WVU holds majority on blue ribbon higher education commission

CHARLESTON — Out of the 14 members appointed so far to a new commission looking at higher education, about a third are connected to the West Virginia University Board of Governors.

Another fifth were board members of a former media empire operated by the governor’s senior adviser.

Gov. Jim Justice announced the appointment of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Four-Year Higher Education Monday during a press conference. The commission will be co-chaired by Gordon Gee, president of WVU at Morgantown; Jerome Gilbert, president of Marshall University at Huntington; and Kendra Boggess, president of Concord University at Athens.

Justice appointed the first 14 members of the blue ribbon commission when he signed an executive order later the same day. After the House of Delegates and Senate appoint their three members each, the board will have 20 members.

Counting Gee, WVU has four representatives on the committee, a current member of the WVU Board of Governors and two past members:

• Drew Payne, secretary for the Higher Education Policy Commission, served as a member of the WVU Board of Governors for nine years from 2006 to 2015. He served three years as vice chairman and two years as chairman of the board.

• Ellen Cappellanti, an attorney with Jackson Kelly, was appointed to the WVU Board of Governors in 2006.

• Marty Becker was appointed to the WVU Board of Governors in 2016 to fill the expired term of Cappellanti. He has also served on the board of the WVU Foundation.

Butch Antolini, communications director for the governor’s office, said each commission member was picked for their qualifications.

“The governor has the final say on members of the commission, and he consulted with members of his staff,” Antolini said. “All of these people on the blue ribbon commission are highly qualified with knowledge of higher education. The governor looks forward to reviewing the information they’ll gather and the recommendations they’ll provide.”

Antolini said having four commission members with connections to WVU’s governance won’t have an effect on the outcomes the commission determines.

“There are 14 members right now,” Antolini said. “You can break down all kinds of things and where people went to school. We don’t think WVU will have any undue influences on the selections. It’s not a majority by any stretch of the imagination.”

WVU has been opposed to a proposed performance-based funding model for higher education being developed by the Higher Education Policy Commission at the behest of the Legislature. During Monday’s press conference, officials said all angles of higher education would be looked at, including redoing the funding model. Lawmakers have raised concerns the blue ribbon commission could undo the work done by the Policy Commission.

Some of the Blue Ribbon Commission members also have another connection. Three members were board members of West Virginia Media Holdings, a media company owned by Bray Cary, senior adviser to Justice.

Started in 2001, West Virginia Media Holdings owned four TV stations across West Virginia and a weekly newspaper focused on West Virginia business news. Cary sold the TV stations to Nexstar Broadcasting Group in 2015 and he sold The State Journal to NCWV Media, owners of the Clarksburg Exponent-Telegram, in 2016.

Becker was Cary’s business partner and chairman of the board for Media Holdings. Blue Ribbon Commission members Payne and Gary White, interim CEO for the Mountain Health network, also served on the Media Holdings board. Antolini said Cary recommended names for the commission, but didn’t have any more influence than any other staff member.

“Bray is a member of the staff and he certainly had input in the forming of the panel as other members of staff,” Antolini said.

Counting Gilbert, Marshall University has two members connected to its board of governors on the commission: Policy Commission Chairman Mike Farrell, who is a former 11-year member of the board of governors and a former interim president; and White, who serves on the board and is a former interim president.

Representatives of some of the smaller universities and colleges include Dr. Mirta Martin, president of Fairmont State University; and Anthony Jenkins, president of West Virginia State University. Eric Lewis, a certified public accountant, is chairman of the board of governors for Shepherd University in the Eastern Panhandle.

Rounding out the membership of the Blue Ribbon Commission are: West Virginia Superintendent of Schools Steven Paine; West Virginia Education President Dale Lee; and Amelia Courts, president and CEO of the West Virginia Education Alliance.

Among the colleges watching the Blue Ribbon Commission with great interest is Glenville State College.

Tracy Pellet, president of Glenville State, has spent his term turning around the small rural school. He has held the line on tuition increases and expects to see greater enrollment and a budget in the green next year.

Pellet sees Glenville as a model for the state’s smaller colleges and universities to follow and doesn’t see a takeover of his school anytime soon.

“At Glenville, we’re going to chart our own destiny,” Pellet said. “I’m not concerned about a WVU takeover. That’s just one model. They have plenty on their plate, and I can’t imagine they’d be excited about taking on new campuses and new issues.”

Pellet said he is optimistic about the blue ribbon panel, despite having no voice on it. He hopes the commission takes a good look at what Glenville is doing.

“We’re doing things that are access-oriented,” Pellet said. “If that becomes a good model for WVU and Marshall, I’m happy to be the model.”

(Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)