(07/06/2018)
By Ryan Quinn Staff Writer GAZETTE MAIL

Citing declining enrollment, and increasing reliance on that enrollment rather than the state Legislature for funding, plus competition for students from West Virginia and Marshall universities, a report recommends merging the governing boards of Bluefield State College, Concord University, Glenville State College and West Virginia State University.

The document, from the Colorado-based nonprofit National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, labels those four schools “Medium Risk to High Risk” in sustainability, saying they’re “sustainable in the short-term, but their futures are uncertain.”

The report recommends this move, in the short-term for Bluefield and Concord and in the long-term for Glenville and WVSU, and suggests “initially” retaining the separate boards of governors for Fairmont State, Shepherd and West Liberty universities, “but with additional powers regarding governance of institutions explicitly delegated” to the state Higher Education Policy Commission.

The recommendations include “leaving open” that Concord and Bluefield “could become a single accredited institution” and “the potential of including New River Community and Technical College within the new structure while retaining its unique mission as a community college.”

The report, which includes several other recommendations, also lists negative effects of the state government’s decisions to separate community colleges from public 4-year schools, weaken the power of the HEPC, decentralize governance and cut higher education funding.

And at a time when the presidents of WVU, Marshall and Concord are to co-chair Gov. Jim Justice’s newly formed group to study the funding and sustainability of higher education (the HEPC was already studying a possible funding formula), the report notes that a “major obstacle to collaboration with West Virginia University or Marshall University is a fear that the larger institutions will collaborate only out of their self-interest to stifle competition or ultimately take over the smaller institutions.”

“With West Virginia University admitting more than 35 percent of high school graduates in 22 counties, it seems improbable that all these students would have been the top-performing students in their counties,” the report states. “The more selective institutions are dipping deeper into their applicant pools to the detriment of the regional institutions. ... In the absence of some external forces, this predation will continue.”

“We have not previously seen the report, so we can’t react in detail,” WVU Communications Office Senior Executive Director John Bolt said after being sent the report late Tuesday afternoon. “Nevertheless, I can say without equivocation that West Virginia University is not predatory.”

“It is not appropriate to comment until I have had an opportunity to read and thoroughly review the report,” said Bluefield President Marsha Krotseng, to whom the Gazette-Mail also sent the report late Tuesday.

In a statement, Concord President Kendra Boggess suggested that the data in the report are accurate, but said a Bluefield/Concord consolidation is “only one potential option that should be considered.”

The report says that, “in the longer-term, as suggested by the Consolidated Financial Index, all the regional institutions are at risk of failure. However, that risk varies significantly.”

The report defines “regional institutions” as all public four-year schools but WVU, Marshall, their branch campuses and the School of Osteopathic Medicine, in Lewisburg.

“NCHEMS’ observation is that for the institutions at highest risk, Bluefield State College and Concord University, the challenges are so serious that only a major restructuring will preserve postsecondary education opportunity for students in Southern West Virginia,” the report states. “Implementing this restructuring will require external pressure, leadership, and on-going facilitation to mandate and implement a consolidation of academic, student and administrative capacity of the two institutions.

“Nevertheless, forces at both institutions continue to resist needed changes,” the report states. “Bluefield State College continues to pursue construction of a residence hall, with partial support from a local foundation, with hopes that this will enable the institution to recruit and retain more students. This while Concord has empty dormitory space.”

The report goes on to state that, “Without immediate action to mandate that these two institutions pursue an integrated approach to their future, each institution will continue on its downward trajectory.”

The report, dated April 3, is labeled draft and was obtained from the HEPC by the Gazette-Mail through an open records request.

Neither NCHEMS Vice President Brian Prescott nor HEPC Communications Director Shelli Dronsfield said they’re anticipating any changes to the report. Dronsfield said it hasn’t been released because the HEPC staff is still developing an executive summary and response to the report, planned to be presented alongside the report to the HEPC board in August.

Reach Ryan Quinn at ryan.quinn@wvgazettemail.com, facebook.com/ryanedwinquinn, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.


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