Reflecting on 154-year past for motivation, West Virginia University recommits to land-grant university mission – WV News

Posted: June 3, 2021 at 1:48 am

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (WV News) Gordon Gee, current president of West Virginia University, has what some may call a friendly disposition the bow tie, the round glasses, the friendly smile. The same cannot be said for Alexander Martin, the first president of WVU, who served from 1867-1875.

Evidently, he was quite a character, said Jay Cole, a senior adviser to Gee and a WVU historian. Hes got this really imposing, stern look to him. I can imagine him being the kind of president who could intimidate students with just a glance.

Not a lot is known about Martin, aside from the fact that he came from Scotland, was a clergyman before becoming WVU president, and died somewhere between the age of 60 and 70. But one thing we know Gee and Martin have in common is a dedication to the university and a desire to see it succeed.

Martin was a strong believer in the power of education, Cole said. He represented that new type of leader who helped higher education evolve in America from private and religious to public and more secular.

In the early days of higher education, it was generally religious-based, with a heavy emphasis in philosophy and speech. Colleges were primarily in large cities and available only to the wealthy. That changed with the Morrill Land-Grant Acts statutes.

Justin Smith Morrill was a U.S. senator from Vermont. In the late 1850s, he introduced the idea of creating a way to provide funds to states to create comprehensive colleges or universities.

Sen. Morrill said lets make it more democratic, lets expand the access, increase the availability of opportunity for students from all over the country to receive a higher education, Cole said. After a little bit of political maneuvering it didnt pass the first time, but a couple years later, 1862, he was able to line up the votes politically and it was signed into law by President Lincoln.

The goal of the act was to ensure that colleges provided a good education in areas such as engineering and agriculture.

The Agricultural College of West Virginia officially opened its doors Feb. 7, 1867. It was renamed West Virginia University on Dec. 4, 1868.

The importance of being a land-grant university is not lost on Gee.

Land-grant universities are about changing lives and building communities, Gee said. That is our history, and I think the good thing about it is that we have been very solidly centered as a land-grant institution; we havent tried to be who were not. We have been very focused on the peoples university in West Virginia, and I love that history.

The WVU of the 1800s was a far cry from what we know today.

When you think about what it was 150 years ago, it was much smaller, Cole said. The number, literally youre talking about students you could count by the dozens, and just a handful of faculty members. It was a slow start. It grew steadily. A lot of things helped with that growth. I would characterize it as a slow but steady start from 1867 into the mid-20th century.

Federal legislation created the Agricultural Extension Service in the early 1900s, and that helped give a boost to WVU.

That was the basis of the Extension services you take the scholarly activity of the university and you extend it beyond the campus walls into local communities, Cole said. That was huge, and a big part of WVUs growth in the early part of the 20th century.

The mission was now to share the results of their research.

Whether it was the best kind of crops to plant in certain soil, or the best kind of conditions to maintain livestock, Cole said, WVU was charged with making sure that knowledge got extended from the campus out into the community.

The second World War helped change the perception of universities on a national basis.

By the time we get to World War II, we start seeing the federal government specifically look to universities for research and help with the war effort, Cole said. Whether it was sonar, radar, and so many of the things that had military applications you began to see this relationship forming between research universities and the federal government developing new technologies.

The GI Bill after World War II helped WVU and universities around the nation expand.

You had a large increase in the universitys enrollment, with all of the returning servicemen, Cole said. A lot of them wanted the benefits of a college education, and they came back home and came to WVU having experiences in the military and overseas. They brought with them a more worldly view, and also more self-discipline from their military training.

Students who were more serious and committed to their studies helped fuel the growth of the university into the early 1950s.

Many notable figures helped WVU grow in not only public perception, but also through their in-school accomplishments. The first major sports celebrity to come from WVU was Jerry West, who played on the Mountaineer basketball team from 1956-1960. He won an Olympic gold medal in 1960, then became one of the most successful NBA stars of all time.

He meant so much to the university back when he was on those teams in the late 1950s and early 60s because it was one of the first ways WVU became known to a national audience, Cole said. Those great runs in the national tournaments really introduced the name WVU and helped put it on the map.

In the decades since, West has given both his time and resources to WVU.

Hes somebody who had a big impact while here as a student, but continued to serve and give back, Cole said. Thats what you hope for the university helps somebody succeed and achieve, and that person then gives back.

Another notable figure Cole said was vital to the success of WVU through his extraordinarily generous philanthropy was Milan Puskar. The WVU football stadium was named after Puskar in 1980.

At the same time, I think its important with him in particular, what he did for the Morgantown community as a whole region with Mylan Pharmaceuticals had a huge impact on the university, Cole said. You had a thriving pharmaceutical business that served as an economic anchor for the Morgantown region.

Cole said that if you think of Morgantowns economy as a triangle in those days, there were three major components: WVU, Mylan Pharmaceuticals, and J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital.

They were the anchors of the regional economy there was a lot of synergy, in terms of research and development, Cole said.

Cole noted that there was some debate when WVU was launching the medical school, and political pressure being put on them, to have the school located in Charleston.

If the medical school had been in Charleston, I think the history of the university and history of the state would be very different, Cole said. We wouldnt have, I dont think, as comprehensive and as strong an academic health sciences center as we do today. The medical service that members of all 55 counties receive, thats life changing and life-saving.

The past for WVU has led to a future for WVU that is bright, according to President Gee.

Weve moved from being a nice place you send your kids to college to have four years of fun joining a fraternity or sorority, to really being the economic engine, Gee said. We are the largest employer in the state, and we also create more economic activity than any entity in the state. By any measure, the university has been a great investment for the state of West Virginia.

WVU is built on the shoulders of faculty, staff, students, and alumni, Gee said. He hopes that people look to WVU as a bright spot in the state that is doing many good things.

I hope the legacy of the university is the people realizing in their hearts and their minds that this university is theirs and is making a very solid difference in their lives, Gee said. I want it to not be viewed as an external entity, but as a great partner in this thing we call West Virginia.

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Reflecting on 154-year past for motivation, West Virginia University recommits to land-grant university mission - WV News

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June 3rd, 2021 at 1:48 am

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