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Flexibility, yes; lack of oversight, no

WEST Virginia University and Marshall are not only the two biggest universities in the state, but they are also among the largest taxpayer-supported institutions.

Together, they receive $170 million annually.

For WVU, that works out to $7,600 for every in-state full-time student. For Marshall, it equates to $6,000 of state funds for every in-state, full-time student.

The state's Higher Education Policy Commission is, by law, responsible for oversight of the state's public colleges and universities. However, Senate Bill 444 would wipe away much of that oversight.

The bill, which has passed the state Senate and is now in the House of Delegates, exempts WVU and Marshall from having to seek approval from the commission for large capital projects and long-term investments.

It also eliminates commission review of the salaries of the presidents at the two institutions.  (Marshall President Stephen Kopp is paid $390,420, while WVU President Jim Clements is paid $775,180.)

Naturally, the two schools want the bill to pass. WVU and Marshall would rather answer only to schools' Boards of Governors, which tend to be largely compliant with the wishes of the schools' administrations.

But this is a bad idea.

West Virginia and its taxpayers make large investments in WVU and Marshall every year.  The state has a vested interest in how the schools operate.

It's the job of the Higher Education Policy Commission to act as the taxpayers' representative, providing independent review of how the schools' funds are spent.

The members of the schools' boards of governors, while professional and successful in their fields, serve as volunteers. They don't have the time or staff to carry out a true oversight function.

Additionally, allowing WVU and Marshall to bypass the policy commission would create a two-tiered system in West Virginia. Those schools would be able to play by one set of rules, while the rest of the state's public colleges and universities would play by another.

Should WVU be able to ignore the policy commission on the president's pay and multimillion-dollar projects while Shepherd University cannot?

The commission has a responsibility, by code, to ensure that public colleges and universities spend their money appropriately and that multimillion-dollar capital projects are managed efficiently.

Senate Bill 444 eliminates that oversight, meaning there's less protection for current and future students, who could end up paying higher tuition and fees, and less accountability to the taxpayers.

Certainly WVU and Marshall need some level of flexibility to operate effectively.  However, as public institutions that receive state funds, it's important to ensure that the schools stay true to their missions and remain fiscally responsible.

The HEPC is well suited to make sure that balance is maintained. Passing SB 444 would exempt WVU and Marshall from the kind of professional and independent oversight that helps maintain the integrity of the institutions.

Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast by the MetroNews Statewide Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday. The show can be heard locally on WCHS 580 AM.


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