken office at the White House.
Leading up to the November 2017 election and since President Trump’s inauguration, issues on the national political stage have played out on campus. Controversial former Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos was an invited guest of the College Republicans. While on stage, the alt-right writer called out a liberal professor who hosted an event on campus at the same time.
The same month, WVU hosted a forum and vigil for international students in the wake of developing immigration regulations.
Gee told his audience WVU has a responsibility to teach students peaceful debate and to be inclusive.
“Any attempt to deny free speech, let me say that again. Any attempt to deny free speech protections to others is a threat to our own freedom. It is a threat to education, and it is a threat to democracy itself.”
Focusing on appreciation, WVU’s president made a point to recognize a $10 million dollar donation from Bob and Laura Reynolds that will lead to Stansbury Hall being razed to allow land for new construction.
“Their gift will provide initial funding for a new business school complex which will be a community for our students and a hub of business activity on Morgantown’s waterfront. Bob and Laura saw college’s success in preparing students for careers, learned about the vision for the future and took steps to make it a reality.”
In his address, Gee announced the five core values he said are being embodied by Mountaineers in the year ahead.
They are service, curiosity, respect, accountability and appreciation.