CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia lawmakers are keeping a close eye on how West Virginia and Marshall universities might interact with the state’s smaller colleges under proposals by a study group launched by Gov. Jim Justice.
West Virginia’s smaller colleges are already wondering how much, if any, autonomy they might give up.
“The smaller institutions are worried they’re going to be divided up among WVU and Marshall,” said Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion.
His district includes West Virginia University and also the smaller Fairmont State. “The folks there are concerned,” Prezioso said.
That kind of concern has become more pronounced since the revelation of a draft report that recommends merging the governing boards of Bluefield State College and Concord University, and later for Glenville State College and West Virginia State University.
The report questioned whether the role of the current Higher Education Policy Commission is adequate.
“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 institutions’ sustainability,” the consultant’s report said.
“The changes have left the regional university sector vulnerable to the power of larger institutions with the brand name and the resources to compete for students and state resources.”
Delegate Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, said he is concerned about the report and its findings. He often advocates on behalf of Glenville, which is in his district.
“I have major concerns with an out-of-state report attempting to influence our higher ed decisions, especially merging governing boards of four or possibly more 4-year institutions,” Boggs said.
“I certainly hope this is not a starting point for discussions, as the decisions made could very easily be irreparable harm to one or more regions of our state.”
Governor Justice announced his Blue Ribbon Commission on Higher Education this week. He wants it to complete its work by December, just before the next regular legislative session.
Justice named West Virginia University President Gordon Gee, Marshall President Jerome Gilbert and Concord University President Kendra Boggess as the co-chairs of the commission.
The executive order that names the commission indicates it will explore issues such as adequacy of current funding levels for higher education, the current governance structure and the role of the current Higher Education Policy Commission.
Justice said he wants a strategy to shore up West Virginia’s four-year system, particularly smaller colleges that are economic engines for their communities even as they might struggle financially.
“What we want to do is take advantage of the expertise of our larger universities and let them drive us, let them help us to find a way to preserve our smaller institutions and give them the opportunity of thriving as well,” Justice said.
That also raised a lot of questions about what role WVU and Marshall might play in longer-term oversight of other four-year institutions.
And if there were a broader reorganization with greater roles for WVU and Marshall, there are details about issues such as bond covenants to work out.
“I am encouraged by what the governor said about wanting to protect the smaller colleges and universities. But the devil is in the details,” Boggs said.
“What role WVU or Marshall may play in that is something that could be a positive or negative, depending on how it works out.”
Glenville, in his district, is one of West Virginia’s smaller institutions. Its location in central West Virginia gives it some distance from the other schools. And, Boggs notes, Glenville has a relatively higher percentage of first-generation college students.
“As we move forward, we have to look at making certain we don’t do something that will limit or eliminate opportunities for higher education for people in various parts of the state,” Boggs said.
He felt some assurance that Boggess, the president of Concord, would be serving as a co-chairwoman.
As state government has faced budget challenges over the past few years, the higher education system has been affected. Higher education went through a $16 million cut statewide in 2017 with WVU and Marshall taking the biggest cuts.
Boggs would like to see a reinvestment.
“At least this year, we didn’t cut higher education further. We should be putting money into it,” Boggs said. “I think there is a recognition this is something we need to make a big priority, not only now but going forward.”
Delegate Joe Statler, R-Monongalia, would like a fairly broad mission for the Blue Ribbon Commission.
Statler, who is the vice chairman of the House Education Committee, would like its members to examine how West Virginia’s higher education system interacts with its public schools system, particularly in terms of college readiness.
“I think it’s a great thing,” Statler said. “I just hope we look at some other issues that cross between the two.”
Statler is open to a greater oversight roles for WVU and Marshall in the higher education system.
“Some of the administrative roles can be doubled up to help each other. I think it’s worth looking at,” he said.
“If you’re doing your job right, you need to look at all these issues and see what works and what will not work for us. I think it’s long overdue and if done correctly it can be very very rewarding.”
Delegate Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, said the commission should be looking at higher education funding. And Rowe said it should examine how West Virginia’s colleges work together to avoid redundant programs and to take advantage of unique program opportunities.
Rowe is a former chairman of West Virginia State University’s governing board.
“We, like other states, should be seeing higher education as a matter of economic development,” he said. “I just think investment in higher education is one of the best investments we could make.”
Rowe suggested a reorganization of West Virginia’s college system may be necessary, but the commission should do so with results in mind. He pointed toward reorganizations in years past.
“We cannot help but tinker with the higher education system, whether it’s the Board of Regents or the Higher Education Policy Commission,” he said. “I think we should study all possibilities, but I don’t think we should just reorganize for the sake of reorganizing.”
He said the state’s smaller institutions should maintain as much autonomy as possible while also being collaborative.
“I think the institutions should continue to be independent but perhaps they should be encouraged to work with the others to prevent duplication,” Rowe said.
“As far as having either of the two universities assume oversight, I think they’ve probably got all they can handle and should not go into that role.”