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Senate bill lessens WVU, MU oversight

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A bill unanimously passed by the Senate last week would allow West Virginia University and Marshall University officials to have more control over investments, capital projects and presidential salaries -- stripping the Higher Education Policy Commission of some of its primary role as the watchdog of the state's public colleges.

"We hope and pray the bill is defeated in the House," David Hendrickson, chairman of the Higher Education Policy Commission, said last week. "Now is a time when we really should be coming closer together to try to tackle the problems with education in our state.

"By taking away oversight, it really hampers our ability to globally take a look at higher education as a whole and make sure that money is being allocated in the best way possible," Hendrickson said. "Someone has to look at the big picture and figure out what's best, and that's what we've been doing for years."

The bill (SB444) would increase the amounts that WVU and Marshall can invest with their foundations and exempt the institutions from having to ask for approval from the HEPC regarding issues such as capital projects, facilities and compensation for presidents.

After being passed by the Senate, the bill was sent to the House Education Committee on Thursday.

The HEPC, like many state agencies, has been asked by the governor to cut its budget by 7.5 percent, making the role of the 10-member commission and its 70 employees more important than ever, Hendrickson said.

"The state is in a tight budget cycle right now. We have to manage every dollar we get in higher education to make sure we're getting the biggest bang for our buck," he said. "The timing on this is really poor. It looks like we're building a lot more, and we've got to be very cautious about any new construction projects and whether or not we're putting money into an area that actually needs it."

WVU and Marshall officials did not respond to requests for comment last week.

In the past year, WVU has dedicated nearly $200 million to new campus residential complexes through public/private partnerships.

The HEPC has always focused on "dotting the I's and crossing the T's" when it comes to big university developments -- such as requiring new capital projects to have a 5 percent holdback for deferred maintenance, Hendrickson said.

"While WVU is doing public/private projects, at the end of the day, the state's going to still own those buildings, which means the state of West Virginia is going to be obligated to maintain them," he said. "It's one thing to build a building, it's another to maintain it over 50 years. Without our oversight on these projects, there's no way to guarantee that."

In 2012, WVU hired three lobbyists -- one in Washington, D.C., and two at the state Capitol.

"They've been busy," Hendrickson said.

When it comes to choosing university presidents' salaries, Hendrickson said it might not seem like an important issue for the HEPC to oversee, but "it really bothers us." The loss of the HEPC's hand over that particular matter could hurt the relationship between university boards of governors and the HEPC, he said.

"It wasn't an accident that the Legislature has kept the approval of presidents' salaries with the HEPC," Hendrickson said. "In order to keep everyone in the loop and working together, the commission should have final approval over that. It keeps universities engaged with the commission. Otherwise, presidents don't have an incentive to come talk to us and share ideas."

Hendrickson said he also worries about the effect the bill would have on the state's other public universities if the state's two major institutions continue to push away from the HEPC.

The HEPC has "been working very hard to get WVU and Marshall to cooperate and get along with other institutions," Hendrickson said.

"Let's face it, our graduation rates are not very good," he said. "If a kid starts at WVU, and for whatever reason they don't like it, get them into Concord or Glenville. Get them into the system. We should all be working closer together to help our students and help our state. By separating these two schools, it would hamper any efforts.

"We really are the overarching, overseeing folks of higher education," Hendrickson said. "We're the ones that are trying to make sure that we don't have too many programs, that our goals are being met and that tuition is as low as possible, that there is cooperation between institutions.

"Those are the things we do as a policy commission and, hopefully, this bill gets defeated so we can keep doing that."

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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