Focused on the Future: Dr. Gordon Gee

November 13, 2017

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Focused on the Future: Dr. Gordon Gee

By Jennifer Jett Prezkop

Photo by Tracy Toler

“West Virginia is a very small state, and we have every problem in America, but we are small enough to be able to—if we stack our hands and have courage and have the will—solve our problems. We have to start right here and right now.”

This was the message Dr. Gordon Gee, president of West Virginia University (WVU), shared at the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s 81st Annual Meeting and Business Summit this summer. As one of West Virginia’s most outspoken advocates, Gee recognizes the potential that exists in the Mountain State. He sees West Virginia’s greatness in every student he meets and every community he visits. This state’s greatest asset is its people, according to Gee, and as such, they deserve more than what they now have.

“The people who dwell among these magnificent hills and hollows deserve lives as soaring and strong as our landscape,” he told the summit’s attendees. “They deserve economic security, stellar education and first-rate health care that would allow them to approach life on an even footing with every other American, but in this moment, many of them lack these essentials.”

This void is one of the reasons Gee returned to WVU in 2014 when he could have retired or returned to teaching. A lengthy career presiding over several prestigious higher education institutions would have been enough for him to hang his hat on, but when he first came to Morgantown in 1979 to serve as the dean of the WVU College of Law, he fell in love with this special little state. That love has fueled a passion that today drives him as WVU’s 24th president. His position at the helm of the state’s largest university and largest employer and one of the country’s top research institutions gives him a unique perspective on West Virginia’s dire economic situation, and rather than sit idly by, he has rolled up his sleeves and put that passion to work for every West Virginian.

At the business summit, Gee announced the creation of West Virginia Forward, an initiative to address the state’s laundry list of woes in order to pave a new path to prosperity. Partnering with the West Virginia Department of Commerce and Marshall University and utilizing data and insight gathered by McKinsey & Co., Gee is seeing his vision for WVU as a beacon of hope and a helping hand to the Mountain State come to fruition.

An Uphill Battle

West Virginia’s greatest weaknesses are not a budget deficit, an uneducated workforce, a struggling energy industry and an opioid epidemic. West Virginia’s greatest weaknesses are its debilitating lack of confidence, its unwillingness to take chances and its shortage of hope—deep-cutting issues that lie at the heart of all the other major problems.

“Our state suffers from what I call negative elitism,” says Gee. “We can’t understand why anyone would want to work or live here. Instead of supporting success, we’re all too ready to tear it down. Likewise, we have believed our own bad press for too long, and we need to change that because we have a great story to tell.”

Just as harmful as poor self-confidence is West Virginia’s lack of intestinal fortitude. While Gee acknowledges that change is difficult and trying new things can be scary, West Virginia has reached the point where not taking action is no longer an option.

“If we want to transform this state, if we want to lead rather than trail among our peers, we must nurture fresh opportunities and prune the deadwood restricting our growth,” he says. “Our biggest obstacle has been our unwillingness to try for fear of failure. Some strategies succeed and some fail, but failure is not as perilous as inaction. Failure produces learning and adaptation in strength and action, and inaction only produces inertia. As Franklin Roosevelt said at the height of the Great Depression, ‘Above all, try something.’”

Gee has taken this quote to heart, and as a result, West Virginia Forward was born.

Inspired to Act

Gee’s vision for West Virginia Forward was inspired by a similar initiative during his tenure at Ohio State University (OSU) when the state of Ohio was facing challenges similar to those West Virginia is now struggling with. At the time, McKinsey & Co. was hired to work with Ohio’s governor and OSU to find solutions to the state’s dire situation. Inspired by the success experienced by the Buckeye State, Gee was certain McKinsey & Co. could dig deeper into West Virginia’s problems and identify not only additional obstacles but also new areas of opportunity.

“We hired McKinsey, the largest, most important consulting group in the world, to come in and really delve deeply into all the data and statistics and issues of low- and high-hanging fruit and discover where we can immediately start impacting the opportunities in this state,” says Gee. “What they have done is identify areas of immense opportunity for us and areas in which we have to respond. The opportunities are tremendous in terms of the things we are not doing or things we need to emphasize.”

This past spring, McKinsey representatives spent several months in the Mountain State, consulting local and regional leaders who are committed to addressing the state’s economic issues, and the results are promising. McKinsey & Co. has determined that the state’s industries primed for growth are aerospace maintenance, automotive parts, manufacturing, metal manufacturing and the state’s rebounding coal industry, and new sectors that promise high growth for the state are cyber security, cloud services and data centers. Opportunity also lies in higher-end tourism and a second home market.

Though downstream oil and gas manufacturing is growing more slowly in West Virginia than nationally, it also holds a lot of potential. Leaders in the state are already working to bring the idea of the Appalachian Storage Hub to fruition in the region, as well as additional pipelines and other infrastructure that will enable producers to supply shale gas to downstream manufacturers.

With these key areas identified, the next goal is to act, which is where the West Virginia Legislature comes into play.

“We want to take these suggestions and then turn them into legislative actions,” says Gee. “It does us no good to have something we spent so much time and energy on and have it sit on a shelf. We have to keep driving these ideas forward. Some of these items will hopefully not only happen but also change the direction of some of the things that are going on in the state.”

An Education Engine

While the McKinsey results are in, leaving state leadership with a long list of housekeeping items, Gee and WVU are not done helping move the state forward. One issue the university will continue to address is ensuring the state has an educational system that produces high-quality talent. In order to meet employers’ existing needs and draw new businesses to the area to create new jobs, West Virginia must have an educated workforce. As industries have evolved through technological advances, higher education has become a requirement rather than an option.

“Education—particularly a university-based education—is to this century what coal mines and steel mills were to the last century,” says Gee. “The nation has now created 12.8 million jobs since 2008, and out of that, only 80,000 require a high school education or less. What that simply says is that education is now the engine that will drive job creation and ingenuity.”

The university will also be proactive in its efforts to retain young talent in the state.

“I think one of the major mistakes we’ve made in the state is we’ve exported coal, exported oil, exported gas and exported talent, and the last is the most debilitating,” he says. “We need to make certain we recruit the best and brightest to the university and then keep them here by providing opportunities for them to stay. West Virginians love West Virginia, and they will stay here—or return—when given the opportunity.”

One way in which WVU is addressing this issue is by offering an entrepreneurialism-focused curriculum and creating opportunities like the LaunchLab for those who want to start their own business. Forty percent of Generation Z students, the incoming generation of college students, reported in a survey that they want to be entrepreneurs, making this a major priority on campus.

“If they start their business here, they’ll keep it here, and that’s how we change the economic arc and direction of the state—by growing a lot of our own entrepreneurial activities,” says Gee. “Most of the economic activity in this country is in small businesses, but the real investment is when you can get young people engaging in entrepreneurial activities that will grow companies—that’s the kind of spirit we need to create.”

Raising West Virginia

While West Virginia’s challenges are overwhelming, the solution lies within the state’s greatest asset: its people—all 1.8 million of them. Working together, Gee is certain West Virginians can rise.

“We all need to understand we have much to offer each other,” he says. “We have the most resilient people on the face of the earth. If for no other reason, you can love West Virginia because of its people. The sun never sets on them. They are always shining. We need to take a lot of pride in what we have, and that pride will translate into tremendous opportunities. In the end, it’s about believing in ourselves.” 

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