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Dr. E. Gordon Gee’s view on the role of universities in promoting community resiliency

Dr. E. Gordon Gee

- Education

- Dec 7 2016

I have been thinking a great deal about resiliency since coming back to West Virginia as president of West Virginia University (WVU) in 2014. Resiliency is the ability to adapt and recover from illness or adversity. The word assumes negative change—bad things will happen. The key question is: will we bounce back?

Dr. E. Gordon Gee

President of West Virginia University, USA

West Virginia has certainly experienced its share of adversity –everything from major economic downturns to horrific natural disasters. And yet, the thing I love the most about this place is the resiliency of its people. Despite numerous hardships, West Virginians keep going—planning and working and moving toward a brighter future. Inspired by their example, I believe one of the most important ways a university can serve its state is to help communities to be resilient.

A Fire in Harper's Ferry – Extension Teamwork and Expertise

In July 2015, a catastrophic fire struck the historic town of Harper's Ferry. The damage was tremendous: nine destroyed businesses in a town of less than 300 people. WVU quickly dispatched our Extension Service experts who provided technical assistance on everything from reconstructing buildings to re-establishing businesses. WVU helped to identify and apply for grants as part of the recovery. Perhaps the most innovative part of our effort was the use of a drone to take aerial photographs that have been used to redesign the downtown area and make it even better and more appealing to tourists. I am very proud that these efforts and even prouder of the resiliency shown by the citizens and business owners of Harper's Ferry.

A Flood in Southcentral West Virginia – Coordination of Donations

In June 2016, counties in southcentral West Virginia experienced what the National Weather Service called a "1,000-year rainfall." Twenty-three people died, thousands were left homeless, hundreds of businesses closed and dozens of schools were damaged.

Rallying to the aid of their fellow Mountaineers, WVU students and city officials coordinated a drive to collect supplies ranging from potable water to baby diapers. Although academe is often criticized for its glacial pace on many things, this was an example of a rapid response. Full recovery from a flood this severe will take years, even decades, and WVU will be a partner with the affected communities every step of the way.

Steel Industry Collapse in Weirton – Interdisciplinary Expertise

Located just 40 miles from Pittsburgh, Weirton has been hit hard by economic forces. The most devastating came from the contraction of the American steel industry over the past 30 years. Weirton and the surrounding region saw manufacturing jobs as a share of total employment cut in half from 1980 to 2012.

To study what happened, WVU brought together an interdisciplinary team of experts and researchers. Informed by economic analysis and the literature review from business, economics and public administration experts, researchers from sociology and social work conducted a series of focus groups to hear directly from the people affected about what can be done to help Weirton. This is a long-term project, and the solutions won't be easy, but thanks to the work of a very skilled interdisciplinary team, we are making progress.

Charleston's West Side – New School of Public Health

The West Side of Charleston is a highly urbanized area in a state better known for its rural nature. In the 1960s and 1970s, the area saw a decline in economic and educational opportunities and a drug crisis in the 1980s. Today, all four of the area's elementary schools rank in the bottom 20 in terms of student test scores, and crime rates are among the state's highest.

WVU formed a partnership between the vice president for diversity and the School of Public Health to address the needs of the West Side. The goal is to "create social and physical environments that promote good health for all.” If we are successful in our partnership, we will restore a sense of resiliency in a proud but besieged community.

The Southern Coalfields – A New Campus in Beckley

The troubles in West Virginia's southern coalfields are systemic and staggering. The average life expectancy for men in McDowell County is the lowest of any county in the nation and the region struggles with high rates of poverty and low levels of educational attainment.

This year, WVU opened a new campus in the heart of the southern coalfields with a mission to increase access to postsecondary education in a region that desperately needs it. Our hope is that a stronger presence of the state's flagship university in the region will boost college attendance and serve as an engine of economic development and, yes, community resiliency.

Five examples of communities in crisis. Five examples of how a university is helping these communities to bounce back. The obvious but often-overlooked key is to treat the people in these communities as genuine and equal partners and remember that we will learn more from them than they will learn from us. Our institutions are part of a tradition almost a millennium old. Timeless and enduring are fine, but I also want our universities to be resilient and to contribute to the resiliency of the communities and people we serve. In the end, that—more than ivory towers and ivy-covered walls—is our real legacy.

Read more on The Role of the University in Promoting Community Resiliency on President2President website, a thought leadership series offering perspectives from university presidents for university presidents on the challenges faced in higher education.

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Dr. E. Gordon Gee’s view on the role of universities in promoting community resiliency

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