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Closing in on start of regular legislative session, Blue Ribbon Commission on Higher Ed. may be headed for all-nighter

MORGANTOWN — Without a resolution by the mid-December deadline, the Blue Ribbon Commission on Higher Education will have more work in the coming days.

The commission voted Thursday to continue a discussion into a future work session regarding a proposal to replace the Higher Education Policy Commission (HEPC) with a new body.

The commission is currently crafting potential legislation to go before the State Legislature, but with the regular session fast approaching there was some doubt this could be accomplished.

And that’s not the only concern. The Governance Subcommittee has presented a broad recommendation — numbering 300 pages — to eliminate the Higher Education Policy Commission and replace it with the West Virginia Office of Postsecondary Education.

“There’s nothing in the proposed draft bill that says anything about a timeline or a transition or a period of time where we could transition if we were to have this legislation passed,” Marshall President Jerome Gilbert said. “And I think that’s a serious concern. You can’t just flip the switch and say one is gone and the other is present.”

West Virginia University President Gordon Gee speaks, while flanked by Marshall President Jerome Gilbert, Concord President Kendra Boggess and Michael Farrell, president of the Higher Education Policy Commission.

In a letter dated Thursday, Michael J. Farrell, a commissioner with the HEPC, suggested there were numerous issues with the proposal. He and WVU President Gordon Gee sparred over whether or not the issues Farrell raised — concerning accountability, the need for such a significant change, and the role of higher education governance — had already been addressed.

“Not a single (HEPC) Vice Chancellor — not Carolyn Long as the current interim Chancellor, not Paul Hill as the former Chancellor — nobody has been invited to address this governance subcommittee to explain what they do, why they’ve done it.”

“As I pointed out in the letter,” Farrell continued, “I don’t think there is a governance issue. The statutes that are being proposed does not change or address governance.”

You can read Farrell’s letter, highly critical of the work of the governance committee, in full here.

WVU President Gordon Gee took issue with Farrell using commission letterhead to write these memorandums, suggesting it was falsely creating a notion that this was the view of the commission as a body.

“I’m not certain that that is what you should be doing, because you are a member of the commission,” Gee said. “That is a case of you representing the policy commission, and I don’t believe, frankly, that you have the votes of your own commissioners to continue the work as it is.”

An all-day work session — possibly next week — is expected at a geographically convenient location for the representatives of the commission, though nothing has yet been officially scheduled. The purpose of the work session would be to iron out the final details of a proposal that could, in fact, end the HEPC.

“We now need to go through this line-by-line,” Gee said. “We have had substantial input by our colleagues at the regional institutions. Far and away, the majority of them agree that we have serious structural problems that need to be addressed. And that’s what we’re doing.”

Line-by-line was a suggestion that came from a number of the commissioners, but it was Farrell who suggested the possibility that a final product might not be ready to go before the state legislature when the regular session convenes next month.

“I would urge you (President Gee) and (Governance subcomittee chair) Drew (Payne) and the committee members to set aside enough time to do this right,” Farrell said. “If the governor and the legislature see fit to change something, let’s not hand them something that has so many flaws in it that we get picked apart for being incomplete in our analysis.”

A lack of consensus has been more common among the commissioners of late — failing to agree entirely on the future of a proposed Office of Postsecondary Education.

In the draft legislation, Shepherd University is granted a numer of exemptions — something Farrell is quick to point out as an inconsistency. But that incensed another member of the commission — Dr. Mirta Martin, President of Fairmont State University.

“This is the first time that I had heard of it,” she said. “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.”

She added later in the phone conference that she was upset that Fairmont State University hadn’t been given the same option.

“I was offended,” Martin said,” to have to read that Shepherd was inserted into legislation to be voted upon when I was not even consulted for Fairmont State University.”

Gee clarified that Shepherd’s exemptions (not precisely defined during the meeting) were a result of a request by the university, rather than an offer specifically to them.

Martin suggested the option should be available to other schools.

Meanwhile, Farrell’s letter offered a backdrop for the meeting: suggesting that the Office of Postsecondary Education was essentially a farce.

Farrell argues that substituting the OPE for the HEPC is a flawed approach, failing to take into account what the HEPC does for higher education versus the perception of what its believed they do for higher education.

In a letter dated Nov. 21, Farrell explained this rationale.

Despite the disagreement, there remains a more broad endorsement of dividing a $10 million appropriation from the state to West Virginia’s colleges and universities in an effort to supplement cuts from past years.

A date for the workshop, expected to be in Charleston, has not been scheduled.