Blue ribbon higher education panel pushes legislation quietly

CHARLESTON — The Blue Ribbon Commission on Four-Year Higher Education hasn’t had a full meeting since December and never met the deadline for their final report. Yet, a number of their proposals were pushed during the 2019 legislative session.

These include a $12.8 million budget increase spread out among the state’s 10 four-year colleges and universities and loosening of reporting requirements to the Higher Education Policy Commission. It also included failed efforts to eliminate the HEPC and to free two universities from HEPC oversight.

The blue ribbon commission’s last full meeting was Dec. 13, 2018. The commission’s governance subcommittee met Jan. 4 to continue work on legislation to eliminate the HEPC and replace it with an Office of Postsecondary Education, a move that has not had full support from commission members. The subcommittee was supposed to present their draft legislation to the full commission, but another meeting was never called.

Despite no additional meetings or approval by commission members, a bill was introduced in the Legislature on Feb. 12 to eliminate the HEPC. House Bill 3096 would have replaced the HEPC with an Office of Postsecondary Education. That bill never made it out of the House Education Committee.

“As the legislative session progressed, and discussions among the Commission members and the presidents developed, it became obvious that the comprehensive approach envisioned would not be possible this session,” said West Virginia University President Gordon Gee in a statement Friday. “We do expect that the commission will continue its work in collaboration with the Legislature and the Governor to continue to consider options to improve higher education.”

The new office would have developed higher education public policy, provided shared services among the colleges and universities, and coordinated academic programs. It would have also given greater autonomy to the boards of governors at the state colleges and universities.

Eliminating the HEPC has been a vocal goal for Gee, one of three co-chairs for the commission. Heading up the governance subcommittee was Drew Payne, a former member and chairman of WVU’s board of governors.

When first proposed by the governance subcommittee in the fall, HEPC Chairman and commission member Michael Farrell spoke out against the efforts to diminish or eliminate his agency.

“If this Commission endorses the proposal by the Governance Subcommittee … it will endorse the abolition of accountability in West Virginia’s four-year higher education,” Farrell said in a letter to commission members in December. “In my opinion, this proposal is the last step by which West Virginia University seeks to create a service agency that replicates the services presently delivered by (HEPC) under the unsupported banner that HEPC is a ‘governance’ body rather than its actual role.”

Another bill that originated out of the Senate Education Committee, Senate Bill 673, eliminates the need for a statewide master plan for colleges and universities, as well as state and institutional compacts for higher education. The goal of the SB 673 is to cut down on redundant reporting requirements.

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, said her committee originated SB 673 after discussions with college presidents on what they could agree on. Eliminating the HEPC was not one of the areas of agreement. Rucker said during committee testimony Jan. 23 that lawmakers plan to study to idea between now and the next legislative session.

“Because of the contention from many of the recommendations and because of the concerns that many of the institutions had, (SB 673) was crafted to do the things that pretty much everyone was OK with,” Rucker said. “Part of the blue ribbon commission recommendations was to shift HEPC into a more service-oriented coordinating body. We will have more time to discuss that not only here, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to come up in our interim meetings.”

An unsuccessful amendment to SB 673 by the House Education Committee would have added language exempting Fairmont State University and Shepherd University from HEPC oversight, giving the schools the ability to approve their own academic programs and hire and fire presidents without HEPC approval. WVU, Marshall University, and the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine were granted this authority in 2017.

During the December meeting of the blue ribbon commission, FSU President Mirta Martin complained about an early draft of the legislation to create the Office of Postsecondary Education that had exempted Shepherd from reporting requirements, but did not exempt Fairmont State.

“Imagine my surprise … when I read legislation and learned that Shepherd had been exempted,” Martin said. “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.”

One thing the blue ribbon commission did approve was a motion requesting $10 million in additional funding for high education divided up between the smaller four-year colleges and universities based on a proposal from Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert. Instead, the legislature appropriated $12.8 million in the fiscal year 2020 general revenue budget between all 10 schools. Gov. Jim Justice signed that budget Thursday.

According to the executive order signed by Justice creating the commission in July, he gave them a deadline of the December legislative interim meetings between Dec. 9-11 to submit a final report and recommendations. There are no new meetings scheduled as of yet.

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