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WVU President Gordon Gee on the Future of Universities

Episode 23

August 25, 2020 32 minutes


In a recent Daily Briefing editorial, West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee wrote that the pandemic should motivate all institutions of higher learning to operate like land grant universities right now. In other words, schools should focus on supporting the needs of their local communities while also providing residents from all walks of life an opportunity to better themselves by earning a college degree.

EAB’s Sally Amoruso talks to Dr. Gee about why the unique strengths of land grant institutions—research-based expertise, scientific innovation, and the ability to partner with state and local government—are so badly needed today. The two are joined by West Virginia Coronavirus Czar Dr. Clay Marsh, who also serves as WVU Vice President & Executive Dean for Health Sciences. Dr. Marsh shares his thoughts on the adverse impacts of isolation and despair, and on how dealing with the opioid crisis informed his efforts to tackle the coronavirus.

Education leaders everywhere are making fast, difficult, and bold decisions. This podcast episode is part of our Leadership Voices series, where we spotlight leaders who are meeting extraordinary challenges with vision and courage.


00:12 Matt Pellish: From EAB, I’m Matt Pellish and this is Office Hours, higher education’s weekly podcast. During a recent editorial published in EAB’s Daily Briefing, President Gordon Gee of West Virginia University wrote that all institutions should think of themselves as land-grant universities right now. Basically, everyone. It doesn’t matter your size, your location, enrollments, classification, everybody should support the needs of their local communities while also providing people from all backgrounds access to a college education. Having served in a president role for about 40 years, it’s a lesson learned from his experience that Dr. Gee shares with EAB’s Sally Amoruso in this week’s episode. To expand the conversation into how WVU has been playing such a prominent role in their own state, Sally and Dr. Gee are also joined by West Virginia Coronavirus Czar and WVU Vice President and Executive Dean for Health Sciences, Dr. Clay Marsh to talk about the ways in which the opioid crisis informed his efforts to tackle COVID-19. Thanks for listening and welcome to Office Hours with EAB.


01:17 Sally Amoruso: Welcome. This is Sally Amoruso, Chief Partner Officer with EAB and I am delighted today to be speaking with Gordon Gee, President of West Virginia University and Dr. Clay Marsh, who is the Chief Health Officer and VP of Health Sciences at WVU. Welcome, gentlemen.

01:34 Gordon Gee: Thank you.

01:34 Clay Marsh: Thank you, Sally.

01:37 SA: We have a lot to discuss today, but I wanted to start with a recent opinion piece, Gordon, that you wrote for EAB’s Daily Briefing newsletter. You’ve always been a fierce advocate for land-grant universities, but also, quite frankly, an outspoken critic for perhaps a loss of the original intent and objectives of that land-grant mission. And you recently declared that we are all land-grants now coming out of COVID. Whenever I’ve shared that particular phrase with other presidents, I’ve heard murmurings of agreement, but I’d love for you to explain a little bit what you mean by that.

02:16 GG: Well, first of all, I appreciate being here with you, Sally. West Virginia University, Clay and I are great fans of you and of EAB. And so, we’re honored to be here any time we can do so. Saying all of that, I believe that the future of higher education is differentiation. I really do. I believe that it’s a… That institutions need to be fiercely who they are. If you’re a Catholic institution, be a Catholic institution, a Mormon institution be Mormon. If you’re a land-grand institution, be that. And obviously, if you’re a major research university, do that. And sometimes they get amalgamated. But the land-grant mission, Mr. Lincoln’s vision was really that we would build communities and opportunity. And I think one of the things that we’re learning and Clay can really expand on that further, but one of the things we’re learning is the fact that no matter where people find themselves, they find themselves in distress in some form, whether it would be financial…

03:18 SA: Sure.

03:19 GG: Whether it would be in terms of depression, whether it would be that just… The world has turned upside down for them. And the purpose of the land-grant institution, Mr. Lincoln’s universities as I always say, was the fact that he, at that time, everyone, about 90% of the people when the land-grant act was passed were in rural settings. And whether it be rural or urban, and most of us are in urban settings right now, we need to start rebuilding civic values and community. And that’s the reason no matter what kind of institution you are, you can differentiate yourself, but there’s one common thread and that is the fact that we are all in this together. We all need to make certain that we have respect, that we have value-centered approaches, that we also are making sure or making clear that we are going to care for each other. And that is what I mean by we’re all land-grant institutions now.

04:17 SA: Well, and that’s certainly related to the work that you all have been doing with West Virginia and addressing the COVID issues. And Clay, you are the Coronavirus Czar for West Virginia and that has really allowed you and the institution to lean in to the needs of the community very directly. Tell us how you came to be appointed as czar for this effort and how your work as the head of WVU Medicine and as part of the university leadership also informed your views as you approach this work.

04:55 CM: Well, thank you, Sally. And it’s really quite a privilege to be here with you and with Gordon. I think Gordon’s vision of what a land-grant is, is really being put to the test and we’re seeing the impact of that. And I would say for me, it’s a privilege to serve always, but I think that the great universities can help their states by facilitating and bringing people that have special skill sets to the table that you may not be able to have employed moment to moment at the state.

05:31 CM: Through Gordon’s leadership with our university, the Governor of the State of West Virginia, Jim Justice, had engaged us as a university in trying to help with the public health of the state of West Virginia. And as we have looked at things like behavioral health issues in the state and as we’ve looked at some of the comorbidities that we suffer, West Virginia had led the country in overdose deaths and smoking in minors and smoking in pregnant women. We are among the worst in the country in obesity, diabetes, heart disease, but I think that with Gordon coming back to the university, we’ve really seen a… The phoenix rising of the university. And we are intensely committed to serve the state. So with the COVID-19 pandemic coming up, the governor asked me after a bit to help lead and coordinate our coronavirus response, which has been a privilege. But what we’ve really done, Sally, is we’ve started to lay the road and the bridges between the university and the other university, Marshall University in the state of West Virginia, and state government, and our Department of Health and Human Resources and our National Guard in a collaboration.

07:00 CM: All ecosystems that thrive, thrive by collaboration not by competition. And so we see that the opportunity for us to work together as true community, strong community, not trying to undercut each other, but trying to support each other, is really where the rising tide rises all the boats. And I think it’s a model for the future, not just for COVID, but really for the public health of the state. And as Gordon likes to say, the tent poles of the university are economic development, health, and education.

07:34 SA: And it’s hard to have one without the others, right? It’s a…

07:36 CM: All are interdependent.

07:39 SA: Yes, it’s a…

07:39 GG: We’re very… Sally we’re very, very blessed in this thing, and Clay has really been centered on all of this, but we’re really blessed to be a very small state. And I say that from this point of view, and the fact that there’s not… There’s not six degrees of separation, there’s one degree of separation, maybe not even that. Clay is a native West Virginian and I’m a born-again West Virginian, but you know, we all kinda know each other. We know many people around the state. And so the opportunity to really put into practice all the things that Clay just talked about is almost really unique to West Virginia. Secondly, of all, the university is the economic center of the state. The university is the largest employer in the state with this academic medical center. You know, we create more jobs, we create more opportunity, but with that comes the deep responsibility, as Clay just outlined, for us to be the change agent, not simply live in the bubble and say that Morgantown is our home. We talk about one West Virginia University, but we really talk about one West Virginia also, and that we’re in this as a co-partner and deeply into this process of West Virginia.

09:01 SA: You know, it strikes me that your long-standing work addressing the opioid crisis in West Virginia probably allowed you to bring a particular lens to the COVID challenge, because the opioid crisis has all of those different elements to it. The mental health elements, the economic elements, and then of course, the major health impacts. Can you talk a little bit about how that context sort of led into this COVID work as well?

09:30 GG: Clay, why don’t you take that one, okay?

09:32 CM: Okay, that sounds good. Well Sally, one of the real insights that has been gained over the last few years is work from Sir Angus Deaton and Anne Case from Princeton University, who found that there is a group of 45 to 55-year-old non-Hispanic Whites who have a high school education or less, who had been dying in our country at a rate that we haven’t seen since the peak of the AIDS epidemic. And when they did their deeper dive, they found out that these folks were dying of hopelessness and despair, a lack of social capital and a lack of belonging. And so as we start to look at rural America and particularly West Virginia, that’s the only state in the country that’s totally Appalachian, by the strictest definitions, then we see this opportunity for us to understand this new observation better. And it’s really important as we start to look at opioids and other afflictions that populations in our country have, where West Virginia is afflicted even more, then it may even go deeper than that.

10:47 CM: There’s a study out of the Kaiser Family Foundation called The Adverse Childhood Experience Study, and that is a really important one. And for those of our listeners who don’t know that it’s a questionnaire, 10 questions dealing with trauma, neglect and family dysfunction. Questions like, did you grow up with your parents? Did you live in a safe place? Did you ever get threatened with violence or sexually abusive behavior? And of those 10 questions asked to children 18 and under that these questions were found to have a great impact for the entire life of these people. And so if your score is one, and the average score in America is one, your risk of almost every problem goes up, some from chronic disease to cancer, to heart disease, to overdose, to addiction.

11:41 CM: If your answer is four, four positives, then your risk of having suicide is 1,200% higher, your risk of having chronic lung disease from smoking is 600% higher, and your age span is on average 4.7 years less if your score is zero. If your score is six, J. D. Vance in Hillbilly Elegy had an adverse childhood experience score of seven. If your score is six, you’re likely to have a 20-year shorter lifespan than if your answer is zero. And by county, and the best county in the country, which is in Colorado versus the worst county in West Virginia, which I think is McDowell for life expectancy, then there’s a 20-year difference. So I think you can see this play out. So the issues and how we perceive ourselves in our lives, in our communities, play a very important function in our long-term health, and I think that’s where the great university comes in to make a big difference.

12:39 GG: Yeah, and you know… Oh, that’s so powerful because of the fact that… I think about it, that we have a number of pandemics going on. We have the pandemic of the virus, we have the pandemic of racial… Of racial issues and social justice. We have the pandemic of collateral damages, and that is what Clay has worked a lot on, and what we’re working on. And by that, I mean it’s loneliness, it’s despair. For example, I just talked to a… And the COVID issue comes together with all the other issues including the ones that Clay just talked about. And they’ve now come together in this way, which is really deepening much of the dysfunction that is going on in our society and at our universities. I had a father who, about two weeks ago, I talked to, his son had committed suicide. And he told me, he said… I said, “Why?” And he said, “Well, he died of loneliness. You know, the whole structural change in this country right now?” And he said, he’d much rather have had him die of the coronavirus than have shot himself. So these things are coming together and it’s very powerful. The mental health of our young people in colleges and universities needs to be really addressed now.

14:05 SA: And what advice would you have for university leaders on that front? Because many of them are having to choose a path that doesn’t allow the same level of connectedness that they’ve had in the past, the same level of community building. You know, remote instruction doesn’t lend itself to those elements as easily. What advice would you have to university leaders about how they can support those issues of mental health and connectedness as well?

14:32 GG: A couple of things. First of all, let me just say that this is a very difficult time. You know, I’m a social animal, I thrive on getting out and meeting all these people who are moving in, Clay knows, he and I live right by each other. They’re moving into our residence halls and so forth, and they want me to come by and you know, and I feel… I feel a sense of loss and loneliness as a matter of fact. But the advice I’m giving everyone is, first of all, we have really communicated very diligently all the time to parents, to students, to faculty, to staff, and it hasn’t just simply been, “You’ve gotta do this.”

15:07 GG: It’s been trying to explain things and trying to get people to understand that wearing our mask and doing the other kinds of things that are necessary, washing your hands, all of the health protocols, it’s an act of kindness, and it’s an act of really protecting each other. And so university leaders need to not be so dogmatic, “Don’t do this, do that.” Explain to people, and then do that yourself. Clay has always insisted that I wear a mask, he wears a mask himself when we’re out, we’re trying to do the behavior. But I think that university leaders really do need to do two things, one is in fact, they need to be very instructive, but not dogmatic. And second of all, they need to make sure that they are communicating every day as to why it’s important that we do these kinds of things, and they do it in a cheerful and positive way.

16:06 CM: I might also add, Sally, you said something that’s really powerful. So the root word of health is hal, H-A-L which is also the root word of HEAL, it’s the root word of holy, and it’s the root word of holistic, and it means whole, W-H-O-L-E. And I think that this connection, community, you know, feeling locked. If you look at these adverse childhood experiences, the antidote to this is feeling loved, feeling like somebody cares about you. So I think in addition to what Gordon said, and Gordon couldn’t be a better leader in this time,my goodness we’re just so, so fortunate to have him as the leader. But I think it’s also expressing that community. It’s telling people that you’re part of something and we love you not just because you’re making straight As or you’re doing this, or you’re doing that. We love you because you’re a person worthy of being loved. And we love that you’re here with us at WVU, but you’re worthy of being loved no matter where you are.

17:12 CM: And I think for people in this world we have more connections virtually to people today than we’ve ever had before, but we also have access to every portal. We get information that’s downloaded to us so quickly, it creates so much chaos for most of us. And this idea that the sages, Eastern religions, etcetera, really say that we should live in the moment, in the now. That if we can quiet ourselves down and focus, which is really the frame of meditation or mindfulness. But our minds are so busy and the separation gets so great between us and others and comparisons and… Maybe it’s time for us to come back together as a group of people who want to be with each other and understand the foundational value. The word namaste, which we say a lot in yoga, means as I understand it, that the divine in me recognizes the divine in you. And Rumi the Sufi poet said, “We are different lamps that shine the same light.” So I think that this idea that the world’s screaming now for seeing us as part of something bigger, worthy just because we are. And I think that’s something the Gordon really gets, and something that we’ve really brought to the university community, which I think has been very, very powerful.

18:36 SA: I love that Clay. I am very conscious though that across COVID, the impacts, economic and health-wise, and the stresses are disproportionate in terms of some of our most vulnerable students, our most vulnerable communities. And so that sort of deepening fault line of inequity that COVID has laid bare, that has been there for a while, but it is deepening as a result, is one that makes it hard to provide that scaffolding and support to everyone in the way that they need it. How is WVU embracing some of those most vulnerable populations?

19:17 GG: Yeah, first of all, one of the things we… And Clay just talked about, we are… We’re a unique American university in the sense that we really are the center of Appalachia.

19:30 SA: Yes.

19:30 GG: And I will say this, the Appalachian culture is as distinctive as is the Hispanic culture, the Black culture, the Asian culture. In other words, it’s a very distinctive culture, and as you know, it’s all about music, it’s all about family and a variety of other things, but also in Appalachia, we have a lot of economic dysfunction. And so what we’ve tried to do, a couple things. First of all, we use our Extension program extensively as you know. 4-H and Extension are very much a part of who we are, and we use that all the time as a way for us to connect with families and to make sure that we have some ability to be able to close that equality gap to programs that we have; food, food lunch program, and a variety of other things.

20:19 GG: Secondly of all, in terms of the students coming to the university one of the things we did is soon as the crisis struck, we pivoted on a dime. We said we’re gonna become… We’re the people’s university so therefore we’ve got to raise money and support for people. So we have a fund that we call, “Be Stronger Together,” which is really about supporting the financial needs of those who are the most vulnerable. That’s number two. Number three is the fact that we are working very hard to identify ways for our Black and Brown populations, for our White populations, that find themselves in distress, we’re working for us to connect with them and also to make sure that through that connection that they do not leave or decide that they can’t come to the university, but rather we make it a safe haven for them. And right now, one of the real dangers is the very populations you’re talking about, Sally. The populations that if we lose them, we lose the whole generation and we can’t allow that to happen. So it’s kind of a three-pronged approach from us.

21:27 CM: I would also say that as a university should be, we wanna be a place where people feel free to share their opinions and where we learn from each other. And I think that this is a moment of growth for all of us. We’re at an unprecedented pandemic, a generational event. There’s been the issues of systemic racism and the death of George Floyd and others that has been another lightning rod of this time, and people’s voices need to be heard and we need to make sure it’s safe for everybody to share their opinions. And I think that’s something that Gordon has really always been a, not only an advocate, but really quite a champion of. And it’s particularly important that we have an engaged leadership right now as well, so that people feel like that they can share their opinions, but also that they’re heard. And I think that it’s really… It’s to the credit of Gordon and the team, the leadership team, that I believe that we have created that environment at the university. But it’s one that you can never get completely right, and it’s one that needs to continuously evolve, and that really requires us to listen and requires us to be able to grow from what people are telling us they need to feel safe, to be part of our community.

22:54 GG: Yeah, I think that one of the real challenges that we face in addition to the virus itself, Sally, is this virus of fear that people have to speak up and speak out. Right now, we have a toxic environment politically in this country. It’s invading everything we do, plus we have people readily calling other folks racist or homophobic or a variety of other things, or cancelling their activities. A university cannot be called a university unless it is a place in which the marketplace prevails. Good ideas, bad ideas, and in which we do it in a way which is constructive and civil. We cannot in this time, in this age of the coronavirus, we cannot create a vacuum of all good ideas being heard and bad ideas being heard, but allowing people to speak up and speak out. I’m terribly fearful that out of this whole set of circumstances we find ourselves is the fact that with academic freedom comes academic responsibility and I think that is not really… Those are two things that are very much in danger right now.

24:12 CM: I just wanna add one more thing if I can, that Google did a study of their best teams and they wanted to understand what was the things that made their best teams function the best. Most productive teams, not just happiest ones, and they called that project Aristotle. And they looked at a whole bunch of stuff, and what they found was the single most important dynamic was high degrees of psychological safety. And I think that this idea that people could disagree, could be authentic. You could be wrong… That is so important. And Daniel Coyle wrote this great book that I love called Culture Code and he said the four pieces of great leadership for culture, or the great different attributes of a great culture: High degrees of psychological safety, vulnerability of leadership, I.e., servant leadership. You grow and listen, not just talk. Shared purpose and shared community. And I think that that’s something that Gordon, through his leadership in our university, we’ve been able to move toward in a relatively rapid way.

25:17 GG: And you know, Sally, that… I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I just wanna say this. EAB has been pretty much our partner in that regard. As you know, we focus at this institution much more on culture than we do on talent. We have really talented people. But so many of our universities, and I say this boldly because I really do believe it, so many of our universities have a lot of talent with a toxic culture, and that’s one of the reasons why we’re having a lot of the dysfunction that we have at universities right now.

25:52 SA: That’s right. And I think there’s a misperception that psychological safety means lack of discomfort and it’s actually the opposite. It’s about being able to be uncomfortable because you’re having those authentic, difficult conversations. I wanna end where we started, which is around the land-grant mission, and to bring in what Clay was talking about in terms of healing, because as we’re emerging from COVID, I think there’s healing that has to happen on three levels. The economic, the health level and also the societal level. That there has been a lot of trauma across all of those different dimensions. When you think about the land-grant mission, how can you embrace that and perhaps convey from the land-grant mission how you lead an institution to drive that economic, social and healing from a health standpoint drive that needs to move your region or your community or your state?

27:00 GG: First of all, you’ve just described the land-grant mission.


27:02 GG: Very well, thank you.


27:04 GG: I appreciate that, ’cause I think that is exactly our calling. And as you know, in my book published a couple of years ago about a future land-grant university, I said that we had moved away, we’d wafted away from a social, cultural, economic well-being into being us and being very, very encapsulated in thinking about…

27:31 SA: And insular.

27:31 GG: And insular. Clay and I talk about this, and that is the fact that we are a major research university and we wanna discover the cure for cancer, but we don’t want to then publish it in peer reviewed journals, we want to make sure that the people in McDowell County and the southern coal fields have access to them. And that’s exactly what needs to come out of this, is the fact that we need to realize, as universities, that we need to move from being ivory towers to helping hands.

28:01 SA: Yeah.

28:01 GG: And I say that very distinctly. We need to think, and that it’s exactly what you just described. Because our instinct at universities is to constantly look through the rear view mirror. We want to keep things the way that they were. We want to continue to do the same traditions, wanna reward people the same way. I think this COVID issue is going to either require universities to transfer themselves or to go out of business in so many different ways. You either embrace change now or you’re gonna become irrelevant very quickly, and a lot of institutions over the next two years, because they don’t embrace it, are going to close or they’re going to be in very serious financial straits.

28:52 SA: Sadly, I think that’s true.

28:53 CM: I would also just say a couple of things that as I read Gordon’s book on the land-grant university I learned a lot. One of the roles of the land-grant university is to teach people to be great citizens, and we’ve sort of forgotten that component of the land-grant university. This time of COVID, Sally, I think for many people, has made them understand what’s really important to them and what’s not. If you look, the Huffington Post did an assessment of the likelihood you, Sally, being you having this conversation or Gordon, you being you, having this conversation, or me being me is 10 to the 2,640,000th power which basically is impossible, but here we are. And when we think about understanding what’s really important to us, the average lottery winner is less happy than the average person, and the average person surviving a life-threatening illness happier than the average person. Because what you understand… And I’m a critical care physician, that’s at least what my training is, and I’ve been with a lot of people as they’ve been going through their dying process and nobody wants to spend more time at work or write more papers or more grants, at least not many people do.


30:08 CM: People want time with their family. They’d like to go back outside again, they’d like to do the things that we all have the ability to do today, but oftentimes don’t really appreciate. And I think this time of COVID, because it’s forced many of us to stay more indoors and around the people that we love I think it’s been about a re-assessment of what our real values are. The Sufi philosopher Rumi said, “Yesterday I was clever and wanted to change the world, today I am wise and decided to change myself.” Maybe it’s an opportunity for all of us to do a little introspection and not be so worried about grabbing the ring in front of us, but starting to find the peace and the joy within us that this is an opportunity for.

30:53 GG: But wouldn’t that be great, Sally, if out of this terrible pandemic came a result of self-actualization and self-realization, and I think that that’s what we’re trying to do. And that’s what we’re trying to do with our own institution. It’s not about us getting people in the door, or getting people out or various other things, it really is about the living learning equation of life itself and I think if we could really have that be our pole star we’re going to be a safe place for people to come and learn and live, and that’s what we want to have happen.

31:29 SA: Well, I think that would be a wonderful silver lining. Thank you gentlemen, for the conversation this morning.

31:34 GG: Thank you.

31:37 CM: Thank you.


31:41 MP: Thanks again for listening. Join us on next week’s episode when David Attis is back along with Terry Hartle, Head of Government Public Affairs for the American Council of Education to talk some politics or better said, what might happen when the fall elections shake out, when it comes to higher education policy. From Office Hours at EAB, I’m Matt Pellish.


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