Gee: Blue Ribbon work ‘the one big chance’ to fix higher ed in W.Va.

MORGANTOWN — WVU President Gordon Gee sees the upcoming work by the Blue Ribbon panel on higher education as “the one big chance” to fix an “irrational” and “broken” higher education system in the Mountain State.

Gee, who will co-chair the panel along with Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert and Concord University President Kendra Boggess, said during an appearance Monday on MetroNews “Talkline” that big, bold changes must be made.

“Change is hard,” Gee said. “Everybody recognizes we have a problem but nobody wants to change. Secondly, everyone knows what we do have isn’t working well and we haven’t made our case very wisely.”

Gee said the system is irrational because the current system provides very little differentiation between the individual colleges and universities.

“If you’re a small institution that has a certain niche, if you’re great in x, y or z, then let’s really emphasize that but let’s not all try to replicate each other,” he said. “Everyone needs to play to their strengths. For too long we’ve all tried to be like each other.”

Former WVU Tech President Carolyn Long is now the interim chancellor for the state Higher Education Policy Commission. Her first day was Monday. The blue ribbon group and now HEPC has too much gold and blue for some. Shepherd University President Mary Hendrix described it as a “hostile takeover” during an appearance on “Talkline” last week.

“I believe the process was improper, and I believe it is being viewed that way by many, many different groups,” she said.

Gee denied a WVU-led coup Monday. Instead calling it a “good time” to review the system with the retirement of former HEPC Chancellor Paul Hill and a slightly better funding situation in the new state budget. He said he’s been trying to build confidence in people that this is not a takeover.

Hendrix and others have said they believe WVU is pushing the review because a new funding formula would have hurt them more than the small colleges.

“Shepherd would have benefited from this new model,” she said. “Unfortunately, WVU and WVU Institute of Technology would not have. And, so, the problem is, basically, this is a redistribution model. It is causing a lot of dissension among all of us in higher ed.”

Gee has his own description for the formula.

“I’d call this funding formula the Robin Hood one where you take from some and give to others,” he said. “What we ought to be talking about and what all of us ought to be talking about is how do we really make certain that we really significantly fund higher education to make us more competitive in this environment.”

Gee said the problem isn’t that West Virginia has too many colleges and universities, it’s that it doesn’t have enough students. He believes differentiation could increase enrollment.

Gee repeated Monday that he believes colleges and universities provide the state the single most opportunity to grow the state but they need investment. He said he’s hopeful a new pathway forward can come out of the blue ribbon work. He said it won’t be easy.

“We have to go through the painful process of saying, ‘we’ve got a broken system that needs to be fixed’ and we need to come to the realization that we need to address the problems that are looming out there,” Gee said. “This is the one big chance that we have. So we have to be big. We have to be bold. We can’t just work at the edges.”

Jeff Jenkins is head of the news division of MetroNews.com. Email him at jjenkins@wvradio.com.

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