By MIKE GARRISON

MORGANTOWN -- West Virginia in the 21st century is certain to be a far different place than it was in the last century.

Our state's natural resources -– clean water and air, coal, oil and gas, timber and farms -– will continue to play a vitally important role in its economy. But, more and more each year, the challenge will be to provide the human capital to create value from these resources.

West Virginians will have to work smarter to compete in a global economy. If the state fails to adapt to the shift to an economy based more heavily on information and intellect –- a shift that is already well underway -– our children and grandchildren will pay the price.

There is nothing intrinsic about West Virginia that makes it less attractive than other places for investment and development. In fact, the recent surge of people, investment and development into the Eastern Panhandle and the Morgantown area shows that we are fully capable of participation in the world economy.

But we must invest our funds wisely to make that transformation more widespread.

A recent economic study showed that each dollar spent by state taxpayers at WVU resulted in $19 in economic activity across the state.

WVU spends our state funds in large part on supporting its faculty and staff. These women and men teach our students, organize and direct our research, and provide direct services, like health care and local economic development assistance, all across our state.

The faculty, in particular, are the state's greatest engines of economic growth. They win competitive research funding from federal and private sources. They deliver new ideas and new products into the marketplace.

They treat the sick and injured, and develop new cures for disease. They work one-on-one with individuals, businesses and communities making crucial steps to advance their own interest and the interests of the state at large.

They also are the very best face of West Virginia. Whether it's creating new technologies for cancer care, exploring the depths of universe, or developing new energy sources, they are the West Virginians who make world headlines. As teachers and role models, they help young West Virginians develop the skills and confidence to succeed in a competitive economy.

WVU faces a two-fold challenge to maintaining our quality of faculty and support staff. One is simply a demographic fact: a large number of our employees are approaching retirement in the next decade, and we will have to work hard to find qualified replacements. The second is a retention issue: faculty and staff salaries at WVU, despite recent growth, remain substantially below our peers in neighboring states. We are at risk of losing some of our most productive and effective faculty and staff to our competitors.

The West Virginia Legislature and the Governor have clearly seen these challenges in recent years. All of us at the WVU are appreciative of their efforts, particularly at a time when there is great competition for limited resources. The state has moved in the direction of making WVU and other higher education institutions more competitive for quality faculty and staff.

But WVU is far from finished with this effort. If the Legislature has the opportunity to place additional resources into our hands, WVU will invest them in faculty and staff salaries. With the twin challenges of retirements and retention facing us, it is our highest priority.

For the state, investing in a resource that shows a 19 to 1 return is both prudent and forward-thinking. In a year when other states are cutting budgets and shrinking appropriations to their higher education systems, West Virginia has a unique chance to gain ground on our competition and solidify the progress we have won with such effort over the last decade.

West Virginia Unprovides careers and opportunity for those who grow up here, but attracts the very best and brightest people from all across the country and the world. We must invest our resources in creating West Virginia's future.

Garrison is president of West Virginia University.

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