BRIDGEPORT — The governor’s panel analyzing four-year colleges discussed Monday possibly replacing or changing the state Higher Education Policy Commission into a service agency with less oversight over colleges, following legislation in recent years that already weakened the HEPC.
Also at Monday’s meeting of Republican Gov. Jim Justice’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Four-Year Higher Education, panel Co-Chairman and West Virginia University President Gordon Gee pushed back against recent news reports.
Members of the panel were given copies of two articles published over the weekend by the national Chronicle of Higher Education and the Gazette-Mail.
“The elephant in the room is really what is the intent of the commission and what is my personal intent, I think that it’s important that we talk about what we’re doing for the students of this state and that we try get those issues clarified or behind us,” Gee said near the start of the meeting.
The Chronicle article reported that Gee “admits he worked behind the scenes to create a different panel,” from the HEPC in the wake of its staff’s initial college funding formula proposal. That panel, which became the Blue Ribbon Commission, would “instead consider how higher education is organized and governed in the state.”
On Monday, Gee rebutted the idea his motive was his opposition to the funding formula, but said, “I made a recommendation, yes” and confirmed The Chronicle’s report that he and a governor’s aide met with two HEPC board members at Charleston’s Edgewood Country Club about the panel.
The Chronicle said this happened before Justice announced the panel’s formation.
Gee further told the Gazette-Mail that, while at least “probably a half a dozen lawmakers,” whom he declined to name, had suggested a gubernatorial commission to him, he was the one who initially brought the idea for the panel to Justice and Justice senior adviser Bray Cary.
“Almost everyone I talked to about the need to reform said, ‘Well, this really needs to be gubernatorially led,’” Gee said.
Gee also said the governor’s aide at the country club was Cary, and the attending HEPC board members were HEPC Chairman Michael Farrell and Vice Chairman Drew Payne III. Farrell and Payne are also now on the Blue Ribbon Commission.
Payne is a former nine-year WVU Board of Governors member who spent two years as that board’s chairman. Farrell has ties to WVU and Marshall University, but he disagreed Monday with Gee about his statements regarding the HEPC, noting the Legislature had already lessened its regulation.
The Parkersburg News & Sentinel has reported that three Blue Ribbon Commission members [it has about 20 members, six of whom can’t vote] “were board members of West Virginia Media Holdings, a media company owned by Bray Cary.”
When asked after Monday’s meeting what was wrong with The Chronicle’s article, he said he disagreed with the tone and headline: “West Virginia Commission Seeks Equity for Colleges. But Behind the Scenes, Gordon Gee Pulls Strings.”
“I made it very clear today, the university has no interest, let me say this and I want you to publish it, the university has no interest in providing support for any other institution, we have enough on our hands,” Gee said. “Second of all, we have no interest in a one-university system or a two-university system. And number three, we believe that governing boards should be the institutional power and that we need to move away from a centralized bureaucracy which overrides the governing boards.”
Gee said “we seek fairness and equity but I’m not pulling the strings, I’m chairing the committee.”
As for the Gazette-Mail article, he objected to the article’s tone of, as he put it, “it being all about power.” And he objected to the newspaper’s quoting of Farrell.
Farrell said he expected proposals at Monday’s meeting to divide colleges’ back office services — such as accounting, financial aid, legal services and possibly more — between the state’s two largest public universities: WVU and Marshall.
“I lost it on Friday when I read that,” said Eric Lewis, chairman of the Shepherd University Board of Governors and a Blue Ribbon Commission member. “When you read something like that it’s natural for someone to think that something is happening behind the scenes hopefully isn’t happening.”
“You’ve learned the common truth of public life, which is don’t believe what you read in the newspaper,” Gee told him.
No one, in fact, did bring such a proposal up Monday.
“That was something that has never been on my agenda,” Gee said of dividing up back office services. “I told you today I want strong governing boards, I want to have performance funding and I want to have a service-centered central authority that provides services to the institutions that need it.”
He said he wants the service agency to have no power to override decisions of college governing boards.
Panel members expressed concern Monday about moving too slowly to finish their recommendations by the end of the year, and Gee said three panel co-chairs would meet to select subcommittee members to develop a higher education structure recommendation and possibly a means of funding schools.