Gee finishes 55-county tour of state

ELKINS – West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee wrapped up his 55-county tour of the Mountain State Saturday with stops in Elkins and Pendleton County.

Gee visited with a large crowd at Elkins Town Square for about two hours, talking about everything from expectations at the state’s largest higher-education institution to returning to his roots and, of course, football.

Clad in his signature bow tie, Gee exclaimed that it was good to be back in West Virginia.

“It’s been special for me,” Gee said. “This is No. 54 and Pendleton (County) will be No. 55. You know the intent, originally, was to get an opportunity to see the state and to have a chance to reacquaint myself with the state. The real opportunity is to come meet so many wonderful people and to really find out the spirit of the state. This has turned into a real journey for me of the most positive kind. I’m thrilled to be back in West Virginia and thrilled to be at the university. I’ve made so many new friends and met so many people that I met during my first tenure.”

Gee again took the helm for the Blue and Gold in March, returning after a nearly 30-year career at other major universities, including Brown, Vanderbilt, the University of Colorado and two stints at The Ohio State University.

To date, Gee has held more university presidencies than anyone else in the history of American higher education.

“I’m settling in here fine,” Gee said. “I’m kind of an accidental president. They asked me to come in and find a new president, and I was doing that and one day they ask me if I would consider staying. I’d retired, but I am grateful to be back. I don’t think I would have done it, very frankly, if it would have been at any other big university; but because of the very special way I was treated here and the opportunity, I came back. You know, this was my first presidency. It’s like closing the circle for me.”

The 70-year-old, though, isn’t slowing down when it comes to running a top-tier institution. Gee has big plans in Morgantown, and he used his 55-county journey to listen, garner ideas and stress to Mountain State residents that bigger and better things are on the horizon at the university.

The tour, Gee said, is just the beginning, in terms of getting the word out about the many good things going on.

“I want to make sure we are reconnected to the state,” Gee said. “That’s one of the reasons for these (trips). I want to make sure every West Virginian has in their hearts and minds, all 1.8 million, that this university belongs to them.”

One of Gee’s primary goals is to create more, and affordable, opportunities at WVU that he hopes will translate into students staying in the state upon graduation.

“I want to find out how we can help to increase the opportunities for students to stay here, and for students to find jobs and for students to carry on their creative force in the state,” Gee said. “We want to keep our best and brightest here.”

Another top goal for Gee, who once served as a law clerk for Chief Justice of the United States Warren E. Burger, is to promote a sense of togetherness and belonging. He says that’s one facet that will help the university to not only improve academically, but also to pave the way for the future for generations to come.

“I want to make sure the university itself is unified,” Gee said. “We want to be one university. We don’t need to be a confederation. I think that it’s very important. We have a lot of assets, but we want to make sure all those assets are driving in the same direction.”

Perhaps his biggest challenge, and one he has great concern with, is accessibility to higher-education. Gee noted that much work in this vein remains to be done, but there is a bright spot.

“We want to make sure that we are a high-quality place and that students can afford to come there,” Gee said. “So, it’s the issues of cost, quality and accessibility, and I think that’s a major issue facing the university right now. I think it’s both the biggest challenge, probably, and the biggest opportunity. I think if we really rethink the nature of our university and reinvent it in many ways, we can deliver extraordinary opportunities for students and do it in a way that’s really affordable.”

Following his stay in Randolph County, Gee left for the final stop on his tour, in Pendleton County.

“He set a goal to visit all 55 counties, and it is ending today,” said West Virginia University Extension Agent Ronnie Helmondollar. “A lot of people know that he is out and about, and that is a good thing, him getting out and meeting folks. This is just a part of his great commitment.”