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."