As a new academic year begins on America’s college campuses, everyone is cataloging their aspirations. Students are filling out their planners and setting goals for success. Faculty members are refining their syllabi and envisioning new ways to engage students in learning. Administrators are wrapping up planning retreats and outlining benchmarks to meet.
At West Virginia University, we are as future-focused as every other institution, but I hold an opinion that violates higher education orthodoxy: I believe strategic planning is a myth. Perhaps we should pause for a moment while any other University presidents reading this recover from their swoons.
While I certainly believe in setting a compass before embarking on a journey, “strategic planning” at universities functions less often as a compass and more often as a speed bump to impede progress.
Instead of strategic planning, we need strategic action. Instead of long-term objectives, we need immediate solutions.
That is why West Virginia University is beginning this academic year with more than well-intentioned plans. We are starting with progress underway toward brighter days for our University and our state.
For example, we are enhancing our student-focused culture by investing in transformational academic spaces. That is because we recognize that we must stop organizing our teaching and learning functions for obsolescence. We must imagine the world in 20 years and then reverse engineer.
The construction of Reynolds Hall, the new home of the John Chambers College of Business and Economics on the site of the former Stansbury Hall, will stimulate experiential learning, blending approaches from learning labs to events, and from group participation-based projects to hands-on training that prepares students for careers.
Reynolds Hall will also turn Morgantown’s waterfront into a hub of business activity, furthering our intention to create a start-up culture in our state and promote job creation.
To achieve this, we must start bridging the gap between the skills employers demand and the skills our young people possess. A skills gap is plaguing businesses across America in today’s tight labor market. And they are not waiting around for higher education to solve the problem. That is why Amazon announced plans to spend $700 million training 100,000 employees for higher-skilled jobs.
While not everyone needs a four-year college degree, everyone needs some post-secondary training to succeed in today’s economy.
Work is well underway at our University to increase educational access and accommodate rapidly changing workplace skill-sets. To better connect our graduates with jobs, we continue to introduce degree and certificate programs in high-growth areas, such as graduate certificates in business data analysis and data technology management.
Creating a start-up culture and closing the skills gap will further our land-grant mission to improve life in West Virginia. We are also changing lives by promoting health and wellness, both on our campuses and throughout our state.
We are beginning the new year with an enhanced tobacco- and smoke-free policy, which bans any form of smoking, including electronic smoking devices and vapor products. In addition to generating awareness of this rule, we are making cessation resources available to students, faculty and staff.
Through innovative research and technology, West Virginia University is also making our state healthier. Sadly, rural Americans are more likely than their urban counterparts to die prematurely from the five most common killers: heart disease, cancer, unintentional injury, chronic lower respiratory disease and stroke.
Steve Davis, an associate professor in our School of Public Health, is using telehealth to connect rural West Virginians with nurses who can help them manage — and even prevent — conditions like these. The program focuses on individuals being discharged from long-term care facilities as they transition to life back at home.
As in all we do, our research is fulfilling our purpose: Making West Virginia thrive.
We are also fulfilling our land-grant purpose by preserving our freedom to discuss and disagree on our campuses. Doing so preserves our capacity to inspire and instruct.
By letting all voices ring out, we demonstrate faith in reasoned discussion — an activity sorely lacking in many parts of our national life.
Standing as a beacon for civil discourse is a fitting extension of land-grant history — because nothing is quite as uniquely American as land-grant universities.
Forged amid tremendous domestic conflict they produced citizens who went on to heal our disrupted and divided nation and set it on a path to greatness.
West Virginia University is honoring that legacy by bringing people together and taking action toward a brighter future. And action is a better catalyst for this new academic year than even the best laid plans.
by E. Gordon Gee
Gordon Gee is president of West Virginia University.