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Blue Ribbon Commission delays plan to dismantle higher education agency

Blue Ribbon Commission delays plan to dismantle higher ed agency

CHARLESTON — Distrust continues between members of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Four-Year Higher Education and one of its co-chairs as the commission Thursday delayed approving a plan to eliminate the Higher Education Policy Commission.

The blue ribbon commission met by conference call Thursday afternoon. The last in-person meeting of the commission was Oct. 26 in Beckley.

“It’s been a pilgrim’s progress here, but we’re getting closer to the end than the beginning,” said E. Gordon Gee, president of West Virginia University and co-chair of the commission. “We’re racing against time, I know, and time is an important component of this.”

The commission’s Governance Subcommittee is working on legislation to eliminate the HEPC and replace it with an Office of Post-Secondary Education. The most recent proposal would eliminate many of the functions of the HEPC and give greater autonomy to boards of governors at the smaller state colleges and universities.

The subcommittee had planned to have its final proposal and accompanying legislation ready for approval by the commission Thursday, but subcommittee chairman Drew Payne, a member of the HEPC and a former chairman of the board of governors at WVU, said more time was needed to address issues.

“With the time we had we did the best we could,” Payne said. “It seems like we have considerable support for the concepts which were outlined in the materials, but the people right now would like a little bit more time.”

Payne said his subcommittee would need additional work sessions and time to perfect a completed bill to present to the governor and the Legislature for the 2019 session starting Jan. 9.

Mirta Martin, president of Fairmont State University, pushed for a work meeting as soon as next week and encouraged the commission to make sure the regional colleges and universities have a seat at the table.

Martin and six presidents from the regional schools have worked over the last three weeks to put together a spreadsheet showing what programs they wanted to keep or get rid of when considering a new higher education agency. But Martin expressed her disappointment that the subcommittee did not include the regional schools for the deliberations on the proposed legislation.

The most recent draft would add Shepherd University to the list of schools, including WVU and Marshall University, that are exempt from most oversight by the HEPC. Martin said the meeting should have been public and include regional college representatives.

“Imagine my surprise…when I read legislation and learned that Shepherd had been exempted,” Martin said. “There had been no notice. This was the first time I had heard of it. The fact that the action taken to insert Shepherd was made based on their geographic location; well, many of our institutions can make the same rationale. Certainly, if Shepherd is exempted, then as the third largest institution in the state and a financially stable institution, Fairmont State University should have been included in that discussion.”

Gee has been the most vocal advocate for getting rid of the HEPC, which was tasked by the Legislature with developing a performance-based funding formula to direct state funding to higher education institutions. One draft would have caused WVU to lose more state funding compared to other institutions.

Mike Farrell, chairman of the HEPC and a commission member, wrote a letter sent earlier Thursday to commission members criticizing the draft legislation. He called the proposal to scrap the HEPC “flawed,” and “internally insistent and riddled with errors.” He also said getting rid of his agency would not stop the Legislature from implementing a funding formula.

“The Legislature, by statute, tasked the HEPC with developing a data-driven funding formula,” Farrell wrote. “The funding formula has been delivered…and has been praised by almost every institution. Endorsing a recommendation today to abolish the HEPC will not derail the funding formula. In fact, such a vote may well be detrimental to the non-exempt colleges and universities.”

Speaking on the conference call Thursday, Farrell said the subcommittee has not met with HEPC interim Chancellor Carolyn Long, the former president of WVU Tech, or former Chancellor Paul Hill to learn more about the agency’s responsibilities.

“Fundamentally, the executive order from the governor in the first place said that it wanted to examine what went wrong at HEPC and what changes, if any, needed to be made,” Farrell said. “Nobody has been invited to address this subcommittee to explain what they do, why they’ve done it. As I point out in the letter, I don’t think there is a governance issue.”

Gee, addressing Farrell’s letter, accused Farrell of bias and said he shouldn’t be speaking on behalf of the entire HEPC.

“I’ll just be very honest with you, you raise questions that have already been addressed, Gee said. “To say that there are serious problems with what we’ve proposed, I think, is not fair at this point. The other thing is this, and I say this to you as a friend, you keep putting this on West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission letterhead, and I’m not certain is what you should be doing. You’re a member of the commission and that indicates you are representing the policy commission. I don’t believe, frankly, you have the votes on your own commission to continue the work as it is.”

A working meeting will be announced likely next week once a date and location in Charleston are determined.

“I think we have our work cut out for us,” Gee said. “We will get to work immediately to designate a working date. If we have to have a second working date, we’ll do that. We will not let anyone be outside looking in.”

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