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A Seat at the Table

Take a seat at our dinner table where we will tackle critical issues (like energy, the environment, healthcare) facing West Virginia and the world. Our dinner conversation has never been so animated.

As the chill began to build in the mountains and the rhetoric on TV screens across the country got louder, a small group arrived at a house in Morgantown, WV.

Some of them knew each other, and others had never met before. Some were scientists, others were in business or administration. One was a coach, one a doctor, and another still a student.

The thread that binds them all together is West Virginia University. They all work at, graduated from, or attend WVU. In some way they all experience the same concerns we face every day with energy, healthcare, sustainability, and the ability to direct our own lives. They are people whose experience has given them insights into the steps we can take to solve our own problems.

They took a seat at the table, and they want you to join them.


Brian Anderson

Brian Anderson is a chemical engineering professor at WVU who works in collaboration with the US Department of Energy. The WVU and MIT alum is also an opera singer who has performed with the Boston Pops and Vince Gill, among others.

Lisa Costello

Lisa Costello is a resident in internal medicine and pediatrics at WVU, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology, a master of public health, and a medical degree. She was an invited walk-on to the women’s basketball team and was named Ms. Mountaineer.

Melissa Latimer

Melissa Latimer is a sociologist who has studied welfare reform, inequality, feminist theories, labor markets, gender, race, and ethnicity. She directs WVU’s efforts in recruiting, retaining, and promoting women in the science, technology, engineering, and math fields.

Jay Cole

Jay Cole is chief of staff under WVU President Jim Clements, and in his undergraduate years was named the University’s 13th Truman Scholar, the nation’s most prestigious award for students committed to careers in public service.

Jonathan Holifield

Jonathan Holifield a WVU alum, former running back, and vice president of Inclusive Competitiveness, an initiative that is designed to increase the competitiveness of African Americans and Latinos.

Chris Martin

Chris Martin is vice president for University Relations at WVU where she oversees an interactive communications network with the largest audience in University history. She formerly served as dean of the Perley Issac Reed School of Journalism and was recognized as West Virginia Professor of the Year.

Michael McCawley

Michael McCawley is a biologist trained as an engineer who oversees WVU’s Department of Environmental Health. He is currently developing monitoring equipment that is tested in the areas surrounding natural gas drilling sites in the Marcellus Shale.

Daron Roberts

Daron Roberts is a Harvard Law graduate who served as a cornerbacks coach for the WVU football team. He has had coaching roles for the Kansas City Chiefs and Detroit Lions, and he founded 4th and 1, a nonprofit that offers educational, sports, and life training to high school students. He left the WVU program in December to pursue other opportunities.

Cody White

Cody White was the eighth WVU student to receive the David L. Boren Scholarship, which enables students to study in countries critical to US national security interests. That scholarship took him to Russia, and he has spent his last four birthdays in a foreign country.

WVU’s Vice President for University Relations Chris Martin prompted the group to consider what the University could do to assuage the most prevalent problems of the day affecting West Virginia and the world beyond.

Chris Martin: The four areas that we thought about raising this evening as areas for conversation really do deal with your impressions, your contributions, and discussion around how West Virginia, West Virginia University, and the group of people assembled here can deal with some issues that are particularly important to this state. One of those is healthcare and the disparity of healthcare throughout the state and the research that fuels solutions to this issue.

“Being a land-grant University, we have a special obligation within this state to be the honest broker …”
—Jay Cole

The other is the economics of the state and the development of business and industry. And importantly for us energy, particularly the two sides of the coin that are energy development and at the same time protection of our natural resources because they are both part of the economic engine of the state. Something else I want to touch on is the real importance of diversity. It is what you do because it is the best thing for an organization. It is what makes it successful. I think the University is in a position to become and has become a driver in energy research, in economics, and healthcare and healthcare disparities, and building the richness of a diverse environment.

The vision for this salon-style discussion came from University Relations Vice President Chris Martin, who is leaving WVU to join the renowned Poynter Institute for Media Studies in January. Her outside-the-box thinking and new-age digital approach to storytelling inspired us all. She will always have a seat at our table.

Jonathan Holifield: I do think this is an interesting time for our University. It’s a very interesting time. It is pregnant, if you will, with opportunity but I do think the solutions will be uniquely West Virginian solutions. I think we can learn from the experience of other universities but we are such a unique creature, a small state with a big time University surrounded by big states with big-time universities that can squeeze and constrict the development of our state and our University because we’re all competing for similar resources. Our ability to cope with that reality, I think, is a fundamental question about the future of our University.

Jay Cole: Being a land-grant University, we have a special obligation within this state to be the honest broker when it comes to the political discussions and the policy discussions and weaving science and policy together because otherwise, if we cede that field, the discussion will not be objective. It will not be data-driven. It will not be based on facts. It will be based on anecdotes. It will be based on who can bring the most political pressure to bear and who can spend the most money on a particular issue or election or cause. I also hope that as a land-grant University, we say that we can be a leader in teaching, research, and service, and we add a fourth piece to that of stewardship because I think whether that’s our water resources, whether it’s the air we breathe, whether it’s the forests, I think we have a special obligation to be good stewards and to teach our students to be good stewards. If we never lose our true north as a University, then I think we’ll be doing the state a really good service long-term.

Holifield: That honest broker role with stewardship is a biased role. It’s not purely honest. The market will take care of the for-profit side. Who’s paying attention to the stewardship side if not WVU?


Michael McCawley: Energy is a vital resource to this state. It’s a vital resource to this country. All you have to do is look at some of the recent headlines about the instability in the Middle East, the political instability, and you have to say we can’t rely on our energy coming from a politically unstable situation because we can be too easily caught. As an environmentalist on the other hand, I say what are we going to do about the environment? How do we do energy responsibly? I am primarily apolitical. I believe my politics are science. Show me the data. It’s like Jerry McGuire, “Show me the money.” Show me the data. The data will lead the way. The data will be the truth. We have to collect the data. Once we begin to get data, we can make intelligent decisions and informed decisions and create an open environment.

“Here’s what we’re doing, here’s how we’re affecting more than just the University, more than the state, how we’re affecting the country and the world.” —Cody White

Brian Anderson: Just the other day I had a student come into my office very excited about something and I said “Carl, what is this?” And he said, ‘Dr. Anderson, we don’t have an energy club at WVU,’ and I said ‘You’re right, why don’t we?’ And so in the last three days we’ve drummed up support and in two days we’re an official organization. And we’re having our first meeting in a couple weeks and it was this excited student that came in and said “Why don’t we have this?” When it comes to diversity and bringing different viewpoints and different ideas to the table I think the more the merrier. I hope we have hundreds of students show up and bring their creative minds to this problem to figure out exactly what role WVU can play, and I think a real groundswell is about to occur.

Cody White: The Statler College recently started a program with student ambassadors. I think it’s a great program, and it speaks to how engineers can step up and say “Here’s what we’re doing, here’s how we’re affecting more than just the University, more than the state, how we’re affecting the country and the world.”

“I do think this is an interesting time for our University. It’s a very interesting time. It is pregnant, if you will, with opportunity but I do think the solutions will be uniquely West Virginian solutions.”
—Jonathan Holifield

McCawley We started a program called “Swivel,” the Southern West Virginia Lifestyles project. We started off unfunded completely. I drove down on my own, talked to folks down there and said “We want to get something started down there.” It’s the least healthiest place in this whole United States. Something has to be done. We can’t sit here in Morgantown and ignore it. We have to go down there. We have to do something. And if nobody else follows along then we’re still doing something. This is the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s speech about how we’re going to send a man to the moon in that decade not because it was easy but because it was not easy. And so what we have to do in this state is say we have to do something not because it’s easy but in fact because it’s not easy. And by doing the things that are not easy, we can lead the way.


Melissa Latimer: By bringing more people to the table you’re bringing more minds who can problem-solve and your innovation increases substantially. I studied poverty in West Virginia since 1994, looking at welfare reform. When people are so economically disadvantaged they cannot fully participate in their lives, they are not active, engaged citizens. They are focusing on surviving. For science, technology, engineering, and math, 20 years makes a huge difference in terms of technology and in terms of where you stand on whether you’re a global leader or you’re not anymore. In a global economy with the technology and the other societies that we’re competing with, you need as many people at the table as possible, and they need to have diverse experiences, and backgrounds and exposure to different groups of people because they will bring all of that with them. And together they will come up with a solution more efficiently, faster and better than if you put a group of people that are all the same at the table. They will come up with the same solution over and over and over again, and it won’t even be a solution. To me it’s an easy sell to say bring everybody in. I don’t know why it would be such a difficult sell except that some people might assume that there’s only five seats at the table and we should fight over those seats. I just say expand the house. Add more chairs.

“By bringing more people to the table you’re bringing more minds who can problem-solve and your innovation increases substantially.”
—Melissa Latimer

McCawley: Part of that is bringing the people to the table so we can tell them what it is they need to know. One of the forces that the University has that we can never overlook is WVU’s sports teams. They bring people out to make them accessible to us. Believe me, when I went through the southern counties, what they love are our football team and our basketball team. If you want to get them out, you bring an athlete.

Daron Roberts: I am still just shocked at times at the level of importance and fidelity and all of these very rich emotions that the West Virginia football team evokes around the state. Just autograph day, you’ve had people who’ve driven in from hundreds of miles, understanding that there’s probably a 15-percent chance that they’re going to get Geno Smith’s autograph. But that’s irrelevant. They’re willing to sacrifice and do what it takes. Around the state if Geno Smith or Tavon Austin give a personal pitch, people are going to listen.

Latimer: I believe they can love us for other reasons. And that’s not to take away from the history of sports in West Virginia. The institution has rethought itself and is taking some bold steps forward but part of the old step is to rely on the sports and the success of the sports to make the rest of the state love us and to draw new students in. That’s a model that’s going to tip at a certain point as the number of 18-year-olds drops and we become really competitive with other institutions.


Martin: One of the other things that I know that the University is associated with that people are willing to drive 200, and 300 miles for is treatment—healthcare. My mother was in the hospital for a big chunk of time last year and I spent a lot of time there and watched the people from across the state. And people would come and they couldn’t afford hotels so they would camp in the lobbies. It was a mecca for people. And their need and their passion for whatWVU could do for them was stronger than it is even on a game day for their desire for Mountaineer football to change their lives.

Lisa Costello: It’s a great point. I mean I have patients who drive three hours to come to see a specialist. They’re not coming to get my autograph—maybe on a prescription pad. The first autograph I ever signed—it was at the Children’s Hospital and the patient’s name was Destiny. That really resonated with me that people do come here for healthcare and it is one of our resources that ties into everything else.

McCawley: I want to move this University into the hills and the hollers. That’s where we need to be. That’s one place that we need to be. We need to be in the classrooms. We need to be on the football field, and we need to be in the hills and the hollers. We need to be where the people are, helping them on a daily basis. They need to see our faces. They need to know that we’re here for them. That’s what we do, that’s why we do it, that’s why we love them, and hopefully they’ll love us.

You are a citizen of the world. The events and people in your community have informed your life experiences, and you’ve become an expert on the issues that matter to you. You are always a part of the conversation and there is a seat at the table for you.