Gee gets flack from blue ribbon panel

CHARLESTON — E. Gordon Gee, the president of West Virginia University and the lead co-chairman of a committee looking at the state’s colleges and universities, probably didn’t expect open hostility from fellow commission members, but he sure got it.

Gov. Jim Justice’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Four-Year Higher Education met Monday afternoon for its third meeting and their second in-person meeting at the Bridgeport offices of the Spillman, Thomas and Battle law firm.

The meeting came a few days after several articles, including an article from “The Chronicle of Higher Education,” revealed that Gee had been working behind the scenes to create the Blue Ribbon Commission, to do away with the state’s Higher Education Policy Commission, and to table the performance-based funding formula HEPC was working on.

“Gee, who has led five institutions, including Brown and Ohio State Universities, told The Chronicle that the plan was ‘wrong-headed’ and a ‘Robin Hood approach,'” wrote reporter Eric Kelderman. “Now Gee is on a mission to squelch the report and limit the role and influence of the commission. ‘I’ve been doing this for 38 years,” Gee said, “and I’ve never seen a centralized authority that has this kind of negative impact.'”

The article goes on to cite a dinner held at a Charleston country club in June between Gee, and unnamed aide to Justice, and two members of the HEPC, also unnamed. The topic was the creation of the blue ribbon commission and speeding up the replacement of HEPC Chancellor Paul Hill, who was planning to retire pending a search for a replacement chancellor.

Flash forward to July: Gee is named the co-chair and presiding officer of the Blue Ribbon Commission — made up of a plurality of current and former WVU Board of Governors members, along with representatives of the state’s other four-year schools and non-voting lawmakers. A week later, the HEPC tables to search for a chancellor and votes to make West Virginia University Institute of Technology President Carolyn Long the interim chancellor — against the advice of the commission’s legal counsel, who resigned after the vote.

Now, nearly two months since the creation of the commission and a month since its members held their first meeting in Bridgeport, members are distrustful of Gee, who tried to calm concerns Monday.

“I think it’s important for us to understand that if this commission is going to operate, we all have to be on the same page,” Gee said. “We’re trying to do what’s right for West Virginia. If we’re having internal conversations behind each other’s backs about the structure things that should or should not be made without being open, then we’ve done ourselves a disservice.”

Commission members were most alarmed at Gee’s comments on the HEPC. Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert, one of the committee’s co-chairs, pushed back on those comments.

“I don’t agree fully with Gordon that HEPC is bad for higher education,” Gilbert said. “I believe that they have done their jobs in trying to advance public education in West Virginia. Can it be streamlined and can we take some of the other schools and WVU out from under some of the reporting structure, I think that’s possible, yes.”

“As far as I’m concerned, we haven’t taken the first substantive step to address the mandate of the governor,” said HEPC Chairman Mike Farrell, directing his comments at Gee. “As the chairman of the Higher Education Policy Commission, I reject –Mr. Chairman — your view that the Higher Education Policy Commission is unnecessary. We are here, and we exist because the legislature created us in code.”

Concord University President Kendra Boggess, the commission’s third co-chair, said recent press coverage of the Blue Ribbon Commission and the HEPC are creating uncertainty at the smaller four-year institutions.

“All these things going on — whether it be the Blue Ribbon Commission or (Gee’s) comments in the newspaper or in The Chronicle — people are terrified where I am,” Boggess said. “They think they’re going to lose their jobs. Faculty are afraid. Staff are afraid. Students are deciding whether or not to come. Donors are calling.”

“You’ve learned the common truth of public life, which is don’t believe what you read in the newspaper,” Gee said.

Commission member Eric Lewis, representing Shepherd University, minced no words with his unhappiness with the commission. Shepherd University’s representative on the HEPC, Jenny Allen, was the lone vote against Long for HEPC chancellor.

“I’m going to be blunt: we wasted 30 days,” Lewis said. “We haven’t done anything in 30 days except schedule when the next meetings are. If we had set up committees right away, we could have had a committee working on funding, we could have had a committee working on organization, we could have had a committee working on HEPC.”

“It’s kind of hard to form committees if we don’t trust one another, and the level of trust in this room just isn’t here today,” said Ellen Cappellanti, an attorney and former member and chair of the WVU board of governors. “Whoever is throwing grenades and throwing absolute garbage out — like that article — to try to get us upset or inflamed, whoever they are shame on them.”

Delegate Paul Espinosa, R-Berkeley, urged the commission to be more transparent in its plans and goals. Espinosa is the chairman of the House Education Committee.

“I think, while certainly I understand there is some coordination that is necessary in a commission of this nature, that to the extend we can have committee work so that we can ensure that proposals being brought forth to the commission are being discussed and fully vetted by subcommittees of this group will help in thinking through those proposals and also re-assure those who may be skeptical about the work of this commission,” Espinosa said.

The co-chairs of the Blue Ribbon Commission plan to meet and appoint a subcommittee to look at reforming and restructuring the HEPC, or creating a new governing structure. The next meeting will occur by conference call in two weeks.

The Blue Ribbon Commission was created by Justice on July 2 to look at funding, governance, inefficiencies, and long-term viability of the state’s four-year schools.