Co-chairs of blue ribbon panel unveiled

CHARLESTON — Gov. Jim Justice introduced Monday the co-chairs of a new committee tasked with looking at higher education, but many questions were left unanswered.

E. Gordon Gee, president of West Virginia University; Jerome Gilbert, president of Marshall University; and Kendra Boggess, president of Concord University, will co-chair the Blue Ribbon Commission on Four-Year Higher Education. Gee will preside over the commission’s meetings, which will be open to the public.

“We need to make sure we have a system of higher education, with all of our colleges having opportunities to grow, and we can do that,” Gee said. “Right now, the issues have not been addressed appropriately.”

Justice announced the co-chairs Monday during a press conference in the Governor’s Reception Room in the state Capitol.

“We all know from a higher ed standpoint that every day that goes by it seems like one of our institutions becomes in jeopardy maybe of closing,” Justice said. “I don’t want that to happen. I absolutely don’t want us to lose the next Concord University or Fairmont State or Shepherd. I don’t want us to lose those institutions in those communities because those institutions are vital to those communities.”

Justice said there are resources that WVU and Marshall can bring to the table to help in areas of greater efficiency in delivering education, reducing costs at the four-year institutions and preventing schools from closing.

“What we want to do is take advantage of the expertise of our larger universities and let them help us to find a way to preserve our smaller institutions and give them the opportunity of thriving as well,” Justice said.

The governor’s office on Thursday issued a release announcing the creation of the Blue Ribbon Commission.

Members of the commission, the governor Monday said, are: Mike Farrell, chairman of the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission; Drew Payne, Secretary of the Policy Commission; Mirta Martin, president of Fairmont State University; Anthony Jenkins, president of West Virginia State University; Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association; Marty Becker, chairman of the Board for QBE Insurance; Eric Lewis, Certified Public Accountant; Amelia Courts, president and Chief Executive Officer of the West Virginia Education Alliance; Gary White, consultant and interim Chief Executive Officer for the Mountain Health Network; Ellen Cappellanti, attorney; three members of the Senate (two Republicans and one Democrat), as designated by the Senate president, as non-voting members; three members of the House of Delegates (two Republicans and one Democrat), as designated by the Speaker of the House, as non-voting members.

The commission starts its work as the Higher Education Policy Commission continues its work on a Legislature-mandated funding formula for higher education. Originally to be presented in January, the final proposal has been delayed until September.

The new commission may undo the work of the Higher Education Policy Commission. WVU stands to lose $9.2 million in state funding under the proposed formula, according to a Policy Commission report released in March.

“The formula will be revisited by the commission; that’s one of the big subjects,” said Mike Hall, Justice’s chief of staff. “It’s always been a big subject in terms of how you divide up the higher ed dollar. Quite frankly that is going to be in the sweet spot of what they’re going to talk about.”

When asked about prior reports calling for reducing the number of four-year institutions, Justice and Gee both said they had no intention of seeing schools close.

However, Justice was open to the possibility of a dual WVU-Marshall system, with the small colleges and universities joining those systems.

“It could very well be,” Justice said. “I don’t know what all the commission is going to come up with. I don’t want these schools leaving the communities. WVU Tech is thriving in Beckley. It’s doing well, but we hate like crazy moving a school. We’re not going to move anymore.”

“Most times the ball gets kicked down the road,” Gee said. “We just don’t want to have that happen. We don’t have too many colleges in this state, we have too many people not going to college. We have the lowest college-going rate in the country, and we need to increase that.”