Gov. Jim Justice’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Four-Year Higher Education didn’t, after all, agree on a report to the governor Thursday, as members continue to differ on what colleges should be exempted from what oversight.
The panel is planning to meet some more, despite the fact that the governor’s original due date for the governance recommendations report was Monday. The Governor’s Office hasn’t announced how much longer the panel will be given.
The latest version of legislation proposed by some Blue Ribbon Panel members to create a new entity to replace the current Higher Education Policy Commission, the state’s four-year college oversight agency, would grant Shepherd University more freedoms from state regulation than the state’s other “non-exempt” colleges are being offered.
Shepherd would move closer to state’s “exempt” institutions: West Virginia University, Marshall University and the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine.
The HEPC currently has the power to reject academic programs proposed by the non-exempt schools, allowing it to stop duplicative programs and other issues, but it can only reject programs proposed by the “exempt” schools if they are, as state law puts it, “proposed to be offered at a new location not presently served by that institution.”
The proposed legislation would treat Shepherd like an exempt school in that area, plus would free Shepherd, like the exempt schools, from tuition and fee rules passed by the agency that replaces the HEPC.
But the presidents of Bluefield State College, Concord University, Fairmont State University, Glenville State College, West Liberty University and West Virginia State University said last week they want whatever replaces the HEPC (they suggest keeping the name) to have the power to reject academic programs proposed by all four-year schools.
Fairmont President Mirta Martin, who’s served as a spokeswoman for those six objecting schools, told her fellow Blue Ribbon members Thursday that she was “offended to have to read [in the proposed legislation] that” Shepherd was being treated differently.
“I was not even consulted for Fairmont State University,” Martin said. “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.”
On Thursday, less than a month before the next regular legislative session starts Jan. 9, the panel met via teleconference for what Drew Payne, the Blue Ribbon panel’s governance subcommittee chairman, previously said he expected to be the last meeting before the report.
At the start of Thursday’s meeting, Payne noted he sent the roughly 360-page proposed HEPC replacement bill to Blue Ribbon panel members Sunday.
Payne, who’s vice chairman of the HEPC’s board and a former WVU Board of Governors member, said that, based on the feedback from Shepherd University Board of Governors Chairman Eric Lewis and Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert “and others” he didn’t name, “it seems like we have considerable support for the concepts which were outlined in the materials, but that people right now would like a little bit more time.”
Payne suggested continuing the governance subcommittee “and to work with the Governor’s Office and the presidents because we’re going to need some additional time and work sessions to get a final bill, recognizing that we have to do this by Jan. 9, when the Legislature starts.”
“I think we need to continue this process a little more because it’s so in-depth,” Payne said.
Gilbert and Lewis provided the Gazette-Mail the feedback they said they shared. Both said there hadn’t been enough time to analyze the bill, and Lewis specifically wrote “I would not be comfortable with the full BRC voting to approve the draft bill because it is so comprehensive and requires quite a bit of detailed analysis.”
Also Thursday, WVU President Gordon Gee, who leads the panel’s meetings, and HEPC board Chairman Michael Farrell, who opposes the HEPC’s dissolution, continued their sparring. Farrell sent out a letter before the meeting objecting to the proposed bill.
“I’ll just say this to you as a friend,” Gee said. “You know you keep putting this on the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission letterhead and I’m not certain that that is what you should be doing because you’re a member of the Commission, and that indicates that you’re representing the [HEPC], and I don’t believe, frankly, that you have the votes of your own commissioners to continue to work as it is.”