By college president norms, E. Gordon Gee was a young pup in his first go-round at West Virginia University.
After serving as College of Law dean for two years, Gee, at the budding age of 36, catapulted to the University presidency in 1981. He often recounts the tale of how the system tried to twist him, a lively man, into a lifeless machine.
Traditionalists wanted the Utah native to morph into a carbon copy of every other university president. But after a few months of straight ties and stoic speeches, Gee rejected the idea of conforming.
He refilled his wardrobe with colorful bow ties, argyle socks and suspenders. Well, they’re “suspenders” to the untrained fashionista. Gee calls them “braces,” which are different from suspenders because they don’t clip on — they attach to buttons inside the waistband.
Capping off his stylish threads were a quirky sense of humor and an affable rapport with the student population. And over the years, Gee learned that if you strive to emulate others, you are settling — and he never wanted to settle.
Now at the age of 70, Gee still wears bow ties, argyle socks and suspend … er … braces. His deviation from the formula carried him through noted presidential reigns at the University of Colorado, Brown University, Vanderbilt University and The Ohio State University (twice). And, again, he has found himself at the helm of West Virginia’s flagship, land-grant institution. He’s made a career of challenging the status quo, and he’s returned, a more seasoned version of his younger self, to disrupt again at WVU.
The son of an oil company worker and a schoolteacher made it big on his own terms. Not bad for a guy from a Mormon town short of 10,000 people. He seized the American Dream. And that’s one of the reasons he’s back — to empower the current generation of West Virginians with the same belief and will to seize their own future.
At his welcome back reception Dec. 10, 2013, in Morgantown, Gee made his intentions clear: “All 1.8 million West Virginia residents must believe in their hearts and minds that West Virginia University is their University.”
At the time, Gee was recruited to run the University for a term while officials sought a permanent replacement for the Clemson University-bound Jim Clements. Yet Gee was thinking for the long-term well-being of the state and the University, and two months later the Board of Governors retained Gee permanently.
He understood the inner workings of a land-grant institution and hoped to carry over his prowess in fundraising, outreach and elevating the academic profile. His self-made, start-up sensibilities helped make him the right person for leading a university in transition within a state in transition. But he knew he needed partners to help him lead change. To do that, he needed to reacquaint himself with the Mountain State, the place that gave him opportunity three decades earlier. So he embarked on a 55-county tour of West Virginia.
“I wanted to visit with the very people we are serving,” Gee said. “We need to be in the communities looking people right in their eyes, shaking their hands and wrapping our arms around them. We need to know their needs and create partnerships that embolden them because, after all, there’s nothing more important than a university fully committed to the social and cultural intellectual welfare of its state.”
One of Gee’s first stops took him through McDowell County, an important region of the state that has faced some of the steepest challenges in Appalachia. During a luncheon with community leaders in downtown Welch, Gee asked the crowd, “What can West Virginia University do for McDowell County?”
McDowell County Extension Agent Donald Reed piped up, “What would it take to bring the Mountaineer Marching Band down to McDowell?”
Gee said he would look into it.
Fast forward a few months and nearly 400 members of the marching band loaded onto nine buses outside the WVU Coliseum one summer morning.
Destination: McDowell County.
The “Pride of West Virginia” would perform for more than 2,000 people at the football season opener between rivals River View and Mountain View high schools in the town of Bradshaw. The schools moved the game from a Friday night to a Thursday night to accommodate the band’s schedule.
After all, it had been 26 years since the Pride of West Virginia last performed in McDowell County.
Yes. They kept count.
In his State of the University remarks in October, Gee vowed to never let 26 years pass by again.
“To me, having President Gee honor our request shows that he really does believe what he said — that WVU is the people’s university,” Reed said. “McDowell is the farthest county away from WVU, and that act showed that we are not forgotten. It also gave our kids a small taste of the opportunities that await them in Morgantown.”
Fulfilling that promise to McDowell County, and hearing its residents lead a “Let’s go Mountaineers!” chant, gave Gee chills. It was the culmination of the 55-county tour, he said, but it was just the beginning of working with communities to fulfill the promise of the state and its people.
While you may know and love our vibrant and yes, quirky, University president, he is already shaping startup culture for a University on the rise. Intensely curious, action-oriented and always questioning, Gee assures us we’re in for a different ride under his stewardship. To prepare for that journey, here are five things to know and appreciate about him, and why we’re gaga for Gee:
1. Idleness Irks
Nonperformance cannot be tolerated. Good people get things done. Extraordinary people go the extra mile.
Gee has preached these ideals again and again. And he practices what he preaches.
No other university president in the nation is on the move quite like Gee, meeting frequently with state and campus leaders and making phone calls at all hours of the day.
“One simply does not accomplish by sitting still,” he said.
Take Veterans Day, which many public workers had off. Like most days, Gee’s schedule couldn’t breathe that day.
That morning, Gee got his blood pumping with a workout at the gym. He started his official workday by honoring those who served at the University’s annual Veterans Appreciation Breakfast. Afterward, he met with a job candidate for internal auditor. He then made a phone call to the Board of Governors chair and was off to guest lecture at a law class by noon. Meetings with administrators filled his afternoon before he taped a segment for a statewide news program. More phone calls followed. He topped the day off hosting a dinner and lecture.
This “never stall” approach reflects an accelerating current in the Mountaineer universe — a wave of new initiatives have sprouted up in less than a year under his watch.
A Center for Big Ideas? Check.
SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) teams to cut through campus red tape and prioritize enrollment management? Sure.
A “Million Hour Match” that aims for 2 million hours of community service in the state by 2018? Goal set.
Gee’s philosophy of action over inaction has primed the campus community to carve grander, bolder paths. A culture of bureaucracy and diffidence has long plagued American society, especially in the world of academia, Gee believes. That mindset paralyzes progress, and rules get in the way.
“No one ever asks, ‘What is the right thing to do here?’” Gee said. “Instead they wonder, ‘What does the rule book say?’ I say it is time to toss out the damn rule book.”
2. Partner or Perish
Academics know the pressure of “publish or perish.” It’s an old adage describing higher ed’s expectation that scholars must continually publish academic work to maintain their careers.
But considering the state of today’s higher education system, abiding exclusively by “publish or perish” may lead us to perish.
Instead of continuing this selfcentric norm, “partner or perish” may be more appropriate.
Gee has served universities long enough to know that the only relationship academic units often had with one another was being connected by the same heating plant.
Silos divide individual colleges and departments. Students, staff, faculty and alumni exist on their own islands. At WVU, the machine consists of many pieces — from Healthcare to the Foundation to Athletics to divisional campuses, WVU Tech and Potomac State.
“If the only link that exists is a heating plant, we will not evolve,” Gee said. “If your people and departments are heading in different directions, the University as a whole isn’t moving forward, is it?”
Forming ONE WVU ranks as a top priority for Gee. Observing firsthand the unwavering, universal support for the University on his travels through every county in the state reaffirmed his belief that it’s best to be a chorus, not a cacophony.
And that collaboration extends beyond a single university.
Competition between campuses can stay on the playing fields and ball courts but, Gee believes, institutions of higher learning work toward similar goals: research and outreach, among them. So why not work together?
On his 55-county tour, Gee ventured into what some may perceive as green, enemy territory — Marshall University.
“We share a commonality,” Gee said. “The same can be said for all of the public and private four-year and community colleges in the state. After all, we are all part of ONE West Virginia.”
Gee speaks regularly with the president of Marshall University and other higher education leaders. In June, Gee received a gracious welcome at the Huntington campus when a group of creative arts students designed a handcrafted plate to give to him. Gee jokes that it’s perfect for serving Flying WV cookies.
Partnerships stretch beyond West Virginia’s borders, too. With the shale-energy boom, WVU and The Ohio State University announced a partnership this fall to conduct the first-ever long-term, comprehensive field study of shale gas. A five-year, $11 million agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy will allow researchers to create and manage the Marcellus Shale Energy and Environment Laboratory, a field site and research laboratory in Morgantown.
Forming relationships with policymakers, too, is crucial, particularly in an era when governments slash education funding. Today West Virginia spends 22 percent less on higher education than it did before the 2008 recession. West Virginia is among the five states that cut higher education funding the most over the last year, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
While WVU has turned toward public-private partnerships in recent years to ensure continued growth, reinforcing relationships with policymakers — federal, state and local — remains key to the University’s vitality.
Gee’s strategy is simple — be present and be available. He travels regularly to Charleston to meet with lawmakers on various topics and has hosted them for dinners at his Blaney House residence.
It was town-university relations that led to construction of a new baseball stadium in Morgantown. Set for a spring 2015 completion, the stadium will serve as home to the WVU baseball team and a minor league team. The project, a joint effort between the University and the Monongalia County Commission, with support from the Legislature and private developers, will have a tremendous impact on Morgantown.
“We have to forge stronger bonds with our state and corporate partners,” Gee said. “Those bonds will help us better fulfill our land-grant mission. We need to convince the decisionmakers that education is the most precious commodity for the future of our state and our nation.”
3. Take Care of Your People
Dr. Brian Anderson could be anywhere in the world right now doing what he does best — energy research.
A Ripley, W.Va., native, Anderson received his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from WVU in 2000. He then earned his master’s and doctoral degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2004 and 2005 before returning home to WVU, joining the faculty as a chemical engineering professor.
In the last nine years, Anderson’s colleagues have viewed him as a rising star in energy research and a popular educator as he racked up teaching awards.
Opportunity then came knocking for Anderson.
Recognizing the role and importance energy not only plays in the world, but in West Virginia, the University launched the WVU Energy Institute in September. Gee needed someone to lead this new research venture, and he didn’t need to look far to find the perfect person. He tapped Anderson as the director.
With the state government’s restrictions on higher learning institutions, salary increases are far and few between. Potentially frustrated, yet talented folks like Anderson may flirt with other career paths or leave the state altogether. WVU is responding with meaningful new ways to attract, retain and reward its extraordinary performers.
Investing in the people who lift the University is another top priority for Gee.WVU gave Anderson room to continue rising as a top energy researcher.
President Gee and Provost McConnell.
“In the traditional system, exceptional faculty members are rewarded with an increased research budget or salary increase,” said Provost Joyce McConnell, who stands beside Gee in a new administration that puts people first. “But our ability to give salary increases is tied to state government. So we have to think outside the box. We have to create prestigious fellowships or offer faculty opportunities for elite training programs at other quality universities. These approaches build our talent. It’s a win-win.
“Brian Anderson is an example of a faculty member who is flourishing,” McConnell continued. “He’s brilliant, talented and committed to the University. We were able to recognize his talents and his ability to think outside the box.”
Of course, a university cannot flourish without students, especially high-performing ones.
That’s why Gee’s administration has created several new student-oriented initiatives, including Project 168. The ultimate goal is to keep students on track to donning their caps and gowns. Research shows that two in five students who enroll in American universities never graduate. That statistic cannot be accepted at WVU.
Project 168 is named for the hours in a week — 168. Of that number, students are in class for a maximum of 18 hours. Recognizing the unique power a university has to be a 24/7 experience for students, McConnell asked, “What can we do for students for the remaining 150 hours?”
Living-learning communities will shape the overall student experience. For example, an economic development and entrepreneurship learning community might bring together students in business and economics, engineering, and arts and sciences. Those students would live on the same floor of a residence hall, take some of the same courses and collaborate on projects under the direction of an academic leader.
McConnell applauded the existing Adventure WV for setting a precedent for preparing incoming students for the rigors of college life. A summer outdoor orientation program, Adventure WV gathers a group of first-year students and takes them into the West Virginia wilderness to learn about themselves, their future classmates and what the University has to offer.
Blake Sprague, of Warren, Ohio, was among 22 incoming engineering freshmen to reap the benefits of an Adventure WV excursion in July. They hiked in Coopers Rock State Forest, experienced the WVU canopy tour and learned about the engineering behind the New River Gorge Bridge by tiptoeing across its 870-foot high catwalk.
“ The first important thing we must do is educate our citizens. Through the Center for Big Ideas, we can achieve this.” — Gaston Caperton, former governor of West Virginia
“The best thing about Adventure WV is that it gives us 20 friends heading into our freshman year,” Sprague said. Mission accomplished.
Adventure WV Director Greg Corio founded the program as a graduate student in 2002. Corio said it’s geared to support adjustment to college life, retention and career success.
A recent study found that Adventure WV participation increased the rates of first-year retention by 5.4 percent and graduation by 6.5 percent.
Just as significant is the program’s impact on at-risk students. Compared to students with the lowest probability of retention, students with similar characteristics who participated in Adventure WV had a 10 percent higher retention rate.
“Adventure WV has been all about helping students find their sense of belonging on campus,” Corio said. “Through our program, students learn to challenge themselves, whether it be rock climbing for the first time or building a house for Habitat for Humanity. They can then carry their knowledge and successes onto campus for a successful college career.”
4. Be Fun, Not Irresponsible
Five days had passed since some “fans” and students decided to celebrate in a raucous fashion following a Mountaineer football victory over a top-ranked Baylor team on Oct. 18. Appearing at an event at the Reed College of Media, Gee joked that he loved social media, except for the previous weekend when photos and tweets of the rioting dominated newsfeeds and timelines.
A few weeks later, Gee encouraged students “to light up the stadium, not the town” as he introduced a worldwide audience to ESPN College GameDay. Later in the broadcast, a tweeted photo of Gee was shown of him holding up a sign that said, “Not Lou Holtz.”
“That guy is a character,” remarked ESPN analyst and former NFL star Desmond Howard.
Gee lives by the mantra “work hard and play hard.”
But the actions of a few on Oct. 18 went beyond “play.” Humor is a classic Gee trademark but, at the end of the day, he views irresponsible behavior as no laughing matter.
He had settled at home the night of the Baylor victory when he began receiving text messages about the events unfolding on Grant Avenue and, later, on High Street. The incidents resulted in dozens of arrests and at least three student expulsions.
But unlike punishment that the University has doled out in the past, this came swiftly and within a few days.
“ Our vision is to create a place where entrepreneurs can walk down the hall and connect to all of the services they need—strategy, finance, legal, marketing and product development.”—Matt Harbaugh, WVU director of innovation, entrepreneurship and commercialization
Gee likened students’ actions to making him feel like “a disappointed grandpa.” He realized that this behavior had gone on at WVU for way too long, and it was time to change that culture.
“It is about changing the culture of what is accepted at West Virginia University,” Gee said. To address it, Gee believes in giving the students the power to address the issue themselves.
“When I was chancellor of Vanderbilt, I charged the students with developing an alcohol policy,” he said. “They came up with something more stringent than the administration had developed. That showed me that when we trust students to find solutions, they respond. When we treat them like adults, they act like adults.”
He followed that course Oct. 20 when he met with student leaders and asked them to solve the issue at hand. “I will support you in any way I can,” Gee said. “But you have the power to change the culture of our student body. You must come up with the solutions.” And they are.
For the following home game against Texas Christian University, ESPNbrought its live Saturday morning program, College GameDay, to Morgantown.
Students flocked to the Mountainlair green a week before ESPN’s arrival to form “Tent City” — a controlled alternative environment to the destructive riots of a few weeks earlier. Nearly 300 tents were set up on the plaza, and students studied, played video games and socialized while awaiting the big game.
One of the first students to show up was Tommy Skinner, a senior finance and accounting double major.
Skinner noted that Tent City became a caring community of its own, with students looking after each other’s possessions as others came and went to class and work.
“The administration has really allowed us to run it as students, and we really appreciate the trust they’ve given us,” said Skinner, who was among the many students frustrated by the post-Baylor game revelry. “This is a very positive atmosphere, and we really want our student body to be known for things like this.”
5. Think Big
Upon his return, Gee stated he was not here to fix a broken university. Rather, he hoped to bring fresh ideas to elevate the University’s profile in conjunction with the community.
He already knew about the life-changing discoveries in neuroscience, the award-winning rural health programs and the efforts that attracted young people to the science and technology fields.
But there’s more work to do.
WVU’s accomplishments are stellar on their own. But “How do we channel all of our creative thinking into a mighty force that helps West Virginia leap — not creep — into the future?” Gee asked.
For starters, you can create a Center for Big Ideas.
The center will bring together faculty, staff and students to tackle issues, such as energy, rural health, science, technology, engineering and math education and arts and culture, that relate to West Virginia and the country.
A familiar face to West Virginians has agreed to provide leadership for the new Center — former Gov. Gaston Caperton.
“I cannot think of anyone who has a better grasp of our state and the ways in which education empowers lives,” Gee said about Caperton, who served as West Virginia governor from 1989–97. In 1996, Caperton earned the Computerworld Smithsonian Award because he “fundamentally changed the education system in America.”
The center will leverage WVU’s expertise to become a nationally sought-after resource. “The first important thing we must do is educate our citizens,” Caperton said. “Through the Center for Big Ideas, we can achieve this.”
WVU’s reach across the state is already apparent. Caperton believes the center will further carry that momentum.
“In every community, there are leading businesspeople, lawyers or doctors who come from WVU,” Caperton said. “Every community has an example of what aWVU graduate can do, and that success and knowledge filters through the communities.”
Also complementing the “thinking big” theme are other fresh initiatives such as the Business Engagement Center, which Gee describes as a “front door for corporations” that can facilitate joint research projects between WVU and businesses, professional development for workforces and assistance in moving products to market.
WVU’s LaunchLab also bridges academia with industry. At the LaunchLab, faculty, staff and students can learn how to develop a business plan, conduct market research, protect their intellectual property and access customers. Matt Harbaugh, a former CEO of a software company acquired by Facebook, runs the entrepreneurial incubator.
“Our vision is to create a place where entrepreneurs can walk down the hall and connect to all of the services they need — strategy, finance, legal, marketing and product development,” Harbaugh said.
In January, with the aid of the LaunchLab, a computer science major developed an app that helped Charleston-area residents find clean water during a contaminated water crisis. LaunchLab has also assisted WVU student Vincent Quigg, 19, to develop a business fixing and replacing phone screens.
The LaunchLab is just one example of entrepreneurial energy that could fuel change. Vice President of Research Fred King feels it’s time.
“I’ve been at WVU for 24 years, and we’ve grown,” said King, who began his academic career in 1990 as a chemistry professor. “But it’s been incremental. Instead of incremental progress, we need transformational change.
“The future of institutions like WVU lies in their ability to transform the lives of people in the state,” he continues. “It’s not enough to have a great idea. It has to be converted into action to have a direct and obvious impact on society.”
Gee believes that looking forward — not in the rearview mirror — and remaining steadfast in goals and beliefs will change the institution for the better.
He knows. He’s been around the block, and he has not slowed down.
His passion and personality can drive the future of the University — from slaying bureaucracy to forging partnerships to “leaping, not creeping.”
“We must let our aspirations soar as high as the mountains that surround us,” he said. “We must be elite without being elitist. And we must build a world-class university, without ever forgetting that West Virginia is our polar star.”