Letter blasts council for its 'timidity'

January 22, 2005

By Kevin Miller

RICHMOND - The architects of a plan for a new public college near Martinsville lashed out at the state higher education council Friday, accusing the coordinating body of "malign neglect" and "timidity" for not endorsing their proposal.

Harry Cerino, the executive director of the Harvest Foundation, and former James Madison University President Ronald Carrier did not mince words in their response to a recent State Council of Higher Education report advocating more time to study the issue. The pair described the report as "laden with the language of laissez-faire apprehensiveness" and as grossly underestimating the potential economic benefit of a four-year public college in Henry County.

"It is unfortunate and sadly disappointing that the SCHEV report is not more sensitive to the dire educational and economic needs of Southside Virginia," reads the letter to SCHEV executive director Daniel LaVista. "Where we see the need for bold, new approaches, SCHEV's response is one of timidity. Where we see urgency, SCHEV's response is to seek delay."

The letter also calls on SCHEV to withdraw its report and submit another at the end of the month.

SCHEV spokeswoman Elizabeth Wallace said La?Vista and council members were still reviewing the letter and probably would not respond until next week. "I think we're going to concentrate less on the tone and more on the content," Wallace said.

Plans for the New College of Virginia call for a 28-month bachelor's degree program in information technology and other sought-after fields. The college would also offer classes in the evenings, on the weekends and over the Internet to accommodate the needs of working adults.

The college would be supported with a $50 million matching pledge from the Harvest Foundation.

Longwood University in Farmville and Old Dominion University in Norfolk have since offered what's known as a "2+2 program" in which students would begin their studies at Patrick Henry Community College in Martinsville and finish at satellite branches operated by the four-year institutions. While saying the New College proposal deserves serious consideration, the SCHEV report recommended investing in the 2+2 program if lawmakers wanted to act this legislative session.

The letter downplayed the collaborative proposal, saying it lacked community support and that, unlike the New College, is not based on community feedback. Longwood and ODU officials c? ould not be reached for comment Friday evening.

SCHEV and lawmakers have said they hoped the foundation would be willing to invest in the collaborative approach. But Cerino and Carrier said in the letter that the New College has the foundation's "unwavering support."

"The Harvest Challenge was not issued in order to spawn a race for the $50 million prize," the letter read.

Carrier, who has led the college planning process, and Cerino also criticized SCHEV statements that the New College is not guaranteed to transform the economy of Southside and that the new institution may not help offset ballooning demand statewide for a college education in Virginia. The letter said the proposal should be commended, not criticized, for attempting to reach an underserved population in Virginia.

The letter also stated that students would likely be eligible for federal financial aid after the school receives provisional accreditation during its first semester.

Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine, a vocal supporter of bringing a new college program to Southside, said he shared many of the foundation's concerns about the SCHEV report, which he described as "weak" in a number of areas. While Kaine said he was concerned about the letter's tone causing tension, he vowed to continue mediating between the different parties.

"I am having conversations with both sides because I, frankly, don't think there should be two sides," Kaine said. "They both want to do higher education in Southside."

Letter excerpts

"The boldness of NCV's [New College of Virginia's] thinking should serve as a point in NCV's favor, rather than be pejoratively dismissed without even a modicum of analytical thinking about the issues it raises or the academic approach it advocates."

"To suggest, as SCHEV does, that now is the time to start back at the beginning and undertake a needs assessment - rather than proceed with the bold initiative represented by NCV - displays a lack of sensitivity to the needs of the very region SCHEV proposes be assessed and a lack of understanding of the substantial progress already achieved by the Harvest Foundation."

"Why is SCHEV waiting until 2005 to perform what the General Assembly instructed it to do in 2004? ... SCHEV is remiss in fulfilling the General Assembly's request, and Southside Virginians should not be penalized for SCHEV's omission."


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