Colleges agree — mostly — on $10 million request

BECKLEY — After a full day of exploring how much common ground West Virginia’s four-year colleges share, most could agree on the desire for $10 million to split.

Even that wasn’t unanimous.

Glenville State College, in rural central West Virginia, is set to receive only $40,000. That’s also a potential starting point for a longer-term realignment of funding based on full-time equivalent students.

So Higher Education Policy Commission Chairman Mike Farrell spoke up and said he couldn’t vote in favor of the extra $10 million because of how it treats Glenville.

In a nutshell, that’s how a long day of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Higher Education went as college presidents and others gathered at Tamarack in Beckley.

There was a lot of talk of common ground. But also a lot of apparent cracks in trust.

“We want to figure out what are the barriers to a collaborative atmosphere. I want to start by saying, I think there’s a lack of trust,” Farrell said during a slideshow presentation on collaboration.

The Blue Ribbon Commission on Higher Education was established in June by Governor Justice. He asked it to study ways for West Virginia to provide a more efficient and meaningful higher education system.

The commission has a December deadline to make recommendations.

The major decision of Friday’s day-long meeting was to ask the governor for $10 million, likely as a supplemental budget request.

The college presidents say the influx would ease their financial pressures somewhat after years of cuts by the Legislature.

But aspects of the broader mission are to find ways to cooperate and to determine a fair formula for future funding.

Farrell said participants should gain confidence from the governor’s statements that he does not want to shut down any colleges.

He said of Glenville, “You should not be on the cutting block because you serve a constituency that needs to be served.”

But Glenville’s fragile status was a common topic.

Glenville President Tracy Pellett, who wrote a newspaper op-ed suggesting funding formulas are unfair to Glenville as currently conceived, was passed over accidentally during introductory comments.

“Glenville can be forgotten sometimes,” Pellett said.

Delegate Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, said he was participating to represent higher education as a whole. But he can’t overlook Glenville being in his district. He pointed to a map to show its isolation.

Boggs said the proposed funding chart “gives the appearance that Glenville is under attack or somehow singled out.”

More of the discussion focused on the role of the Higher Education Policy Commission.

Presidents from the smaller colleges said the commission is necessary as a central, reputable resource to measure appropriate funding and educational achievement.

“There has to be an entity, it has to be unbiased, and there has to be data,” Concord University President Kendra Boggess said.

Fairmont State’s Mirta Martin echoed that: “You want an unbiased centralized body so the legislature receives apples and apples and not apples and oranges.”

But the presidents also suggested they need more flexibility in pursuing new degree programs or making decisions that are unique to their campuses.

There was a lot of discussion of being treated differently from larger West Virginia University and Marshall University.

West Virginia State University President Anthony Jenkins advocated for broader representation on the Higher Education Policy Commission.

“The actual makeup of the commission needs to change,” West Virginia State University President Anthony Jenkins said. “There needs to be representation from each institution, and that’s not the case.”

Several smaller college presidents noted that West Virginia University and Marshall already have greater flexibility, putting them in a different situation.

“Not having the two flagship institutions at the table hurts us,” said Martin of Fairmont State.

Insurance executive Marty Becker noted the significant size difference among the schools.

“You’ve got two thirds of the students in two institutions and one third of the students in seven institutions,” Becker said. So there’s very different needs.”

Although the college presidents all agreed they need more money after a series of state budget cuts, West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee urged them to focus on how students are affected.

“I am all for funding increases instead of continued cuts, but I want that translated into how it helps the students,” Lee said.

Lee said some students live so close to the edge that increased tuition means some can’t get by.

“We have to look at people who want to have the opportunity to go to college but can’t afford it and reach out to those students,” Lee said.

West Virginia University President Gordon Gee responded, “That’s precisely where we’re trying to get ourselves.”

There are still several weeks ahead of similar discussions.

“If we don’t come up with something the Legislature can pass, then we’ve all failed,” said businessman Drew Payne, vice chairman of the Higher Education Policy Commission.

Payne expressed an optimistic view, though, saying he’d heard a lot of common ground.

Farrell said there’s still a big decision ahead over what to do with the Higher Education Policy Commission, the structure at the center of the college system.

“To me you are at the crossroads of ‘Do you strengthen this statewide organization and put Marshall and WVU back in?’ And I can hear President Gee screaming,” Farrell said.

“Or do you weaken it by having the wars of the west in the 1800s.”