Gordon Gee has held more university presidencies than any other American—including here at West Virginia University from 1981 to 1985, when he was just in his thirties. He returned here in 2014 to give WVU the benefit of his long career in university leadership, and he brings hands-on glee to the task. We caught up with him to ask about students, families, and the university’s future.
What is your best advice for new students? For seniors?
For new students, it is easy: Get involved. Yes, you need to study and apply yourself academically, but that is a given. Do not forget about the rest of your development. Remember there are 168 hours in a week—and you are only in class for about 18 of those. How will you fill the remaining 150 hours? Find one of our 400-plus student organizations to join, meet new people from around the world, take advantage of the many cultural and extracurricular offerings on campus, and study abroad, if at all possible. As we say, “Work smart, play smart.” Find your balance and make the most of every opportunity.
For seniors, this is your last year. Make it your mission to do all the things you want to do while on campus. Create balance in your life with your academics and your social life, and focus on your upcoming professional life. And when you graduate, do not forget your alma mater. Wear your old gold and blue with pride, network with other Mountaineers wherever you land, and remember you have a support group of almost 200,000 alumni around the world.
What is your advice for parents of freshmen?
This one is hard for me because I know what advice I should give, but I also know from personal experience it is perhaps the hardest to follow. I certainly did not when I left my daughter, Rebekah, at college. Nevertheless, here it is: Let them go. You have raised your children well, and this is the time in their lives when they get to apply all those lessons you have taught them. It is their last time to be irresponsible, responsibly. They will stumble (you did, too), but they will grow and develop into full-blown adults. It is our job at West Virginia University to help that happen. They will be all right. (And we will encourage them to phone home from time to time.)
What is the importance of West Virginia University to the state?
There are many parts to answering that question. West Virginia University is important because it is the state’s flagship land-grant university, and therefore the premier educational institution. But more than that, our research and resources are unmatched in this state. That is why we have identified education, health, and broad-based prosperity as the pillars of this institution. West Virginia cannot thrive in the future if any of those three areas are neglected. We have a responsibility to pour our hearts and souls into them.
West Virginia University is also about pride and loyalty. It is no coincidence that our marching band is called “The Pride of West Virginia.” Wherever the band goes, you can see the shoulders of our citizens straighten and the smiles—and even tears— break out. It is really all wrapped up in this statement: “At West Virginia University, we relentlessly pursue world-changing discovery and innovation, academic engagement and excellence, so that we are the economic and social engine for our state. We do it with what we call rugged determination.”
What would you like most to improve about West Virginia University?
Two things. I would love to see our students more actively explore different ideas and meet new people. That is one of the best parts of college. Too often, I notice students gathered in homogeneous groups, or with their heads buried in their phones as they walk around campus. Look up! It is quite a world we live in.
Secondly, and we are already having success on this one, I would like to see the rest of the world understand the special place that is West Virginia University. Whether it is our academics or our athletics, our research or our outreach, West Virginia University is one of the top institutions in the country and world and deserves to be recognized as such.
How can a student get a selfie with you?
That is the easy one. Just ask, whenever and wherever you see me. And you will see me plenty. It is very important to me to be out and around with our students; it is how I learn what is on their minds and what is important to them. And do not be surprised if I show up at your 21st birthday party.