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West Virginia’s public colleges and universities are reeling this week after the state’s Higher Education Policy Commission named a top West Virginia University administrator as its new chancellor, sparking fears that the flagship university and its president, E. Gordon Gee, are seizing influence.

The commission made Carolyn Long, the president of West Virginia University Institute of Technology, its interim chancellor Tuesday. It also suspended a previously announced search for a new chancellor. After commissioners voted on the move, the commission’s longtime lawyer resigned and walked out of the boardroom.

Long has been president at West Virginia Tech -- which is a divisional campus under West Virginia University -- since December 2011. Before that, she was a member of the West Virginia University Board of Governors, where she served as chair from 2008 to 2011. Her rise to commission chancellor sparked fear that she will act as a loyalist to the flagship university and not West Virginia’s other public institutions, which include Marshall University and a number of smaller regional institutions facing financial challenges.

West Virginia officials said concerns about it seizing power are assumptions without merit. Long described the idea of a power grab as silly and said she was disheartened by the idea that she should be denied work at the Higher Education Policy Commission because she worked for another institution of higher education. She called that idea scary.

Nonetheless, the commission does have legal requirements that it select chancellors who are free from institutional or regional biases. And criticism was fierce after Long’s appointment.

“We are witnessing -- much to our disbelief -- an unprecedented hostile takeover of the higher education governing body in West Virginia,” wrote the president of the regional Shepherd University, Mary J. C. Hendrix, in a letter circulated Wednesday. “On July 10, the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission installed an interim chancellor who is a West Virginia University partisan and employee, hand-selected by the president of West Virginia University.”

Disagreements flare in many states over the management of public higher education, on issues including state funding decisions and state agencies holding power over higher education. Such situations can turn particularly contentious when a flagship university is viewed as having much more clout than other institutions. But even so, the letter Hendrix circulated stands out as remarkably sharp criticism.

Hendrix wrote that the Higher Education Policy Commission chancellorship was awarded to Long because the commission proposed funding formula changes earlier this year that the flagship West Virginia University did not like. The proposal would have given most regional institutions more money at the expense of West Virginia University, West Virginia Tech and Glenville State College.

“Shepherd University, the lowest funded state institution for over two decades, was to receive a much [needed] $3.4 million added to its budget through the new funding formula,” Hendrix wrote. “The big losers in the new funding model were WVU and WVU Tech, institutions that would lose $9.2 million and $3.2 million, respectively.”

Critics say the Tuesday appointment makes those funding changes far less likely to survive. They also say a recent decision by West Virginia governor Jim Justice to create a blue-ribbon commission to examine higher education gives the flagship WVU power, because the university is heavily represented on the commission.

A Denial From WVU

West Virginia University issued a statement denying that it is attempting to seize power.

“We have significant respect for our colleagues and institutions of higher education across the State,” the statement said. “We are disappointed and disagree with President Hendrix’s allegations and the sequence of events stated. Her assumptions do not have merit; and the university is not engaging in a hostile takeover of our education system.”

The university’s statement went on to say Hendrix declined to co-chair the governor’s blue-ribbon commission and pointed out that any changes to higher education in the state will have to be put in place by the legislators. President Gee of WVU is one of the co-chairs of the blue-ribbon commission, along with the presidents of Marshall and Concord Universities.

West Virginia University’s statement continued by acknowledging the flagship took issue with the proposed funding formula.

“We support additional appropriations for other institutions,” it said. “However, we do not believe that it should come from a decrease in the appropriations to WVU -- the flagship, land-grant, R1 institution in the state with the highest graduation rates and a presence in every county. We are not trying to prevent Shepherd University or any other institution from seeing an increase in appropriations nor are we trying to take over Shepherd or any other institution. We hope in the future to work with Shepherd and all of our colleagues across the state to increase funding for higher education and to increase graduation rates and improve the workforce for West Virginia.”

Gee did not respond to an emailed request for interview Wednesday afternoon.

Fears About Bias

Many of those expressing concern about the Higher Education Policy Commission chancellorship say they hold the new interim chancellor, Long, in high regard. But they also say they worry about whether she can act impartially, or they object to the process through which she was selected for the job.

“I certainly share some of the concerns that have been expressed by our regional presidents that the appointment of WVU Tech president Carolyn Long -- who I happen to have a great deal of personal regard for -- that her employment does raise questions about the ability for the HEPC to continue to act in an impartial manner on the higher education funding formula that the Legislature has directed the HEPC to prepare,” said Paul Espinosa, a Republican who chairs the state House of Delegates Education Committee.

The Legislature directed the Higher Education Policy Commission last year to propose a new higher education funding formula. Espinosa hoped it would create a more transparent and equitable funding formula than the one that exists today, which has “no rhyme nor reason,” he said.

Espinosa was pleased to find the commission approaching that task in a manner he considered impartial. He acknowledged that three institutions stood to lose funding if the commission’s initial proposal were to be implemented but said lawmakers would ultimately need to approve any new model.

Jenny Allen, a nonprofit executive who has headed a fund-raising campaign for Shepherd University, was the only Higher Education Policy Commission member to vote against Long’s appointment to commissioner. She did so after asking that her fellow commissioners be advised on legal requirements for choosing a new commissioner that include the candidate being free of institutional biases and holding no other higher education administrative position.

Some believe those requirements do not apply to interim chancellors like Long. That reasoning doesn’t necessarily reassure Allen.

“There was some debate about whether an interim candidate would necessarily need to have all of those qualities, but because there is an undetermined length of this interim period -- we don’t know how long it will last -- I felt it was important to look to the code for direction,” Allen said. “I also felt that the process lacked transparency, and I wish that we’d had more opportunity to learn more about her and to interview her and to discuss other candidates.”

Rumors About the Future

Rumors are flying fast about what’s next for public higher education in West Virginia. It’s not clear what the governor’s blue-ribbon commission will determine or what action the Legislature might take.

People can support the idea of reform and still believe the recent situation was not handled properly, Allen said. She also worries for the future of the Higher Education Policy Commission, which manages financial aid, seeks grant money and provides oversight.

“Every school wants more money and less oversight,” Allen said. “You can’t fault them for that, but the policy commission is in place partly to provide oversight of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.”

Asked whether the blue-ribbon commission and changes at the Higher Education Policy Commission are a consolidation of power by West Virginia University, Allen replied that “it does look like that.” Asked whether the flagship was seizing power, the lawmaker, Espinosa, said he supports an examination of the state’s higher education structure.

“I’ve certainly heard many of the same concerns that you’ve kind of highlighted, that the blue-ribbon commission does seem to have, based on backgrounds and so forth of some of the appointees so far, does seem to tilt fairly heavily toward West Virginia and some of the larger institutions,” Espinosa said. If recommendations from the groups are not considered fair and impartial, he would weigh them accordingly, he said.

Perception vs. Reality

Long, on the other hand, dismissed the idea that West Virginia University is working to consolidate power.

“I think that’s silly,” she said in a telephone interview. “I think that’s so blown out of proportion. That’s not happening. But again, perception is usually a problem more than reality.”

Long has resigned as president of West Virginia University Institute of Technology, effective Sunday, she said. The idea that she could not be impartial is “certainly not correct,” she continued.

“I’ve been in education for almost 40 years,” she said. “I’ve been a teacher, a principal and a superintendent of schools, all in the same county. No one ever accused me of being prejudiced, even for the same schools where I was a principal.”

Long wants to do her best for the entity where she is currently employed, not her past employers, she said.

“I just think the premise is kind of scary, because the premise is if you work for a college, you can’t go work for somebody else,” she said. “That bothers me.”

West Virginia University’s president, Gee, did not ask Long to take the chancellorship, but he supported her for the job if she wanted to do it, she said. Asked whether the chair of the Higher Education Policy Commission asked her to become chancellor, Long said she was not going to talk about which commissioners approached her. She did say she had previously been approached by a search firm seeking to fill the chancellorship on a permanent basis.

The Higher Education Policy Commission named a new interim chancellor instead of continuing its search for a full-time chancellor amid fears that the governor’s blue-ribbon commission had thrown the state’s higher education ecosystem into question, making it hard to recruit a new candidate for the permanent job. The Higher Education Policy Commission had been searching for a new chancellor because its current chancellor, Paul Hill, was retiring. But Hill was said to be willing to stay on because of the creation of the blue-ribbon panel. He has now been moved to a paid consultant role for six months.

The idea of Hill staying on as chancellor had won support from the leader of West Virginia’s Council of Presidents, which includes presidents of all of the state’s four-year institutions. That leader, Kendra Boggess, who is also president of the regional Concord University, wrote commissioners earlier this month asking that Hill be allowed to remain chancellor and raising concern about conflicts of interest should Long become chancellor.

Boggess still has concerns, she said in a telephone interview Wednesday. They include the proposed funding formula and the future of the Higher Education Policy Commission.

“In a lot of states when you have a commission that’s kind of a governing body, you’ve got really unhappy relationships between schools and the commission, and we’ve never had that,” Boggess said. “They’ve gone out of their way, I think, to help us and provide and develop the resources we need, particularly the regional schools. I know it’s different if you’re a flagship and you have 50 attorneys on staff, but they provide us with a lot of efficiencies. I worry about that not being available in the future.”

The skeptic may wonder why the outcry has been so strong about the Higher Education Policy Commission when a governor-appointed blue-ribbon commission was already created that could make the some of the commission’s work moot. But Hendrix, the Shepherd president who called Tuesday’s actions a “hostile takeover,” said she was worried about the way things came together.

“The concern is directed at the process -- or lack thereof,” she said in an email. “The regional presidents and legislators were simply informed about the appointment of the interim Chancellor, whose credentials in higher education are considered by many to be modest compared with Chancellor Hill. Certainly, the courtesy should have been extended to HEPC staff and the regional presidents to at least interview the interim candidate and/or suggest additional candidates. The last time I checked, we live in a democracy!”

She also expressed concerns about the blue-ribbon commission co-chaired by West Virginia University’s president, Gee. More than a third of members already appointed, 36 percent, are connected to West Virginia University.

Four of the state’s regional institutions each have 9 percent representation on the panel, Hendrix said. That equals West Virginia University’s 36 percent.

“But it is hard to imagine that their voices will be equal weighted,” Hendrix said in her email.

Others are trying to find a way to focus on policy in the midst of the palace intrigue. Jerome Gilbert, the president of Marshall University, is also co-chairing the blue-ribbon commission. He’s proposing taking about $10 million of a surplus the state is running and using it to provide additional funding to regional institutions. Doing so would address funding issues those institutions face without having to take money from other universities.

“You’ve got to throw some ideas out there,” Gilbert said. “That’s going to be one of the challenges. Which direction are we going to go if we’re going to solve the funding issue?”

Yet Gilbert acknowledged that the last few weeks have been tumultuous.

“I think all of our heads are kind of spinning, still,” he said.

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