At the beginning of the legislative session, West Virginia University President Gordon Gee had three goals — to pass a bill changing college personnel rules, to restructure how higher education is governed in the state and to prevent further budget cuts to his school.
Two of those goals are moving quickly ahead. One bill already has been signed by Gov. Jim Justice, and the other sailed out of the House of Delegates Tuesday morning and is headed to the Senate. Gee and a handful of other WVU officials came to speak about these goals to the Gazette-Mail’s editorial board on Tuesday afternoon.
“I’m a strong believer that you cannot come to the Legislature and say, ‘Preserve our funding and invest in us,’ if we don’t invest in ourselves,” Gee said in the meeting. “The old days of just asking for money and not doing anything internal are over by a long stretch.”
Late last year, before the Legislature convened and discussed cuts to WVU, Gee said the school would plan to cut $45 million in spending by 2020. On Saturday, members of the House Finance Committee looked at a potential budget plan that would reduce WVU’s state appropriations by 4.4 percent, or roughly $5.9 million.
“With this changing environment, our intent is not to tax the parents or the students,” Gee said. “That’s one of the reasons we say to the Legislature that by decreasing our budget, you really are taxing the parents and the students.”
Of the two bills Gee had hoped the Legislature would pass, WVU officials helped write both. One, House Bill 2542, was signed by the governor last week. It will allow some colleges to have greater flexibility to lay off certain employees.
The other bill, HB 2815, would restructure how colleges are governed. It easily passed out of the House of Delegates Tuesday morning with a 98-2 vote. That bill would shift a considerable amount of authority from the Higher Education Policy Commission to the individual governing boards at WVU, Marshall University and the West Virginia Osteopathic School of Medicine.
Gee said HB 2815 is meant to simplify some of the administrative burdens placed on the three exempted schools. It would limit the HEPC’s role to mainly offering policy recommendations to the Legislature and collecting data to track the educational outcomes of students.
But it also allows those schools to increase their tuitions by 10 percent in a year or 21 percent over three years with no independent oversight. Currently, when schools want to increase tuition above 5 percent, HEPC has approve the move.
The bill also would remove HEPC’s oversight of how much presidents can earn at the exempted schools. Commissioners currently have to approve a president’s salary. To do that, they look to see if a proposed salary falls in range of the similar schools. If HB 2815 should pass, the HEPC would be entirely removed from that process, and individual boards of governors would be left to set the salaries by themselves.
“The way that higher education has operated has been, it’s a process of second-guessing everything and having a series of hoops to jump through,” Gee said.
He went on to repeatedly criticize “red tape” and “bureaucracy” as a hamper to the school’s ability to react to budget cuts.
This time last year, a legislative audit found that the HEPC and its sister organization that oversees two-year colleges, the Council for Community and Technical College Education, found the two institutions do not provide oversight or accountability. It found, among other things, that the HEPC and CTCE take no enforcement actions when schools fail to meet certain requirements.
“The point is, they would ask for a lot of information but would never act on it,” Gee said. “They were churning out a lot of — well, we killed a lot of trees for no purpose.”
The HEPC and CTCE together craft reports each year to show a host of different issues, including how the cost of tuition and fees are changing and to track enrollment and retention trends across the state. Those reports, which are given to the Legislative Oversight Committee on Education Accountability, would not be affected by this bill.
When HB 2815 was in the House Education Committee, Delegate Michael Folk, R-Berkeley, offered an amendment to add Shepherd University to the list of exempt schools. That amendment was later taken out.
“The interesting thing that happened is, after Shepherd was added, all the other institutions came in and said they want to be exempt,” Folk said. “That tells you that we don’t need this organization. You want local control? Let’s get rid of it.”
Update: A previous version of this story incorrectly characterized the rules HEPC follows to approve a president’s salary.