CHARLESTON, W.Va. — As higher education leaders approach a deadline, West Virginia University President Gordon Gee lectured his colleagues about being willing to embrace change.
Gee told members of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Higher Education that if they ask the governor for $10 million to spread among themselves without recommending other changes, “My friends, we are dead on arrival.”
At the backdrop of Gee’s comments was a new article in Forbes by economist Richard Vedder: “West Virginia Higher Education: Many Colleges But Little Learning or Outcome.”
“We have a crisis situation for higher education in this state,” Gee said at the beginning of a Tuesday afternoon conference call. “If we’re all honest with each other we would know that’s the case.
“I believe our governor and the governor’s staff recognized what may of us did not, which is we cannot become what we need to be by remaining what we are.”
Gee continued, “If there are people who think higher education in the state is good enough, I suppose it makes sense for those same folks to not keep an open mind on change.
“The status quo simply has no status. There are people among us who think things are fine. That’s sort of the Lake Wobegon approach to administration.”
Gov. Jim Justice established the Blue Ribbon Commission in June, seeking greater efficiency and stability for four-year colleges. He set a mid-December goal for recommendations.
In recent weeks, commission members have been discussing two main initiatives.
One would be $10 million in additional funding split among colleges and meant to help shore up from cuts that have been made in recent years.
The other would be a new central structure for higher education, likely taking the place of the current Higher Education Policy Commission.
The proposed Office of Postsecondary Education is meant to provide shared services for colleges while also coordinating academic programs. A draft description was introduced a couple of weeks ago.
Many of the college presidents have been concerned, though, that the existing structure provides services that they may not immediately recognize.
Fairmont State University President Mirta Martin said college presidents have been contributing to a detailed spreadsheet of their needs that should be reflected by any new central agency.
“We don’t know what we don’t know,” Martin said. “We need to ensure that their services they’re currently using are properly provided.”
Eric Lewis, who serves on the board of governors for Shepherd University, said that institution still wants to see an outline of what’s to come.
“Everyone understands that the devil is in the details,” Lewis said.
Drew Payne, vice-chairman of the Higher Education Policy Commission, said a fleshed out version of the new proposed structure — likely exceeding 300 pages — is in development.
Higher Education Policy Commission Chairman Michael Farrell submitted a letter in response to the proposed new organizational structure, suggesting it’s light on detail:
“The Blue Ribbon Commission will embarrass itself if it endorses to the Governor a proposal that fails to analyze the statutory duties assigned to the HEPC and fails to address why the legislative leadership should discard and disband the sole governmental agency that provides objective analysis and advice regarding the policies that provide the foundation for the delivery of higher education in the State of West Virginia.”
West Virginia State University President Anthony Jenkins wanted to know what cost savings would actually be presented by a new structure.
“What does that model save us, if anything?” Jenkins said.
Gee promised a fiscal note that would include different variations.
West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee wanted to be assured that not only would savings be considered but also costs.
“Will costs be passed on students? Can regional institutions afford these?” Lee asked.
Gee responded, “The intent is to be much more effective and efficient but not to pass these costs either to the regional institutions or to the students.
“Hopefully we’ll have cost savings that can then be passed to the universities and colleges themselves.”