Sarah Tucker, chancellor of the West Virginia Community and Technical College System, will now, at least temporarily, also lead the state’s oversight, services and policy agency that’s over the four-year colleges.
After spending about 21/2 hours behind closed doors Friday, the Higher Education Policy Commission’s board voted, in a voice vote with no nays heard, to hire Tucker for one year as the interim HEPC chancellor.
Two board members — state schools Superintendent Steve Paine and Bob Brown — were absent for the vote.
Board member Jenny Allen said she was on a teleconference line and she supports the hire, but had technical difficulties at the time of the vote.
HEPC board Chairman Michael Farrell and Vice Chairman Drew Payne said the combining of the CTCS chancellor and HEPC interim chancellor positions isn’t part of an effort to merge the two agencies or the separate boards that lead them.
Most of the agencies’ other employees are already shared between them. Matt Turner, executive vice chancellor of administration for both, said, of 76 total employees, three are HEPC-only and five are CTCS-only.
Farrell said that “what presented uniquely, and I think almost somewhat surprisingly, for us was an opportunity to have a one-year experiment to see if — without reuniting the schools, and there’s no thought about reuniting or seeking to reunite the schools — but, as I have said repetitively, [the] HEPC should be an assistance organization and a policy enforcer in terms of accountability, and we’re not governing anybody.”
He said Tucker “is a person who can achieve that accountability with clarity and with, I think, sincerity, that will get everybody on the same page and show the Legislature what it would look like to see one person over two systems.”
“The Legislature felt strongly enough about the Community and Technical College System that she is managing to create the new program that is going to provide free tuition for a lot of students,” Farrell said.
There’s been tension, recently and historically, between leaders of West Virginia’s four-year colleges and leaders of the community colleges over perceived competition for a declining number of students and the lasting effects of the state’s separation of community colleges from four-year schools. That separation revved up in the early 2000s.
In July, Gov. Jim Justice formed a Blue Ribbon Commission on Four-Year Higher Education, and the HEPC board voted shortly afterward to suspend its search for a permanent chancellor.
Much of the Blue Ribbon panel’s discussion focused on replacing or changing the HEPC into primarily a service agency with less oversight.
In this year’s regular legislative session, the Legislature and Justice passed Senate Bill 673, eliminating the statewide master plan for public higher education, a move that weakened the state higher education oversight agencies’ power to oversee colleges.
Larger governance changes didn’t pass.
What did pass was Senate Bill 1, which created a free tuition program for in-state, public community colleges. Tucker had pushed for the bill’s passage, and some four-year presidents expressed concern that the program would subtract students from their schools.
Carolyn Long announced in March that she’d be resigning from the interim HEPC chancellor position. She’s returning to her previous job as president of the West Virginia University Institute of Technology.
She said at the time that she’d stay in the interim role “if there was going to be a transition into big changes” at the HEPC, to help with that transition.
“And there’s not going to be, as far as I can see,” she said.
Lawmakers have said they are going to study higher education governance and funding before next year’s regular session.
“At the end of that year, my hope and prayer is that everything is calmed down and we can start a search, find a permanent chancellor and be able to define what that chancellor is,” Farrell said. “It may be that the Legislature has no interest in having one person there.
“It’s hard to sell somebody to come to West Virginia if I can’t say you’re still going to be here next year. A year from now, I have a high degree of confidence that all the clouds will be gone and that, through Sarah’s leadership, the role and importance and necessity of the HEPC will be well understood by the Legislature, and we’ll move forward.”
Payne, the HEPC vice chairman, said Tucker “is a very very qualified person, she knows higher education in West Virginia, she knows the staff.”
Payne also said the members of the Blue Ribbon panel’s governance subcommittee, which he chaired, agreed with combining the HEPC and CTCS chancellor positions.
Tucker said she’s worked for the CTCS or the HEPC since 2010. She became CTCS interim chancellor in July 2015. The board removed the “interim” from her title in October of that year.
She said several people asked her to apply for the HEPC position, but she declined to name them.
“There has obviously been a lot of change in the commission lately,” Tucker said. “And we have a very dedicated shared staff who need and want some stability, and I can provide that.
“I believe very strongly in the power of higher education. I believe in its ability to change people’s lives, and I think that being able to talk about that holistically from both the two-year and the four-year perspective is an important thing to be able to do.”
Regarding goals, she said, “I think we should talk about some student success initiatives, I think we can talk about thinking about a deferred-maintenance bond issuance for our institutions that have crumbling infrastructure, that desperately needs to be changed, I think we can talk about working together on the topic of teacher education.”
The board voted Friday to give Farrell, “the authority to enter into a contract with Dr. Tucker consistent with the terms and conditions communicated to the commission.”
The board didn’t share a copy of any proposed contract. Farrell said Tucker’s salary would be the same $289,000 annual salary Long had received, but the HEPC will pay half and the CTCS will pay the other half.
Tucker said she would accept that salary and intends to sign the contract Farrell offers. She currently makes about $205,000 per year.
The other two finalists for the position were Corley Dennison, vice chancellor for academic affairs for the HEPC and CTCS, and Stacey Jones, a vice president at Fairmont State University. Farrell said Friday’s closed session, which the board claimed an exemption from the state open meetings laws to discuss personnel issues, included interviewing the finalists.
“It was a difficult but a unanimous decision,” Farrell said, adding that each candidate was “very qualified.”
Dennison said he looks forward to working with Tucker.
“I think she’ll do an excellent job,” he said.
Farrell said there were seven applicants overall.