Blue ribbon commission works on Justice mandate

CHARLESTON — The Blue Ribbon Commission on Four-Year Higher Education has divided itself into three subcommittees to help meet Gov. Jim Justice’s mandate.

The commission met by conference call Monday afternoon two weeks after a meeting at the law offices of Steptoe and Johnson in Bridgeport saw complaints from at least one commission member over the lack of progress.

West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee — one of three co-chairs of the commission and chosen by Gov. Jim Justice to lead the meetings — split commission members into three subcommittees.

Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert, the second co-chair of the commission, gave a report on behalf of the finance subcommittee, which met by conference call Sept. 5. The subcommittee was tasked with looking at funding formulas for the state’s four-year colleges and universities.

The Higher Education Policy Commission has been working on a new funding formula for higher education as required by House Bill 2815. The law required HEPC to present a funding formula tying state dollars to several metrics, including in-state enrollment and completion rates, to the Legislature. Originally required by January, the funding proposal has been delayed.

Gilbert said the finance subcommittee is looking at both a short-term college funding formula and a long-term proposal.

“We just talked about those concepts and didn’t really form any conclusions,” Gilbert said. “We wanted to do that in an open meeting in the future.”

The subcommittee plans to meet again Sept. 20 with the HEPC to learn more about their performance-based funding formula proposals. Gilbert said they’re also seeking comments from presidents of all the four-year schools regarding a funding formula.

Subcommittee member Eric Lewis, chairman of the board of governors at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, said it was important to learn more about the HEPC funding formula models before moving forward.

“The committee decided that HEPC obviously put a tremendous amount of work into developing their formula,” Lewis said. “We would be remise not to have them present the details behind it. There is only so much you can get from a 17-page pdf with a couple of spreadsheets in it. What we wanted them to do is present how it actually works.”

Gee pointed out that commission members should use the opportunity given to them to advocate for restoration of funding from years of state budget cuts to higher education as well. Gee encouraged members to reach out to lawmakers and Justice, who announced last week that state revenue collections are $65.8 million above estimates for the first two months of the fiscal year starting in July.

“We have a unique opportunity here to advocate very clearly for support from both the governor and the legislature for increased support for higher education right now,” Gee said. “One of the things I know that a number of people said to us, and that was that we come back, because of the fact that higher education has taken a disproportionate amount of reductions, we come back and seek to have some restoration of that funding and/or to use a temporary formula to do that.”

House Education Committee Chairman Paul Espinosa, R-Berkeley, warned the commission against getting excited about the recent state revenue surplus. A strong supporter of the legislation that required HEPC to develop the performance-based funding formula, Espinosa said a new funding formula is still needed regardless of the surplus.

“We’re certainly hopeful that there will be some capacity to address areas where we have had to curtail spending in recent years,” Espinosa said. “I would caution the subcommittee not to solely base their recommendations on increased funding. While certainly that can be part of any recommendation, I think it’s important to look at how do we make our funding more equitable with or without additional funding.”

The blue ribbon commission’s other two subcommittees are Structure and Organizational, which is looking at the HEPC and other governing structures, and Collaboration, which is looking at how the state’s colleges and universities can work together and share resources.

In other news, the commission has a website where members of the public can learn more about the commission, its members, review reports, see meeting schedules and agendas, and more. The website, wvblueribbonhighered.org, will also allow the public to offer ideas and feedback on higher education.

The next meeting of the full commission is Oct. 2 at 1 p.m. at the law offices of Steptoe and Johnson in Bridgeport.

COMMENTS