CHARLESTON — The Higher Education Policy Commission (HEPC) suspended its search for a new chancellor, agreed to place current Chancellor Paul Hill in a paid position as an adviser and voted to bring on WVU Tech President Carolyn Long as an interim chancellor.
All those moving parts were a result of Gov. Jim Justice’s announcement last week that he wants a Blue Ribbon Commission on Higher Education to look at the broad picture of West Virginia’s four-year colleges.
The votes also kick off what may be months of power moves as West Virginia’s smaller regional colleges aim to remain solvent while also keeping their autonomy. Many of those smaller colleges viewed the HEPC as a counterbalance to the more powerful West Virginia and Marshall universities.
Hill planned to retire this year, and the search for his replacement started with a goal of choosing a new, long-term chancellor by late August.
But the Blue Ribbon Commission may change the structure of higher education governance.
“At a point in time when we don’t know what the structure is going to look like, we don’t know what the governor’s recommendation and his commission is going to be or the legislative response to it, I think it’s unfair to have the search and spend that money, only to have to do it again,” said Michael Farrell, HEPC chairman.
That opened the door for Long to assume the interim chancellor role, starting Monday. She’ll make the same as Hill, whose base salary was $227,119. And Hill will also continue to make that amount during his six months as a consultant.
That puzzled House Finance Chairman Paul Espinosa, who reacted after the meeting.
“First, if the HEPC is going to suspend their search for a replacement for Chancellor Hill and asked Chancellor Hill to remain at his current salary, I’m not sure I understand the rationale for also employing an interim chancellor,” said Espinosa, R-Jefferson.
“While I have high regard for WVU Tech President Carolyn Long, I share the concern expressed by our regional presidents that her appointment will raise questions about the impartiality of the HEPC as it finalizes its work on a higher education funding model as directed by the Legislature.”
Only one commissioner voted against the selection of Long, but her selection came under some scrutiny because of her longtime association with WVU, her current role as president of WVU Tech and the fact that no search or process for her selection was conducted in the open.
All commissioners except Farrell participated by phone.
After the votes were made, longtime HEPC counsel Bruce Walker announced his immediate retirement and left.
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 said 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.
HEPC board member Jenny Allen was the sole vote against Long.
Allen urged the commissioners to table the motion to pursue a “proper, more thorough, more transparent process.” She added, “This is the single most important action any board can take.”
But no one seconded her motion, so it failed.
Espinosa, reacting after the meeting, said Allen raised good questions.
“Again, with all due respect for President Long, I’m not clear how she meets these requirements,” Espinosa said.
Farrell, a former interim president at Marshall University, told reporters after the meeting that it only made sense to suspend the search for a long-term chairman if the Blue Ribbon Commission may change the landscape.
He said commissioners reached agreement on Long during discussions prior to today’s special meeting and then during an executive session. He said Commissioner Drew Payne, a Charleston businessman, recommended Long.
“We had a discussion before the meeting. Various members of the commission talked to each other,” he said. “In executive session, we had a full discussion from a personnel point of view.”
Concord President Kendra Boggess, who is a co-chairwoman of the Blue Ribbon Commission, expressed reservations about Long’s new role. Boggess is leader of the Council of Presidents, representing the state’s four-year public college presidents.
That group sent an email to the HEPC saying regional presidents wanted to keep Hill and raising objections to Long’s appointment.
“I think we were worried about conflict of interest, the ability to step away from your institution and represent all
the institutions,” Boggess said Tuesday. “I think that’s concerning.”