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Using surpluses to restore funding would help West Virginia's regional universities

September 20, 2018

Recently, discussion has swirled about West Virginia University’s intentions relating to higher education. Although I made WVU’s intentions clear during a recent meeting of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Four-Year Higher Education, I feel compelled to elaborate. 

West Virginia University has no intention of taking over any institution, forcing the consolidation of any institution into our university or forcing other schools to use our university’s administrative services. None of those actions are in the best interest of the state of West Virginia or West Virginia University, and I do not favor any of them. 

I do, however, believe that the status quo of West Virginia higher education can only beget stagnation. Under the status quo, West Virginia spends too much effort duplicating oversight and related work that fails to move the ball forward for our students and our state. My favorite quote is applicable here: “If you do not like change, you are going to like irrelevancy even less.” 

The mandate and structure of the Higher Education Policy Commission needs a significant overhaul. I also want to make clear that restructuring HEPC will not reduce our institutions’ accountability to West Virginians. 

The Legislature sets our appropriation, statutes govern our actions and many accreditation and federal government standards guide our work. Each institution has a local board of governors, comprising members appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, and often include representatives of faculty, staff and students. 

Local governance is the most responsive and effective governance, and WVU is committed to each institution being governed by its own board. 

As to higher education funding, the Gazette Opinion page summed it up best recently (“Same problem, different decade in higher ed,” Sept. 6): “If WVU needs to stop making the rest of the state feel like, ‘You’re next,’ the rest of the state needs to understand what it means to have a prestigious flagship university — one that is attractive to students from around the country and around the world. That means periodic eruptions of deriding WVU for its success or for accepting too many out-of-state students is counter-productive. It is not a problem when smart young people want to come to your state, spend their money and create warm lifelong memories and associations. It is not a problem when young adults choose to pass the formative years of their adult lives in your state.” 

Amen. West Virginia University should not be penalized for its success or its perceived ability to handle reductions easier than other schools. All schools are underfunded. 

One of the things I have learned by helping to lead the Blue Ribbon Commission on Four-Year Higher Education is that while declining state support has adversely affected West Virginia University, it has devastated regional and community institutions. 

But the current funding formula proposed by the staff of the Higher Education Policy Commission seeks to fix the effects of declining state support for regional and community institutions by reducing West Virginia University’s state allocation even further. Such a tax on WVU will only hobble our state’s ability to succeed in the long run. 

Since 2011, policy leaders have made hard choices by reducing appropriations to address the economic downturn. Each of them sincerely indicated that these reductions were undesirable, and each of them indicated that, when times were better, they hoped to restore funding and increase the investment in higher education. 

Recently, we have been thrilled to see surpluses in the state budget. Assuming these trends continue, I believe the Legislature and the governor could make no wiser investment than reinstating some of the reductions made to higher education. 

I have seen firsthand how these reductions have affected my colleagues and their institutions. The state needs to increase the appropriations to West Virginia State University so it can maintain its land-grant status. The state needs to increase appropriations to Shepherd University to resolve underfunding given its enrollment. I could go through every institution, including my own, and show how an increase in funding, even if small, would make a big difference. 

Earlier this year, Marshall University President Jerry Gilbert, a co-chair of the Commission, recommended a plan to increase funding at Bluefield State, Concord, Fairmont, Shepherd, West Liberty and West Virginia State by approximately $12 million in total. 

So here is my plea: take part of this surplus and invest in the institutions as suggested by President Gilbert. 

Although warranted, I am not asking for increases in West Virginia University’s appropriations as part of this effort. I know investing just a few million dollars in our regional schools would mean a tremendous amount to those institutions, their students and the communities they serve. 

As we ask for our leaders to reinstate some prior reductions to higher education funding, we will be hard at work on the Blue Ribbon Commission, seeking to find efficiencies and redirect additional resources from the central level to the local level. 

We can, indeed we must, for West Virginia’s future prosperity is directly tied to improving higher education in this state — and we can do it without pitting institutions against one another.

Signature of E. Gordon Gee
E. Gordon Gee
President, West Virginia University

This op-ed was originally published September 16, 2018, in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.