The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Sunday Profile

March 23, 2014

Home to these hills

Blue and gold bowties are a wardrobe staple of WVU president E. Gordon Gee once again

New West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee is no stranger to West Virginia’s rolling hills.

He served as dean of WVU’s College of Law in 1980, and first began his streak of university presidencies at WVU in 1981.

A few schools and decades later, the university’s rich hues of blue and gold have once again found a place among his prized collection of bowties. As of March 3, Gee reassumed his presidency at the place where it all began for him nearly 35 years ago.

Gee’s daughter, Rebekah, was only 3 years old when she occupied a bedroom in the WVU president’s dwelling, Blaney House, Gee said.

When he was offered the opportunity to return to WVU once again, Gee said he looked to his daughter for advice. Her reply, he said, was, “Go home, Dad.”

“She really felt that this was where our lives started as a family, and I think that in so many ways, that’s the way that I feel,” he said. “I feel blessed to be home.”

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Gee said his return to WVU presents a unique challenge because, in many ways, the university is already actively headed in a positive direction.

“Instead of coming in and fixing something, I have to come in and accelerate the momentum,” Gee said. “That’s an interesting challenge.”

He does, however, have several ideas of where to begin.

“I think what we can really do is focus on keeping our bright and able young people here, and opening the doors to really talented people and closing them behind them. “That’s our future. Our future is keeping our good people here and creating jobs so that they can stay here.”

Gee added that he also plans to work on uniting the home front, both in Morgantown and across the state.

“I think we need to be one university,” Gee said, explaining he believes that the university and the individual colleges comprising the institution have become somewhat disconnected.

“We need to be a chorus instead of a cacophony,” he said.

Because it is the single largest producer of jobs in the state, 1.8 million West Virginians rely on WVU in so many ways, Gee said.

“The blessing of West Virginia (University) is the fact that it is both one of this nation’s important research universities, particularly in terms of what we’re doing in health care and in terms of clean coal research,” Gee said, “but we’re also a land-grant university, and … very few, if any, universities in this country have a better calling and a responsibility than we do.”

Gee credits WVU’s Extension Service (WVUES) for playing a vital role in the university’s outreach initiatives.

WVUES has offices in each of the state’s 55 counties, offering valuable resources and programming in health, economic development, agricultural education and more.

“Our extension programs reach everyone, and they really embed themselves in the hearts and minds of the people of this state,” Gee said.

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In a time that online programs are proving a popular option for higher education, Gee wants to emphasize and improve upon the value and benefits afforded by choosing an on-campus college experience.

“Exposure to ideas, opportunities, music, art, literature, pizza parties at night … (that) cultural ambiance really is the learning experience,” Gee said. “That’s what we have to really concentrate on.”

With a multitude of major construction projects currently under way at WVU, including Evansdale Crossing, a connecter building to be situated near the Engineering PRT station, and University Place, a multi-level retail and residential complex, the structural landscape of WVU is modernizing and positioning itself for the future, he said.

Gee announced that a major curriculum overhaul is in the works as well, which he said will also serve to improve the quality of the student experience.

He said the plans to work on improving the university’s student retention rates, and also hinted that changes to the university’s general education curriculum are being considered.

“Our institution, and I’m very pleased about this, is looking at a major change in our curricular structure, so that it becomes much more relevant and user-friendly right now.”

- - -

“One of the wonderful things about going away is the fact that when you come back, you realize the kind of uniqueness of the culture, and the kind of love affair that people have (with the state),” he said.

That culture, he feels, is one that is often undervalued and unappreciated by the state’s residents, and he wants to help see that improve.

“I didn’t come back here because someone chained me to a desk,” Gee said. “I came back here because it’s a wonderful place to live with wonderful people and a great institution.

“Sometimes I get a little irritated with the modesty of West Virginians about the quality of life and the quality of opportunity they have. I tend to think that we need to … focus more on how good we are, rather than the pot holes we have.”

Gee said he will continue to visit with alumni, extension agents and residents across the state to better familiarize himself with the state’s vision for itself going forward and how the university can assist in realizing that vision.

“One thing I’ve learned in a very short period of time is that it doesn’t matter where you go and where people graduate from: Everyone is a Mountaineer,” Gee said. “I think that’s both a blessing and a responsibility of the university that we have to accept.”

— E-mail: bunderwood@register-herald.com

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