MORGANTOWN, West Virginia — West Virginia University needs to cut away bureaucracy, increase enrollment and realize that state and federal funding won't carry the university into the 21st century, WVU President E. Gordon Gee said in his first State of the University address.
Gee, who became WVU's interim president last year and was named to the post permanently in March, spoke before alumni and staff at a packed Erickson Alumni Center. He talked about his 55-county tour across the state this summer, saying that it guided his ideas for where he believes the university needs to go.
Wearing a signature bow tie and well-fitted suit, Gee presented a plan for the university's future with the kind of jokes and linguistic flourishes that have made him a popular figure in Morgantown.
Part of his plan, the "One University" proposal, would eliminate bureaucracy at WVU, he said. He offered an example: "When I arrived (at the university), I was told I had to take a driver's test. They said everyone who works here has to take it. I asked, 'Why?'" Later, he continued,"Guess what? No more driver's test."
Beyond bureaucracy, Gee talked about the university's goal to increase enrollment by 7 percent, to 40,000 students across the state. He plans to invest more heavily in the university's faculty and continue investing in new buildings on campus. "I like to tell people I have an edifice problem," he joked.
Gee pushed expanded partnerships with businesses and organizations outside the university in the context of universities receiving diminished funding from the state. More than $42 million has been cut from in-state higher education funding since 2012.
"We can no longer rely on federal and state funds to support (the university's) aspirations," he said.
Gee also announced the creation of a WVU Center for Big Ideas, which he said is designed to "bring together faculty, staff, and students from across the university to tackle the big issues facing this state." He said those issues included energy, rural health, arts and culture, and so-called STEM studies — science, technology, engineering and math.
Gee said the center would be led by former West Virginia Gov. Gaston Caperton.
In all, Gee's ideas in the speech focused squarely on building partnerships and eliminating the perceived separation between Morgantown — a college town — and communities all over the state, which rely largely on coal and natural gas to provide high-paying jobs.
"We need to be present in the communities and the farms and at the gas wells," Gee said. "Present in our attendance. Present in our listening. And present in our actions when responding to their needs."
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