E. Gordon Gee is serving his second term as president of West Virginia University. He has also led the University of Colorado, Brown University, Vanderbilt University and, twice, the Ohio State University.
In my 40 years as a university president, I have experienced what I thought was every possible challenge, including wars, the 1987 stock crash, riots, tragedies on campus, 9/11 and multiple recessions. But the COVID-19 pandemic is testing higher education — and every other sector of society — as never before.
Critics accuse academics of occupying ivory towers far removed from society’s real concerns. Even if that were true, no tower could soar beyond this current crisis. In fact, COVID-19 has reinforced the value of higher education’s unique strengths: research-based expertise, scientific innovation and the ability to partner with state and local governments.
As a land-grant institution with Research 1 status and a comprehensive academic medical center, West Virginia University has a special calling to help protect West Virginians. With its aging population, our state has a demographic resemblance to the people of hard-hit Italy. That reality is one reason we have moved aggressively to help contain and mitigate the virus’s impact.
WVU Medicine, for example, is stepping up by establishing drive-through collection points in five West Virginia cities to collect specimens from pre-screened patients to test for COVID-19.
While our state was the nation’s last to verify a coronavirus diagnosis, the university made proactive and aggressive decisions to ameliorate the challenges of the coronavirus to our faculty, staff and students and to “flatten the curve” of its spread. Starting March 10, we announced many precautionary actions, including moving classes online, encouraging faculty and staff to telecommute if possible, canceling athletic events, suspending university-sponsored travel and holding recruitment events virtually.
As the situation evolves, we are taking advice from public health experts and enacting any other necessary measures to protect students, faculty, staff and our community.
This is a black swan moment for our country, which requires universities to lead and not follow. As we work through current challenges, we must constantly fix our eyes on the future. We must learn from our mistakes and from what we do right. Because changes to our world will linger after this virus subsides, we must find ways to educate and sustain our university families while operating in a new environment.
In my conversations with senior university leaders, I have asked them to couple their immediate crisis responses with thinking “from the other side of the mountain” — that is, thinking about how we can use what we have learned to reposition the university in a more powerful role of leadership locally and nationally. In other words, the old saying about crisis creating opportunity must remain foremost in our minds.
We may find that this disruption inspires innovations in course delivery, recruitment or other areas that serve us well long after this pandemic has passed.
We may also find that some tasks we eliminate now as nonessential were never very useful to begin with. Bludgeoning bureaucracy is always difficult for large organizations, but we have the chance to emerge from this crisis with institutions that are more agile and effective than ever.
Personally, at age 76, I am approaching our current situation a bit like a freshman showing up for his first day of class: A little anxious, but eager to try new things and learn all I can.
“Bludgeoning bureaucracy is always difficult for large organizations, but we have the chance to emerge from this crisis with institutions that are more agile and effective than ever.”
E. Gordon Gee
President, West Virginia University
While the wait for a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine could be 12 to 18 months, I have great faith in our country’s scientific ingenuity. While our financial markets are vacillating wildly and social distancing is grinding commerce to a halt, I know that the world and national economy ultimately will recover as the infection inevitably subsides.
And while colleges and universities are enduring disruptions, I know that thoughtful, proactive leadership will help us protect our students, faculty, staff and health care providers, while we share our scientific expertise globally.
By looking beyond the current crisis, colleges and universities can both prevail in this latest test and sustain our highest purpose — making our world a better place through learning and service.