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Leaders criticize chancellor change

July 16, 2018

CHARLESTON — Following the state Higher Education Policy Commission board’s vote Tuesday to hire the West Virginia University Institute of Technology’s president as interim HEPC chancellor, Shepherd University’s president wrote to the news media that “we are witnessing — in disbelief — an unprecedented hostile takeover of our higher education governing body.”

Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, and House Education Committee Chairman Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, said the hire raises questions about the impartiality of the HEPC.

But Senate Education Committee Chairman Kenny Mann, R-Monroe, didn’t express concern about a conflict of interest, saying, “I think it’s only natural to have that thought but, as time goes on, I think this will be played out to be more of a fairer situation than what it may seem.”

The HEPC, a state agency that oversees four-year colleges, has been dealing with a demand from lawmakers for a college funding formula proposal and Gov. Jim Justice’s executive order to help his new Blue Ribbon Commission on Four-Year Higher Education, which Justice said is meant to study colleges’ funding and sustainability and the “role and value” of the HEPC itself.

“I have enormous respect for (WVU Tech President) Carolyn Long. I think she’s a terrific person,” Carmichael said. “But it does create the appearance of, not so much impropriety, but favoritism, perhaps.”

He said, “I have questions about the independence and the appearance of it from the perspective of her ties to (West Virginia University).”

“I think it’s difficult to not believe there’s the clear potential for a conflict,” Espinosa said. “And I think that’s one of the reasons why, if you look at the qualifications for a permanent chancellor, I think it’s clear there’s an attempt to avoid the actual or the appearance of a conflict, and I think that’s valid.”

Before the vote to hire Long, HEPC General Counsel Bruce Walker, who immediately retired after the vote (he said he previously planned to retire Aug. 1), read state law’s requirements for a chancellor, including that the person must be “free of institutional or regional biases.” HEPC Board Chairman Michael Farrell said the section of law Walker cited refers to a permanent chancellor, and said the law doesn’t reference interim chancellors.

“I find it difficult to understand why the HEPC would want to create, even on an interim basis, that appearance of a conflict,” Espinosa said. “I still think the appointment of President Long does violate the spirit of that requirement, and certainly it violates what should be an effort to avoid any appearance of bias.”

If the HEPC staff ’s proposed funding formula were fully implemented using this past fiscal year’s $229.4 million total base general revenue appropriation (the only pot of state funding it would affect), the formula would drop funding for just three four-year schools: WVU would lose $9.2 million, WVU Tech would lose $3.3 million and Glenville State College would lose $1 million.

Long will now oversee the HEPC staff.

“Whether these developments will change that, I don’t know,” Espinosa said of the staff’s preliminary proposal, “but I think it certainly does, again, raise questions as to the weight that we can place on that recommendation when it is presented to the Legislature. I think ultimately the Legislature will have to determine what weight it will give to this recommendation or other recommendations of the HEPC going forward.”

Shepherd President Mary Hendrix wrote in an email that WVU essentially didn’t like the HEPC funding formula recommendations, “so they influenced the removal of the HEPC chancellor yesterday and replaced him with a less qualified WVU administrator. This situation is incredulous that proper vetting and garnering support for this radical change that affects the lives of so many individuals did not occur.”

“We are disappointed and disagree with President Hendrix’s allegations and the sequence of events stated,” WVU News Director April Kaull wrote in an email. “Her assumptions do not have merit; and the university is not engaging in a hostile takeover of our education system.”

Kaull wrote, “We must all remember that authority for funding decisions for institutions of higher education remains with the governor and the Legislature. No matter who is chancellor, it is a legislative and gubernatorial function.”

Espinosa’s home county contains Shepherd, but he said, “Certainly my concern is not limited to Shepherd.” He suggested that there are current funding inequities affecting multiple institutions.

Carmichael and Espinosa also questioned why the board hired Long at outgoing Chancellor Paul Hill’s salary rate ($227,000 per year), while still employing Hill for consulting at his same salary level, plus a $10,000 travel budget for Hill, for the next six months.

“The concept of paying two people for that role is absolutely ridiculous,” Carmichael said.

“That’s just a complete waste of taxpayer money, in my point of view,” he said. “If Paul Hill was going to stay on, he should have just stayed on and they could have avoided this complete controversy.”

Hill didn’t specify before Tuesday’s vote what he was willing or not willing to accept regarding employment.

Espinosa said, “I haven’t had an opportunity to really speak with HEPC Board Chairman Farrell, but I don’t fully understand the rationale for, on the one hand, retaining Paul Hill at his full current salary plus expenses and, at the same time, hiring an interim.”

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