Longtime counsel who quit in style offers Blue Ribbon warnings

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Bruce is back.

Maybe not back, exactly. But offering a piece of his mind.

Bruce Walker

Bruce Walker is the 30-year counsel for West Virginia’s higher education system. He recently retired with a mic drop.

In July, after the Governor named a Blue Ribbon Commission to examine the higher education system, conflict arose right away.

The Higher Education Policy Commission dropped its ongoing search for a new chancellor, moved then-Chancellor Paul Hill to consultant status and brought in WVU Tech President Carolyn Long as interim chancellor.

Long has been associated with West Virginia University, where she served on its governing board. Her selection took place without a search or process, and much of the conversation was behind closed doors.

When a vote was taken in the open, Walker abruptly announced his retirement and left the room.

Walker, who was nearing retirement but had not planned to do so abruptly, cited a rule of professional conduct saying a lawyer can withdraw representation if their client is perpetuating a crime or fraud.

The rule also says a lawyer may withdraw if the client insists upon taking action that the lawyer considers repugnant or with which the lawyer has a fundamental disagreement

“Bruce out,” he said.

In recent weeks, though, Walker has been commenting on the proposals of the Blue Ribbon Commission.

His comments advocate for a continued, strong higher education presence that can provide unbiased information, communicate with unity to the Legislature and balance out regional push and pull.

“Frankly, I think I know as much about the past of higher education in this state, and the present issues, than almost anyone alive,” Walker wrote.

“Nevertheless, the BRC has not sought my input on the issues before it. However, I should not feel too left out since I understand elements of the BRC seek no outside information that might contradict their narrative.”

The Blue Ribbon Commission on Higher Education in recent weeks has debated the role of the Higher Education Policy Commission.

Gordon Gee

In particular, West Virginia University President Gordon Gee has repeatedly called it a “super governing board” that has too much say-so over other institutions.

Gee has pushed for more power with the governing boards of individual institutions.

“The governing boards are appointed by the governor and approved by the Legislature. That’s where the accountability lies and should lie. No need to have a super governing board,” Gee said last week.

“We’re finally turning responsibility for governance back to the institutions.”

Last week, the Blue Ribbon Commission looked at a draft proposal to do away with the Higher Education Policy Commission and replace it with a new Office of Postsecondary Education.

The new office would provide shared services for colleges and also coordinate academic programs. But it was described as providing greater authority for individual colleges’ governing boards.

The next day, several college presidents expressed misgivings, concerned that dismantling the Higher Education Policy Commission might have unintended results.

Mike Farrell

“The Legislature has to have credible analysis delivered with integrity, not partisanship,” Higher Education Policy Commission Chairman Mike Farrell said to the college presidents. “This is DOA in the Legislature.”

Walker’s comments have expressed similar themes.

He noted that the Legislature has enacted comprehensive goals and objects for higher education in the state.

“The recommendations made by some of those on the BRC is to remove any attention to or adherence to these legislative mandates,” Walker wrote. “In effect, it is a pitch for feudalism with individual fiefdoms setting their own goals and objectives.

“Without a strong independent central office like the HEPC, free of institutional or regional bias, to develop and enforce these goals and objectives the BRC and Legislature can merely state they do not care about a statewide higher education future for our students. Back to a let them ‘live or die’ mentality.”

The Higher Education Policy Commission should also have a strong role in the strategic rollout of new academic programs, Walker wrote.

“I understand the present thought among some is that we can go back to the Wild West and let knife fights determine who lives and dies,” he wrote. “But there has always been a reason for central office determinations on this issue.”

He asked whether WVU would be happy with Marshall or Concord universities setting up a law school in southern West Virginia. Or if Shepherd in the Eastern Panhandle would welcome other schools duplicating programs there.

“Do we really want institutions trying to run off or kill other institutions by duplicating programs in the other institution’s back yard?” he asked.

“Program approval and oversight, especially termination of wasteful programs, by a central independent organization without institutional or regional bias, is one of the most important tools a Legislature can assign to save millions and foster efficiency and a statewide master plan for higher education.”

Walker credited the Higher Education Policy Commission with other elements of savings by providing services that many colleges are too strapped to provide themselves.

Those include legal services, contracts for vendors, architectural and construction oversight and free required training in areas such as governance and ethics.

“This is not a task to be casually tossed away and should even be expanded,” Walker wrote. “Walmart and Lowe’s do not have each separate store provide its own, duplicative services. Nor should we.

“Institutions must be confident that they have a trusted independent organization providing these services and not dictated to by one or two institutions.”

Governor Justice asked the Blue Ribbon Commission on Higher Education to
recommend policies, structure and organization to improve four year higher education. He set a Dec. 10 goal to provide a report.

The next commission meeting is in Bridgeport on Nov. 27.

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