WVPA Sharing

Opinion: Moving past 1862: The evolving role of the land-grant, R1 institution

Fred King
Professor, Vice President for Research
West Virginia University

The American public’s trust in higher education has waned considerably within the last decade.

This is an interesting, new dynamic: Academia’s detractors represent various segments of America – from those living in rural, poverty-stricken areas who feel higher ed is out of reach and out of touch with the real world to the wealthy, powerful and elite (many of whom, ironically, hold college degrees themselves). Companies are even encouraging young people to bypass the college experience altogether or drop out to join their workforce, learn on the go rather than forego income for the time it takes to earn a degree.

Fred King

Certainly, disruption is coming to higher ed, particularly for land-grant, R1 institutions like West Virginia University, where I have served as vice president for research since 2012.

Land-grants, such as ours, have prided themselves on serving their state and residents first and foremost since Abraham Lincoln’s vision to expand higher education access to all as outlined in the Morrill Act of 1862.

But it’s not 1862, anymore. We need to realize that our traditional land-grant mission is rapidly changing and the array of stakeholders expanding. This also applies to being an R1 institution. We have to be leaders in research with impact at every level from our local community to our global community. At the same time, we have to be the driver of economic revitalization through workforce development and research commercialization.

Currently, West Virginia University is in the midst of an academic transformation, a difficult but necessary move for the university to emerge from this time of disruption as a more focused and relevant institution.

If we are to regain public trust and attract future students, we must offer a compelling education tailored to meet the needs of the 21st century. Our students will be competing in a world in which data will reign supreme and those who master the tools of AI and analytics will create and lead the companies of tomorrow.

As we adjust our academic offerings to better serve the needs of students, we also must focus our resources on areas of research strength such as astrophysics, neurosciences and robotics, just to name a few. We also need to continue building in areas such as cancer research and data sciences to meet future needs of the state and its citizens.

Since joining the chemistry department faculty in 1990, I have seen firsthand how West Virginia University builds areas of strength with far-reaching impact. 

A great example is our forensic science program, which did not exist in 1990. We were the first in the nation to offer accredited bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the field. We also established one of only two PhD programs in forensic science in the country. By all measures, our programs are now the gold standard that others try to emulate.

Recently, Tatiana Trejos, assistant professor of forensics, and a graduate student, Meghan Prusinowski, developed a one-of-a-kind method in determining how trace evidence on duct tape can help piece together a crime scene. Hence, providing law enforcement a valuable tool that they can use to solve violent crime cases.

Elsewhere in forensics, Professor Glen Jackson made waves a few years ago after his analysis freed a man wrongfully accused of murder and arson. He spoke to the science in an episode of “Forensic Files” and his published research on human remains once formed a storyline in “Law and Order: SVU.”

The research is aiding investigators and the legal system, providing students hands-on research opportunities prepping them for careers in the field and freeing the innocent who are behind bars.

On the health front, our Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute is the first in the world to open the hippocampal blood-brain barrier in Alzheimer’s patients and is the first in the U.S. to use deep brain stimulation to treat opioid use disorder.

That is what I call significant impact.

West Virginia University has also embraced the commercialization of its research discoveries.

Look no further than the work of Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute. Ziemkiewicz and his team have been awarded millions in federal dollars to continue developing a pioneering method to extract and separate rare earth elements and critical minerals from acid mine drainage and coal waste. Rare earth element technologies power everything from smartphones to the nation’s missile guidance system. However, the U.S. imports more than 80% of its rare earth elements and critical minerals as China dominates the global market.

Ziemkiewicz’s research could shift those tides, serving as an environmental and economic boon domestically while strengthening national security.

Stories like these must be underscored. Higher education research is no longer simply a query into abstract regions of narrow interest. The practical applications of an R1-level institution deliver tangible benefits to our students, communities and humankind.

For that young person pondering the question, “Why do I need a college degree?” I submit that it will prepare them for a career that will support their family, enable them to appreciate the world around them and play a meaningful role in their community. It will spark their passion and give them the purpose we all seek.

I am proud to be part of the team at West Virginia University, a flagship, R1, land-grant university living up to its motto “Mountaineers Go First.” A place where very high research activity results in a high return on investment for our students – and an even higher return on investment to our society.