Perhaps. I hope not. But first, let’s look at a bit of history. There have been four different systems of higher education in West Virginia since the 1960s. We seem to want to completely overhaul the structure every 20 years or so.

All of the state’s institutions of higher learning but one were once governed by the state Board of Education (the same entity that regulates K-12 education). West Virginia University (WVU) had its own governing board.

In the mid-1960s, the Legislature created the Board of Regents (BOR), to govern all of the state’s public colleges and universities. Other than WVU, Marshall was the only “university.” This change acknowledged the differing nature of K-12 and college, and there was a desire to create a system of “community colleges.”

The community college, an idea championed by president Harry Truman after World War II, was being adopted by most states. They were two-year schools with no on-campus residences.

The first chancellor hired by the BOR was a community college expert. But after much debate, the Legislature opted to not create such a system, deciding instead to have only two community colleges. The BOR directed six of the four-year schools (Marshall, Shepherd, Fairmont, Glenville, Bluefield, and West Virginia State) to develop community college programs “within their walls.” This turned out to be a big mistake, as few programs were developed and few students entered those.

Road to Ruin

In the mid-1980s, the BOR was replaced. WVU, Marshall, and the state School of Osteopathic Medicine (OSM) were placed under one board, and all the other schools put under another. The only remaining vestige of the BOR is the “Regents Bachelors Degree,” given to some students. The schools with community college programs were told to do a better job with them. They didn’t.

In the early 2000s, the present system was created, resulting from the most extensive study of higher education ever done by the Legislature. I co-chaired the study committee, along with Senator Lloyd Jackson of Lincoln County. We took a full year and went to every public college and university in the state, listening to faculty, staff, and students.

We concluded that we needed a real community college system. The schools “within the walls” of the six institutions listed above were broken away and made free-standing. The one at Shepherd University was moved to Martinsburg, becoming Blue Ridge Community College.

Also, five of the smaller colleges (including Shepherd) were given permission to offer master’s degree programs. Only WVU and Marshall had been permitted to do that, and our state had few people with master’s degrees.

Finally, governance was devolved from the state level to the institutions, to encourage more innovation (which had been stifled by the previous structures). The Higher Education Policy Commission (HEPC) was created as a “referee” to keep the institutions from trying to cannibalize each other, and as a resource for the smaller institutions.

Unfortunately, most of the members chosen for the HEPC were veterans of the two deceased boards and they seemed to think they were still supposed to “govern” the whole system. Innovation continued to be stifled. So some folks now want to eliminate the HEPC entirely.

I think this would be the road to ruin. I fear that WVU would immediately begin an effort to gobble up all of the other schools, further stifling innovation. And the resources the HEPC gives to smaller schools would be more expensive if done by those schools. To me, the solution is to make the statutory changes necessary to require the HEPC to recognize the value of innovation by the institutions.

 

 — Mr. Doyle represents Jefferson County in the WV House of Delegates—District 67.

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