CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia college presidents don’t have consensus on a proposal to loosen central oversight.
“We have to be in unison,” said Mirta Martin, president of Fairmont State University.
But that’s not yet the case.
College presidents gathered today prior to a Higher Education Policy Commission meeting. Over an hour, it was clear they’re not yet ready to accept a new organizational proposal.
A draft version of the proposal was unveiled Thursday afternoon during a meeting of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Higher Education that was established earlier this year by Gov. Jim Justice.
The proposal would do away with the current Higher Education Policy Commission, which provides services and information for colleges.
That would be replaced by a new Office of Postsecondary Education, which would provide shared services for colleges and also coordinate academic programs.
The college presidents who met this morning in South Charleston had several concerns.
Several were worried about dismantling the Higher Education Policy Commission without being completely clear on all of its duties. They were afraid the new body might not cover everything.
“What was once handled by HEPC — where is that going?” asked Anthony Jenkins, president of West Virginia State University.
“Even before this leaves the station, those are things we need to talk about.”
Several were also concerned the proposal might eliminate the body meant to provide a neutral, overarching view of higher education strategy to the Legislature.
Without that, they said, each college might lobby for its own needs, providing little common ground on policy and strategy.
“I don’t think the Legislature wants us all up fighting among ourselves for funding,” said Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert.
And there was also concern that the proposal doesn’t fully address state law or financial ramifications.
Some colleges that live close to the edge on resources were concerned that they might wind up paying for duties the Higher Education Policy Commission actually performs.
Concord President Kendra Boggess suggested a better approach might be keeping the Higher Education Policy Commission but eliminating some of its roles that aren’t widely used.
“Why not take the HEPC as a starting model and add and subtract?” she said.
Drew Payne, a businessman and vice chairman of the Higher Education Policy Commission, said the proposal aims to build what’s needed from the ground up.
“We took the opposite approach,” he said. “Instead of taking an organization and picking it apart, we tried to create something new.”
Payne added, “This is just a starting point.”
He also said the structure isn’t set in stone.
“The 10 schools will make the rules,” Payne said. “We’re giving the power to you all.”
West Virginia University President Gordon Gee advocated for change, contending the Higher Education Policy Commission hasn’t done enough to advocate for colleges.
He specified a debate over guns on college campuses that took place in the Legislature last year.
“HEPC has done a horrible job of advocating for us,” Gee said over a speaker phone.
At that point, Boggess jumped in.
“I disagree with you,” she said, indicating other college presidents in the room were nodding their heads. “I think the HEPC has made many efforts to advocate for us.”
She suggested having 10 college presidents show up at legislative committees for their own needs — “it’s the wild, wild west.”
Jenkins, the president at West Virginia State, said there’s not a feeling of trust among the institutions. He said that complicates reaching consensus.
“There is a great opportunity for all of us to come together,” he said. “But there is so much distrust and fear that people are hesitant to collaborate.
Ideally, he said, the Legislature, the Higher Education Policy Commissions and presidents would all work together.
“We’ve all pitted each other against ourselves,” he said. “That’s not the way a system is supposed to work.”
He continued, “We have been destroying ourselves. That’s what we need to fix. I don’t know if this is getting to that.”
Martin of Fairmont State elaborated on those thoughts.
“This state has a history of making decisions disastrous to higher education because they were made in haste and devoid of any data,” Martin said.
She cited the example of West Virginia’s decision a few years ago to separate the community college system from the four-year colleges.
She continued, “We created two systems with double the overhead out of one that was working.”
“We’re all competing for the same butt in the seat, including the community colleges.”
Payne said the proposal that was introduced Thursday is just a draft. He expressed some hope that the presidents could reach agreement on what to do next.
“Something is broken,” he said. “All we want to do is try to fix it.”