College commission plan on deadline track

June 22, 2005

Bulletin Staff Writer

Members of the New College of Virginia's planning commission say they will meet a deadline for a plan the governor can include in his budget proposal.

"We are dedicated to meeting those timelines and deadlines," said Rob Spilman, commission chairman, of the time frame proposed by state Secretary of Education Belle Wheelan last week.

Wheelan, keynote speaker during the Martinsville-Henry County Chamber of Commerce's annual meeting on Friday, called for members of the planning commission to re-work the NCV's proposed curriculum by concentrating more on economic development and on how the college can help fill in gaps in some fields such as teaching and nursing.

Also, she said the college may consider affiliating with another university.

Wheelan conveyed a sense of urgency, saying the state needs the proposal for the NCV by mid-August in order to get funds in the budget and have time to market it in other parts of the state.

Leanna Blevins, the NCV's vice president for student and community development, echoed Spilman's resolve.

"We will absolutely comply with whatever deadlines they give us," she said Tuesday.

Wheelan's comments "are things we need to hear," Spilman said, adding that planning commission members already were following many of Wheelan's suggestions.

The planning commission, whose members also include Elizabeth Haskell (vice chairman), Kimble Reynolds Jr. (secretary) and others, was established in April and charged with "taking a real-world look at this model" of the NCV to determine whether it is plausible from an economic standpoint.

Commission members are "exploring" Wheelan's suggestions for curriculum to include teaching and nursing programs, Spilman and Blevins said.

"The planning commission has been reviewing and discussing what would be the best majors to offer," Blevins said. "We are looking for the best fit" to drive economic development and answer needs in other parts of the state.

"One need is for more teachers, not only in this region, but across the state. Teacher education comes up repeatedly" during discussions of majors, Blevins said.

Spilman also said commission members are exploring the option of affiliation.

He declined to elaborate or specify which institutions are under consideration because "there's got to be interest on our part and on their part."

Spilman acknowledges that members of the planning commission understand all too well that locating the proposed university in Martinsville will need statewide appeal, even though residents in Martinsville and Henry County "have had a tough road" because of the economic climate of the past few years.

"A lot of other folks in other areas of the state also had a tough road," Spilman said. "So, we've got to make this appeal statewide, even though for our area, we want this thing very badly."

Both Spilman and Blevins say a key will be continuing to work closely with Wheelan, other state officials and the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV).

"Ongoing, open conversations are something that we need to continue to have," Blevins said. "We're open to all options."

The initiative for a college in Martinsville or Henry County was funded by The Harvest Foundation with a $2 million grant. A $50 million challenge grant was pledged if the state would accept the college, locate it here and open the new college in 2006.

However, the state included only $1.5 million in its budget earlier this year in funds related to the college, and that money was earmarked for a feasibility study by SCHEV.

How much has been spent of the initial $2 million has not been made public as neither Spilman nor Blevins will comment on funding specifics.

Matters such as line-item budgets and spending reports are not public, Blevins said in a prepared statement.

"We're not a public entity, so we're not subject" to the Freedom of Information Act, which applies to public organizations, Blevins said, adding that the relationship between the NCV and The Harvest Foundation is "between two private organizations" and spending reports by the foundation or by its grantees "are properly between the foundation and its grantees ... At this stage, all (budget) reports are made only to The Harvest Foundation."

While more time may be spent on retooling the curriculum, the commission is also in the middle of a search for a new director. Dr. Ronald E. Carrier, former president of James Madison University and the NCV's initial leader, stepped down from that position in March 2005.

Blevins said the search for a new director of the NCV is "ongoing" and talks have been held with some current or retired college presidents.

"We've considered a number of folks," Blevins said, but because of confidentiality issues, any further identification "wouldn't be prudent at this time."

While there have been no formal interviews, Blevins said that NCV officials have had "preliminary conversations" with potential candidates. She did not know how long it would take to find the right candidate.

Carrier's initial concept for the college was to "combine traditional classroom instruction with online and distance-learning technologies and feature an integrated and individually tailored curriculum for its students."

Also, the college would offer a four-year degree in 28 months.


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