Some West Virginia college presidents said recently they’re worried about what proposed changes to the state’s higher education system would mean for their schools — including what would keep one college from duplicating services provided by another.
“If we’re moving to this ... model, then there needs to be code or something that regulates where the non-exempt — or the exempt — institutions can go and cannot go, what program they can create,” West Virginia State University President Anthony Jenkins said at a Nov. 16 meeting.
Up until earlier this month, Gov. Jim Justice’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Four-Year Higher Education seemed to be barreling toward a recommendation to strip the state’s Higher Education Policy Commission, the agency that oversees the state’s four-year colleges, of its powers to regulate and set policy for those colleges. That would leave it, or an agency replacing it, as just a services provider.
The HEPC can now reject redundant academic programs proposed by the so-called “non-exempt” schools, which are schools other than West Virginia University, Marshall University and the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine. The HEPC can still reject programs from 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.”
Jenkins, who is a member of the governor’s Blue Ribbon panel, said at a Blue Ribbon separate meeting the week before last that college presidents wondered “what prevents WVU from putting up a branch campus in every county.”
The “exempt” institutions are often called that because the HEPC has less power over them than the other four-year colleges.
A summary of legislation proposed by some Blue Ribbon panel members shows it would replace the HEPC with an Office of Postsecondary Education, formed of a representative from each four-year school. The OPE would still not be able to reject proposed programs from the exempt schools, and WVU, Marshall and WVSOM representatives on the OPE wouldn’t vote on rejections of non-exempt school programs.
Drew Payne, the chairman of the Blue Ribbon panel’s governance subcommittee who spoke with the presidents earlier this month about the OPE proposal, noted panel member and Shepherd University Board of Governors President Eric Lewis said he’d like academic programming freedom.
“If we’re going down this path, then I’m going to be exempted as well,” replied Fairmont State University President Mirta Martin, another panel member.
Lewis said he’d either like to see the state board not be able to reject programs, or to consider geography when doing so. He said Shepherd, in the Eastern Panhandle, is “really competing more with schools that are pulling out of northern Virginia and suburban D.C. than we are students that would possibly go to Glenville or to West Liberty.”
Lewis said West Liberty University, in the Northern Panhandle, shouldn’t be barred from attracting Ohio students with a program just because that program exists elsewhere in West Virginia.
“How do we coordinate expansion?” Martin asked earlier this month. “One of the issues that is a concern is the regional institutions do not have the deep pockets to be able to turn on a dime.”
Jenkins said “there is a great opportunity for all of us to do a better job collaborating with each other, right, but there is so much distrust and fear.”
The program duplication concern mirrors conclusions in an April report from the Colorado-based National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.
“West Virginia now has no state-level entity with authority and power to maintain a balance among missions and to counter actions of either West Virginia University or Marshall University that have the potential to seriously undermine the regional [four-year] institutions’ sustainability,” the report said.
WVU President E. Gordon Gee has rebutted allegations he wants to take over other schools, and has said the state doesn’t have too many colleges, it has too few students going to college.
“If we take our system, and you look at our flagship institutions,” said Jenkins, the WVSU president, “in all of the systems I’ve been in, they lift the system, they don’t destroy it. And yet we have been destroying ourselves, and there’s enough fingers to point and go around to everybody, nobody is clean of that, that’s what we need to fix, and I don’t know if this gets to that, right, I don’t know what the answer is.”
Public four-year college enrollment has been decreasing, including an 8 percent decrease in for-credit headcount enrollment, excluding high schoolers taking college courses, at WVU over the last five years. Marshall saw a 7 percent drop over that time.
Aside from a 3 percent increase at the osteopathic school, the only school that’s seen for-credit headcount enrollment, excluding high schoolers, increase over the last five years is the WVU Institute of Technology. That’s an arm of the WVU System that WVU moved from Montgomery to Beckley — closer to Bluefield State College and Concord University.
Part of the recent meeting of presidents was closed to reporters. After some discussion, the presidents let media in.