Chapter 2: The Role of the University in Promoting Community Resiliency

by E. Gordon Gee, Ed.D.

Posted on November 10, 2016

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According to, "resiliency" is an object's ability to return an original form after being bent, compressed, or stretched. In human terms, it is the ability to adapt and recover from illness or adversity. The word derives from the Latin resilire, to bounce or spring back. Resiliency assumes negative change—bad things will happen. The key question is: will we bounce back?

According to, "resiliency" is an object's ability to return an original form after being bent, compressed, or stretched. In human terms, it is the ability to adapt and recover from illness or adversity. The word derives from the Latin resilire, to bounce or spring back. Resiliency assumes negative change—bad things will happen. The key question is: will we bounce back?

I have been thinking a great deal about resiliency since coming back to West Virginia as president of West Virginia University (WVU) in 2014 (I also served as WVU President from 1981-1985). West Virginia has certainly experienced its share of adversity. It has been bent, compressed, and stretched by everything from major economic downturns to horrific natural disasters. And yet, the thing I love the most about West Virginia is the resiliency of its people. Despite numerous hardships, West Virginians keep going—planning and working and moving toward a brighter future.

I believe one of the most important ways a university can serve its state is to help communities to be resilient.  

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. Although the word "resiliency" does not appear in either of the Morrill Acts, I think nurturing resiliency is at the heart of the land-grant mission and, indeed, of higher education generally. I would like to describe briefly five examples of how WVU is nurturing resiliency in communities across West Virginia.

A Fire in Harper's Ferry – Extension Teamwork and Expertise
In July 2015, a catastrophic fire struck Harper's Ferry, a small, historic town in West Virginia's eastern panhandle. The scope of the fire damage was tremendous: nine businesses were destroyed in a town with a population of less than 300. These businesses, located in the heart of the downtown area, were an essential part of making Harper's Ferry a tourist destination.

To help Harper's Ferry with its resiliency in this time of crisis, WVU quickly dispatched experts from our Extension Service. These experts 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 led WVU to be named the national runner-up for the 2016 Excellence in Teamwork Award presented by the National Association for Community Development Extension Professionals. I am even prouder of the resiliency shown by the citizens and business owners of Harper's Ferry, who have risen like a phoenix from the ashes and restored the town's charm and prosperity.

A Flood in Southcentral West Virginia – Coordination of Donations
In June 2016, counties in southcentral West Virginia saw up to 10 inches of rain in a 24-hour period, an event the National Weather Service called a "1,000-year rainfall." Twenty-three people died as a result of the flooding. Thousands were left homeless, hundreds of businesses were closed, and dozens of schools were damaged—including at least two that were declared total losses.

Rallying to the aid of their fellow Mountaineers, WVU students and City of Morgantown officials coordinated a drive to collect supplies and filled three tractor-trailers, three box trucks, and four pick-up trucks with supplies ranging from potable water to baby diapers. This was an example of a rapid response. Although academe is often criticized (and with good reason) for its glacial pace on many things, we must be able to react more quickly when the occasion demands it, and this was such an occasion. 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. Our efforts in the days immediately following the flood are a sign of that commitment to help these communities regain their sense of resiliency.

Steel Industry Collapse in Weirton – Interdisciplinary Expertise
Located in West Virginia's northern panhandle, just 40 miles from Pittsburgh, Weirton is an example of a community hit hard by economic forces. The most devastating impact on Weirton has come from the contraction of the American steel industry over the last 30 years. Weirton and the surrounding region saw manufacturing jobs as a share of total employment cut in half from 1980 to 2012. At its peak, Weirton Steel, the heart of the town, employed more than 13,000 people. Today, that number is below 1,000.

Economic collapses are complex, and proposing simplistic solutions based on cursory research is generally not helpful. To study what happened in Weirton and how it affected the resiliency of that community, WVU brought together an interdisciplinary team of experts and researchers. The Business and Economics experts conducted a thorough examination of various socioeconomic characteristics, from income and wages to labor participation rates, and how these changed over time. The Public Administration experts provided a detailed review of the scholarly literature related to job loss and displacement and their effects on the economy, public health, politics, family dynamics, and community resiliency. Informed by this economic analysis and the literature review, researchers from Sociology and Social Work conducted a series of focus groups with Weirton residents and people who moved away from Weirton to hear directly from the people affected—experts in their own right because of their lived experience—about what can be done to help Weirton going forward. 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, West Virginia's capital city, is a highly urbanized area in a state better known for its rural nature. Following a pattern exhibited in urban areas across the country, in the 1960s and 1970s, Charleston's West Side saw a decline in economic and educational opportunities. Drugs became a crisis in the 1980s. Today, all four of the area's elementary schools rank in the bottom 20 schools (out of 400 statewide) in terms of student test scores, and crime rates in this neighborhood are among the state's highest.

In 2012, WVU established a new School of Public Health. In 2014, WVU elevated Diversity to a vice presidential position. These two initiatives have converged in the form of a partnership between the vice president for diversity and faculty in the School of Public Health to use a social determinants of public health model to address the needs of the West Side. This goal of this model, as articulated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is to "create social and physical environments that promote good health for all." This includes safe schools, access to high-quality health care, affordable housing, and availability of nutritious foods. If we are successful in our partnership with the residents of the West Side, 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. A microcosm of the misfortunes of this region is McDowell County, which at its peak in 1950 had a population of almost 100,000. Today, the county's population is below 20,000. The average life expectancy for men in McDowell County is the lowest of any county in the nation. Other counties in this region struggle with high rates of poverty and low levels of educational attainment.

This year, WVU opened a new campus in Beckley, located in the heart of the southern coalfields. The mission of this new campus is to increase access to postsecondary education opportunity in a region that desperately needs it. It was a bold (and some might say foolhardy) move: in the midst of budget cuts and shrinking populations, WVU doubled-down on its investment in southern West Virginia. Time will tell, but our hope—our expectation—is that a stronger presence of the state's flagship university in the region will boost college attendance among 18 to 24 year olds as well as older adults 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. Of course, WVU is not the most important player in these communities. The people are the heart and soul of these places. The business owners in Harper's Ferry, the flood survivors in Greenbrier and Nicholas Counties, the unemployed steel workers and coal miners in Weirton and Welch, the religious leaders on Charleston's West Side—they are the real heroes and the real experts. The obvious but often-overlooked key is to treat the people in these communities as genuine and equal partners and always remember that we will learn more from them than they will learn from us. Building on that essential understanding, I believe the university has a critical role to play and it begins with making resilience a part of our mission.

At the same time we are helping to building resiliency in our communities, I hope we are instilling a commitment among our students. As a land-grant university, WVU has a special obligation of service to our state—and our students are at the forefront of fulfilling this obligation. As an example, WVU, in collaboration with the Corporation for National and Community Service and Volunteer WV, is participating in the Million Hour Match. This initiative is calling on WVU students to contribute one million hours of community service by 2018. The value of the learning experience students receive when they engage in community service is tremendous. The value of the service they provide to communities, to borrow from the MasterCard commercials, is priceless. Such service experiences also add value to students' degrees and improve their chances when they enter the job market. Students will leave the university and go on to be citizens, residents, voters, taxpayers, and employees in communities, large and small, throughout West Virginia and around the world. If we are successful as universities, our students will enrich and empower those communities in countless ways throughout their lives. Talk about resiliency!

Our students are also conducting research—from identifying effective strategies for promoting public health to evaluating different approaches to student learning in elementary and secondary schools. Even though it may take a bit longer to produce results, this research is as important as direct service in terms of the ultimate benefits for the community. Universities generate new knowledge, but it is essential that we apply this knowledge to solve problems and serve society. I believe that is one of the most important lessons we are teaching our students: their work—in the classroom, in the laboratory, in the library—has value and meaning beyond the walls of the university.

We often think of universities as timeless and enduring—the oldest European university was established in 1088, and many American universities are embarking on the second or even third centuries. 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.