Both chambers of the West Virginia Legislature made significant amendments Wednesday to two higher education bills, just three days from the end of this year’s regular legislative session.
House Education Committee Chairman Danny Hamrick proposed on the House floor amending Senate Bill 673 to exempt Shepherd University and Fairmont State University from state Higher Education Policy Commission oversight in several areas. Hamrick, R-Harrison, said Fairmont State requested the oversight exemption Monday, and he added Shepherd because it has requested it in the past.
The amendment would mean the HEPC board would lose the power to reject academic programs proposed by Shepherd or Fairmont State that the HEPC board deems duplicative.
The HEPC board would also lose the power to deny building projects those two schools pursue or deny what those schools want to pay their presidents.
Hamrick’s amendment passed on a voice vote with no nays heard. SB 673 is set to pass the House tomorrow, and the Senate will then have to decide whether to agree to the change, if the bill is to reach the governor for his signature or veto.
The Senate Government Organization Committee also approved Wednesday greatly curbing House Bill 3020. Before it was amended, the bill would’ve allowed public colleges and universities to use their foundations to skirt bidding requirements for goods, services, buildings and loans.
In a voice vote with no nays heard, the committee agreed to make the bill say colleges could only circumvent bidding rules to receive “financial services.” Previously, the bill would’ve allowed this exemption for “materials, goods, equipment, services, printing, facilities, or financial services, including, but not limited to, a lease purchase or a direct issue of special revenue bonds”
Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, proposed the amendment.
Regarding SB 673, the version the Senate passed would eliminate the statewide master plan for public higher education, weakening the HEPC’s oversight of the state’s higher education system.
Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, said last week the Senate version of SB 673 was her effort to “pass what everyone could agree on.”
This was after she said she received a proposed bill she thought was from the governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Four-Year Higher Education. The Blue Ribbon group never officially approved any proposed bill.
Rucker said it would’ve made “dramatic changes to HEPC.”
She opted instead to advance SB 673, which she said was more limited, alongside a resolution that would start an official legislative study of higher education.
Wednesday’s House floor amendment would broaden SB 673’s impact.
It would add Shepherd and Fairmont State to state law’s list of “exempt” schools. The current “exempt” schools are West Virginia University, Marshall University and the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine.
“We are unaware of the criteria for the selection of these two schools for exemption,” wrote Matt Turner, the HEPC’s executive vice chancellor for administration, in an email.
“The other regional institutions may ask the same question,” he wrote. “In the past, MU and WVU were separately designated for their statewide mission and are the leading research institutions with substantially larger institutional operations and enrollment. The School of Osteopathic Medicine is the only stand-alone medical school with its own unique mission.”
Concord University President Kendra Boggess said, “I think the two-tiered systems with dual sets of rules are not very wise.” She said she expects Concord and other regional colleges to now also pursue exemption.
“In my mind it should be all in or all out,” Boggess said.
Fairmont State President Mirta Martin had served as spokesperson for the “regional institutions” — the public four-year schools that aren’t currently exempt — on the Blue Ribbon panel. Leaders of these smaller colleges sometimes disagreed with current and former leaders of WVU as to what the Blue Ribbon panel should recommend regarding the HEPC.
The House floor amendment would mean Fairmont and Shepherd, whose Blue Ribbon panel representative has more often agreed with WVU’s stances, would join the exempt ranks alongside WVU.
Martin said she recommended to her Board of Governors that the college request the exemption, and the board agreed.
In December, she said she was “offended to have to read that” in draft legislation the Blue Ribbon panel was considering, Shepherd was abruptly being moved closer to exempt status than other schools.
“If we’re going to have a conversation about exempting institutions then all of the institutions should have been given the courtesy to have had that conversation as opposed to have had one institution appear out of nowhere,” she said that month.
“That was an introduction in the Blue Ribbon Commission,” Martin said Wednesday. “And it was a surprise. Now, what we are able to do, as individual universities, at the support and directive of our Board of Governors, through the Legislature, is different. Each one of the presidents has the right to speak with their legislators to do what is in the best interest of their own institution, and so I exercised that right.”
She said even if Fairmont State is exempted, that “does not mean that we’re abandoning the regional institutions. Quite the opposite, we will stand together in solidarity with the regional institutions because at the end of the day, I support their efforts and I support their mission.”
Martin said that before the legislative session, she told a couple, but not all, of the regional college presidents that she’d be seeking the exempt status for her college this session, and she said the school has been advocating for that since the session started.
“Timing is everything in life, as you know, and this bill was going forward to diminish some of the authorities of the HEPC,” she said.
“Fairmont State University is located in the I-79 Technology Corridor,” she said. “As such we are uniquely positioned to meet the needs of the state in the technology fields, the growing needs of the state, and we need to be able to turn on a dime, to be able to address the workforce needs. In addition to that, we do not use any of the HEPC products, we’re the third largest institution in the state.”