In order to survive the Legislature’s continued budget cuts to higher education, West Virginia and Marshall University presidents E. Gordon Gee and Stephen Kopp are putting aside their colors to embrace a single banner of collaboration.
While that was the theme of Tuesday’s planned meeting between the leaders of West Virginia’s two largest universities, it wasn’t all business.
As part of a tour of the state’s 55 counties, Gee visited Marshall for the first time since his first stint as WVU president in the early ’80s.
As host, Kopp showed Gee nearly three decades of additions to Marshall’s campus before the two moved to the Marshall Foundation Hall for a joint press conference.
While they took turns speaking, they shared a common message: WVU and Marshall are better off working together.
“One of the first conversations Gordon and I had, we talked about opportunities for collaboration,” Kopp said. “He and I both realize if our universities are going to work together, it has to be at the highest level.”
In the past, communication between schools was done by other administrative staff, but Kopp said he and Gee made a promise to work together and regularly talk, rather than delegate those responsibilities to someone else.
But, the two had more than laughs and kind words to share. Both discussed serious problems stemming from a funding source that is quickly drying up.
The state of West Virginia spends 22 percent less on higher education now than it did before the 2008 recession.
A report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities also found last month that West Virginia is one of eight states to continue to make cuts to higher education despite a national economy that is recovering.
WVU and Marshall absorbed the brunt of more than $3 million in reductions this past year, losing $1.1 million and $500,000, respectively.
While cuts often call for drastic measures, Kopp and Gee are trying to position the two schools favorably before they experience “extreme financial stress.”
“If we take a look at the issues, I think the fundamental thing confronting us today is how do we increase quality while reducing costs,” Gee said.
For Kopp though, the biggest concern is how to find a sustainable source of income.
Rather than depend on government funding for Marshall’s survival, Kopp told the Daily Mail Monday that he intends to steer the school toward financial independence, thus ending its reliance on government appropriations.
“It is important to anticipate and prepare for a future unlike the past where there is 90 percent less funding,” he said.
Part of the private meeting with Gee was spent discussing how to operate a public university like a private institution, Kopp said.
He said Gee also sees the trends that warrant such a move.
Gee also pointed out that the strain isn’t just on universities. He said it also extends to students who are now laden with more than $1 trillion in loans.
“States have no money, people are crunched and there’s a squeeze on the middle class,” he said. “We need to rethink higher education.”
Part of the shift in philosophy is focusing on investing in West Virginia’s future, Gee said.
By educating a workforce that wants to stay in-state after graduating, the two schools could very well help the state’s and their own financial situations by enlarging a dwindling taxable base.
“I think our university (WVU) helps the people of this state, and I think this university (Marshall) helps the people of this state,” Gee said. “I think there needs to be an expectation that the only competition we have is for maybe three hours on a Saturday afternoon for a basketball game.
“That’s good, healthy competition.”
Kopp shared the same sentiment, adding that competition between institutions has done more harm to higher education across the nation than anything else he can think of.
“We both recognize that we’re going to come out much better off, both individually and collectively, through collaboration and partnerships,” Kopp said.
Contact writer Samuel Speciale at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4886. Follow him at www.twitter.com/wvschools.