Panel’s Future Is in Question

Plenty of apprehension exists within West Virginia’s higher education community already, without new behind-the-scenes maneuvering adding to it.

What Gov. Jim Justice had hoped would be a comprehensive, objective look at the future of our state’s colleges and universities is in danger of succumbing to hidden agendas, or at least the fear of them.

Earlier this summer, Justice established a Blue Ribbon Commission on Four-Year Higher Education. The hope was the panel would take a look at all aspects of state colleges and universities and recommend policies to maximize the institutions’ value to West Virginians.

There has been talk for years about whether taxpayers could afford the network of colleges and universities we have. One or two should be closed, it has been suggested.

Governance and funding of higher education also have been discussed. Some legislators question the effectiveness of the Higher Education Policy Commission.

If ever there was a recipe for college and university leaders to adopt defensive postures, this is it.

Then, during a meeting last week of the governor’s commission, acrimony erupted. West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee, one of the panel’s three co-chairs, was the target.

An article in “The Chronicle of Higher Education” reported that Gee played a role in Justice’s decision to set up the commission. It added that Gee wants to eliminate the HEPC.

What seemed to annoy several panel members was learning of Gee’s activities from a published source, rather than discussing his goals during a commission meeting.

Shepherd University’s representative on the panel, Eric Lewis, was upset. “We haven’t done anything in 30 days, except schedule when the next meetings are … we could have had a committee working on organization, we could have had a committee working on the HEPC.”

To that, commission member Ellen Cappellanti, formerly chairwoman of the WVU Board of Governors, responded: “It’s kind of hard to form committees if we don’t trust one another, and the level of trust in this room just isn’t here today.”

Clearly, it was not. Either the article in question is accurate or it is not. One way or another, Gee needs to have a candid conversation with fellow commission members. If they think he is pulling strings backstage of other commission members, an us-against-them atmosphere will prevail — and little or nothing constructive will ensue.

The ball, in short, is in Gee’s court.

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