Long-simmering tensions between West Virginia University and the Higher Education Policy Commission (HEPC) have risen to a boil.
The HEPC develops and oversees policies for the state’s four-year colleges and universities, and recently top officials at HEPC and WVU have clashed. One of the primary issues is a proposed new formula for how state dollars are distributed to the schools.
Under the model WVU, WVU Tech at Beckley and Glenville would get less money, while the rest of the state schools would receive more. Shepherd University, which has complained loudly that it is underfunded, would see its state share rise by 36 percent—the most of any school.
Meanwhile, Governor Justice has created a Blue Ribbon Commission to study higher ed. “Our West Virginia colleges and universities are so critical to our communities, and the continued erosion of their stability deeply concerns me,” Justice said, and he challenged the task force to create a “more efficient and meaningful” system.
That was followed by a decision by HEPC to suspend the search for a replacement to Paul Hill, who is retiring as chancellor and to hire WVU Tech President Carolyn Long as interim chancellor. Hill will stay on for six months as a consultant at his current pay of $227,119, the same salary Long will receive.
Long has deep ties to WVU. She first served as a member of the University Board of Governors and is now head of WVU Tech. That has prompted allegations that she has a conflict of interest, and that WVU and President E. Gordon Gee are exerting a disproportionate amount of control over any restructuring of higher ed.
Shepherd President Mary Hendrix has been particularly critical, calling the move “an unprecedented hostile takeover of our Higher Education Governing body.”
“They (WVU) influenced the removal of the HEPC chancellor yesterday and replaced him with a less qualified administrator. This situation is incredulous–that proper vetting and garnering support for this radical change that affects the lives of so many individuals–did not occur,” she said.
WVU fired back. “We are disappointed and disagree with President Hendrix’s allegations and the sequence of events stated,” said University in a prepared statement. “Her assumptions do not have merit; and the University is not engaging in a hostile takeover of our education system.”
The fight here is ultimately about how limited state money is distributed and how much control the HEPC will have over member institutions, and those issues are interwoven with the highly volatile question of whether a state of 1.8 million and no population growth has too many colleges.
HEPC reported last year that enrollment at the state’s four-year public institutions declined for the 7th consecutive year. West Virginia has 11 public four-year institutions, eight private not-for-profit colleges and a host of for-profit private institutions that all compete for a decreasing number of in-state students.
Governor Justice’s Blue Ribbon Commission is off to a shaky start because of the HEPC controversy, as well as the tension between WVU and some of the state’s regional universities. However, if the task force, the state’s universities and Governor Justice are serious about the necessary and overdue recalibration of how the state educates its college students and the best way to pay for that, then even more serious and contentious debates are ahead.