CHARLESTON, W.Va. — When the commission that oversees West Virginia’s higher education system convenes this week, it will kick off a new look at where the state’s colleges and universities should go from here.
The commission also will start talking about a report from a national consultant that questions the strategy and sustainability of West Virginia’s higher education system.
All of this is against the backdrop of Gov. Jim Justice’s recently-announced Blue Ribbon Commission on Higher Education, which is tasked with assessing the adequacy of current funding levels for four-year institutions, assessing the current governance structure of four-year institutions and analyzing the role of the Higher Education Policy Commission itself.
The Blue Ribbon Commission has three co-chairs: West Virginia University President Gordon Gee, Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert and Concord President Kendra Boggess. No meetings have been set for that group yet.
The Higher Education Policy Commission is having a special meeting because of recent events. It’s set for 9 a.m. Tuesday at the commission’s offices on the 9th floor of Boulevard Tower, 1018 Kanawha Boulevard East in Charleston.
Suspending the chancellor search
The search for a new chancellor was prompted by a retirement announcement this spring by current Chancellor Paul Hill.
The commission established a search committee, hired national consultant AGB Search and posted a national advertisement. The timetable called for the search to wrap up with the announcement of a new chancellor late next month.
But Justice’s desire to take a look at the whole higher education system has changed that plan.
“I suspect we’re going to suspend that search,” HEPC Chairman Michael Farrell said during a July 2 news conference to announce the Blue Ribbon Commission.
“If we’re going to get a quality person in this position and that person doesn’t know what the system looks like, it’ll be very difficult to recruit someone of quality.”
WVU President Gee, in comments that same day, acknowledged his desire to see WVU Tech President Carolyn Long — a former chairwoman of the WVU board of governors — fill in as chancellor.
“I think she would be a great choice,” Gee said, adding that he has suggested her. “She is the most knowledgeable person in the state about education, higher and otherwise, and it would be a great opportunity if we could persuade her to do this.”
His co-chairman, Boggess, signed a letter to the HEPC urging the opposite. She was acting as President of the Council of Presidents when she signed the letter last week keep Hill and specifically not appoint Long.
“We would also respectfully request that the [HEPC board] not appoint Carolyn Long from WVU Tech to the position,” according to the email that was obtained by The Charleston Gazette-Mail.
“Carolyn is a respected member of the education community, but we feel strongly that there is a substantial conflict of interest which may create unnecessary challenges in the system, especially during this critical time.”
The Higher Education Policy Commission will also take a first look at a report questioning the sustainability of the college and university system as it stands right now.
The report by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems wasn’t produced with the Blue Ribbon Commission in mind but it’s likely to influence the conversation that West Virginia is about to undertake.
The report provides some tough love, starting with the effect of West Virginia’s steady population decline. “This decline is intensifying competition for a shrinking pool of youth and adults.
“Because of the direct relationship between enrollments and institutional revenues, these trends are threatening the long-term financial viability of the regional institutions.”
West Virginia’s economic limitations also have affected the colleges, the report concluded. “The fact that West Virginia is at the low end of per student funding suggests that there is not much fat to squeeze out of institutional budgets.”
In the face of such challenges, the report concludes, the regional institutions are responding with strategies that are unlikely to be successful for long-term sustainability.
For example, severe tuition discounts are likely to put institutions at severe financial risk. Attempting to recruit out-of-state students when surrounding states are trying the same strategy is unlikely to succeed.
“What they have not done is develop strategies for serving adults that represent a regional market that is badly underserved,” the report’s authors wrote.
The report noted that two colleges experienced enrollment decreases of more than 20 percent — Bluefield State (27 percent) and Glenville State (23 percent).
Two more also experienced significant decreases — Concord (15 percent) and Fairmont State (18 percent).
The report concludes that West Virginia and Marshall universities have considerable advantages that allow them to draw students who might otherwise choose to attend some of the state’s smaller institutions.
“West Virginia continues to face a particular challenge in maintaining a balance between the prestige, scale, statewide reach and political influence of West Virginia and Marshall University on the one hand, and the needs of the regional institutions on the other.”
The report notes the many changes to higher education structure West Virginia has instituted over the years — from the Board of Trustees that used to govern the bigger schools and the State College System that governed the smaller ones to the establishment of the Higher Education Policy Commission in 2000.
Over almost two decades, “the Legislature has reduced the role of the Commission from a powerful overall coordinating entity for the entire system to an entity with only limited coordinating authority,” the report concludes.
That trend has increased disadvantages for smaller schools, the report says.
“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 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.”
The report lists Bluefield State, Concord, Glenville State and West Virginia State University as sustainable in the short term but with uncertain futures.
Their challenges include an inability to generate sufficient tuition revenue to make up for declines in state support, challenges to make the changes necessary to align faculty with their mission and enrollment and a history of uneven institutional leadership.
“The intense competition for revenue-generating students and the disincentives in the state funding model provide barriers to collaboration,” the report concluded. “As a result, each institution is working through its own survival strategy in isolation.”
The small colleges could collaborate more with WVU and Marshall, the report concluded, but they’re scared.
“A major obstacle to collaboration with West Virginia University or Marshall University is a fear that the larger institutions will collaborate only out of their self-interest or ultimately take over the smaller institutions.”
At most immediate risk are Bluefield State and Concord, where “the challenges are so serious that only a major restructuring will preserve postsecondary education opportunity for students in Southern West Virginia.”
Glenville State and West Virginia State are also in tenuous positions — “positions that will only become more dire, unless institutional leaders can act to reverse current trends.”
The report’s authors recommend consolidating the two most at-risk institutions — Concord and Bluefield State — right away. They’d operate as separate campuses with separate names but with one governing board.
Longer term, the conclusions support establishing a state regional college and university governing board that would include Bluefield, Concord, Glenville and West Virginia State.