The president of West Virginia University, which has openly opposed the college funding formula the state Higher Education Policy Commission’s staff has proposed, will preside over Gov. Jim Justice’s new “Blue Ribbon Commission on Four-Year Higher Education,” which will examine college funding and sustainability.
Justice, at a Monday news conference, said the commission would have three co-chairs: Gordon Gee, president of WVU, the state’s largest 4-year public school; Jerome Gilbert, president of Marshall University, the state’s second-largest public 4-year university; and Kendra Boggess, president of Concord University and head of the Council of Presidents, which includes all the state’s public colleges.
Gilbert said just before the news conference began that he also opposes the proposed funding formula, saying he couldn’t get behind a formula that not all colleges supported.
The other blue ribbon commission members will be HEPC board Chairman Michael Farrell; HEPC board member Drew Payne; the presidents of West Virginia State University, Fairmont State University, the West Virginia Education Association union and the West Virginia Education Alliance nonprofit; WVU Board of Governors member Marty Becker; Mountain Health Network interim Chief Executive Officer Gary White; CPA Eric Lewis; attorney Ellen Cappellanti; and six nonvoting lawmaker members, two Democrats and four Republicans, to be selected by the speaker of the House and the Senate president.
The Governor’s Office didn’t clarify Monday whether that’s the same Gary White on the Marshall Board of Governors or the same Eric Lewis on the Shepherd University Board of Governors. The executive order establishing the commission says state schools Superintendent Steve Paine will be on it.
The executive order is dated June 26, and says the governor’s commission also will examine “the role and value” of the HEPC, whose staff will assist with the panel’s work.
“What we want to do is take advantage of the expertise of our larger universities and let them drive us, let them help us find a way to preserve our smaller institutions,” Justice said.
He referenced redundancies, but said it’s “absolutely essential that those schools will stay in those communities.”
When asked why he’s announced this commission now, Justice said, “I think the reason now is because there’s no better time than now.”
“The formula will be visited by the commission, that’s going to be one of the big subjects,” Justice chief of staff Mike Hall said. “Quite frankly that’s going to be in the sweet spot of what they’re going to talk about.”
But when asked if the commission will try to “circumvent” the HEPC’s formula work, Hall said, “I don’t know if I’d use that word or not,” and said the commission would “take into consideration all the previous conversations, including legislative, that have gone on over the years to try to come to, probably, a pretty stable and final solution as to how we’re going to view higher ed funding and higher ed structure in the years going forward.”
Gee said he’s suggested to several HEPC board members appointing Carolyn Long, the WVU Institute of Technology’s president, as interim chancellor of the HEPC (unlike the new commission, the HEPC, which oversees 4-year schools, is an actual state agency led by its own board). Gee said he’d like Long to return to Tech after that stint.
“You know, you can go and hire some interim person from somewhere else and they would take a long time getting up to speed on what we’re doing,” Gee said. “Here, you have someone who is very knowledgeable about higher education, but also, she’s been the chairwoman of the West Virginia University board, she’s been a college president, she’s been a schools superintendent. She is highly respected.
“There will be some people who would think ‘Well, she’s a West Virginia University person,’ ” Gee said. “That’s nonsense, she is Miss West Virginia.”
Farrell, a former Marshall interim president who also served on the school’s board of governors, said he was vice chairman of the board that adopted the current higher education governance structure. He said Monday that, early next week, the HEPC board will meet on possibly suspending the current search for a new permanent chancellor to replace outgoing leader Paul Hill.
Farrell, a WVU law school graduate, expressed concern about finding a quality chancellor if “that person doesn’t know what the system looks like.” He said that structure might not be known until after working with the blue ribbon commission and, potentially, after action from the Legislature.
Justice indicated that he was unaware the search might not continue.
HEPC Communications Director Shelli Dronsfield said AGB Search, the firm helping with the chancellor search, has been paid $17,000 out of a $50,000 total contract. She said she couldn’t say Monday if any money would be wasted, or if it could be applied to a future search, if the search were canceled today.
“We would have to have this conversation with AGB,” Dronsfield said.
The HEPC’s proposed funding formula has yet to be approved by the HEPC board or lawmakers or the governor, as would ultimately be required. Also, the HEPC board could change the proposal before passing it to the Legislature.
If the current proposal were fully implemented using this past fiscal year’s $229.4 million total base general revenue state appropriation (the only pot of funding it would affect), the formula would drop funding for three schools: WVU would lose $9.2 million, WVU Tech would lose $3.3 million and Glenville State College would lose $1 million.
Justice expressed opposition to higher education cuts.
Farrell said Chris Treadway, the HEPC’s senior director of research and policy, is still evaluating each public comment, “and he has continued to make modifications.” Farrell expects that work will be done by Aug. 25.
“Our mandate to start the funding formula discussion came from the Legislature,” Farrell said. “They passed a bill last year. We’ve got a deadline; we’re going to meet that deadline.”
“Every day that goes by, it seems like one of our institutions becomes in jeopardy, in jeopardy maybe of closing,” Justice said. “Well, I don’t want that to happen.”
“We do not have too many colleges in the state, we have too many people not going to colleges,” Gee said. “We’re not going to take a look at closure.”
“If you look at what happened in Montgomery, we don’t want to see that happen anywhere else,” Boggess said.
WVU, under Gee’s leadership, moved WVU Tech from Montgomery to Beckley, closer to Concord, Boggess’ school. After Monday’s event, Boggess said Tech’s move “is not helping” her school in enrollment.