The state Higher Education Policy Commission’s board chairman sent members of the governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Four-Year Higher Education a letter this week defending the HEPC and countering West Virginia University President Gordon Gee’s criticism.
“The urgency of our mission and brevity of time to complete it has deprived the [Blue Ribbon] Commission the opportunity to objectively learn about the value added to all of West Virginia’s institutions of higher education by the HEPC,” wrote HEPC Chairman Michael Farrell. “I acknowledge that [Blue Ribbon Commission] Co-Chair Gee is not a fan of the HEPC. The inquiry does not end with his opposition.”
The Blue Ribbon Commission — a panel, not a state agency, formed in July — has vaguely discussed demoting the HEPC, West Virginia’s overarching four-year college oversight and policy agency, into an entity that serves only smaller schools.
Farrell, who also is on the blue ribbon panel, wrote that colleges’ state “funding has accountability obligations. One of the important functions the HEPC meets is the implementation of the State accountability system.”
He wrote that the Legislature already has reduced HEPC oversight over the state’s two highest-enrollment public schools, and so he questions Gee’s criticism.
“Among those freedoms from these sweeping bills are the ability to approve their own academic programs [MU and WVU] without regard to the needs of the region, or whether similar programs are offered by other institutions serving the region,” he wrote. “The schools also may hire and fire their presidents without HEPC approval, purchase items up to $50,000 without competitive bidding and develop capital projects up to $3 million without state approval. With the 2017 legislation, Marshall and WVU now are exempt from the state compact process and all institutions may increase tuition by as much as 10 percent in a single year without seeking HEPC approval.”
Gee is one of the blue ribbon panel’s three co-chairs, and he leads its full meetings. WVU News Director April Kaull wrote in an email Tuesday afternoon that Gee was still reviewing the letter. She did not provide a reason for why he considers the HEPC burdensome.
Farrell’s letter criticized, among other proposals, Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert’s suggestion to cut the HEPC’s funding by up to $2 million and reallocate it, plus $8 million from the state budget surplus, to most of the state’s smaller colleges. That extra money wouldn’t go to WVU, Marshall and a couple others.
Farrell argued that such a cut could subject HEPC board members to litigation by threatening, or appearing to threaten, colleges’ ability to repay hundreds of millions in building project debt.
The $2 million HEPC cut proposal wasn’t brought up again in a blue ribbon finance subcommittee meeting Monday.
Subcommittee member and Fairmont State University President Mirta Martin provided the Gazette-Mail with the current written recommendation from the subcommittee regarding an altered method for allocating the $10 million, and the language doesn’t mention an HEPC cut or where any of the money will come from.
Fellow subcommittee member and Shepherd University Board of Governors President Eric Lewis wrote in an email that he thinks the HEPC cut issue will be discussed at meetings this week.
A Marshall spokeswoman, after talking with Gilbert, wrote that “the subcommittee recommended asking the governor to fund the entire $10 million from his contingency fund for the first year and then asking the Legislature to provide permanent funding to the institutions’ base budgets going forward.”
That isn’t specified in the subcommittee’s current written recommendation, which the full blue ribbon panel must still vote on.
Farrell said the HEPC gets grants to help disadvantaged students attend college and is an independent information source for the Legislature. The blue ribbon panel is dominated by college presidents and has no experts from outside the state.
Gov. Jim Justice gave the panel a Dec. 10 deadline for its report, but the panel might recommend an extension of its work.
There’s a full blue ribbon panel meeting by teleconference at 5 p.m. Wednesday, an 11 a.m. Friday meeting of the panel’s governance subcommittee at 1 Tamarack Plaza, in Beckley, and another full panel meeting at 1 p.m. Friday, also at Tamarack.
Farrell said he sent out the letter now because he believes the governance subcommittee will have its final meeting Friday and all subcommittees will submit their recommendations soon. Presentations from HEPC staff members have been scarce at blue ribbon meetings.
The HEPC board vice chairman — Drew Payne III, a former nine-year WVU Board of Governors member — heads the governance subcommittee. During a 15-minute meeting in late September, that subcommittee recommended reducing the HEPC to a mere service agency.