April 19, 2011
By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer
Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling on Monday pledged his help in convincing the General Assembly to let the New College Institute (NCI) in Martinsville become a branch campus of one of Virginia’s state-supported universities.
“It’s amazing” the progress NCI has made in its first five years, Bolling told area business leaders, educators and lawmakers during a private discussion in the Martinsville Middle School library. About 25 people attended.
One of Bolling’s duties as lieutenant governor is presiding over the Senate.
Lawmakers understand the need to improve higher education opportunities in the state, so “I think you’ll get overwhelming support from them,” he said. “I don’t think you’ll get a lot of opposition” at all.
Yet due to economic constraints, funding will be a major concern for legislators, he added.
He asked if it has been determined how much it would cost to affiliate NCI with any particular university.
NCI Board of Directors Chairman Rob Spilman said each of the four potential “parent” universities wants an affiliation to be “as cost-neutral as possible” — in other words, not a financial drain on either the university or the institute.
Joe Scartelli, Radford University’s interim provost, did not participate in the discussion but attended NCI’s graduate recognition ceremony Monday night. Interviewed before the ceremony, he echoed Spilman’s remark, saying, “all of us (state-supported universities) don’t have a dime extra” to spend on new efforts due to funding cuts in recent years.
When the state thinks it is necessary to impose cuts, “universities tend to get cut first” because lawmakers know the institutions can make up for the losses by increasing tuition and fees, Bolling admitted in the discussion.
Bolling said state officials in the next 60 days will start considering budget issues to present to the General Assembly in 2012. He said “the earlier you can give us an idea” of how much it will cost to affiliate NCI with a university, “the better,” but that information is needed by Sept. 1 at the latest.
NCI offers local access to higher-level courses needed to meet requirements for certain bachelor’s and master’s degrees bestowed by various universities across the state. Currently, the institute has about 400 students; by the end of spring semester, it will have about 245 graduates.
A university branch campus is needed in Martinsville because “education is the key to getting us out of this ditch we’re in” economically, said Harvest Foundation Board of Directors Chairman Larry Ryder.
Studies have shown that only about 11.6 percent of adults in the area have college degrees compared with the statewide average of about 29.5 percent, according to NCI Executive Director Barry Dorsey.
Four universities have expressed interest in the idea of turning NCI into a branch campus of their institutions and will submit proposals by June 1. In addition to Radford, they are George Mason, Virginia Commonwealth and Virginia State universities.
Bolling said each of those universities is a quality institution. When proposals are received, he told the local leaders, “you’re going to have a tough decision to make” in terms of choosing the one with which to affiliate.
A panel headed by Virginia Commonwealth president emeritus Eugene Trani, who is an NCI board member, will evaluate the proposals.
Spilman said he hopes the panel will be able to make a recommendation as to which university should take over NCI by mid- to late June.
Local leaders want the General Assembly to consider affiliating NCI with a university during its 2012 session, which will start in January. Spilman said the goal is for the affiliation to take effect by fall semester of 2012.
The idea of turning NCI into a stand-alone university has been discussed, but Spilman said due to economic constraints “we thought that would be a bridge too far.”
Bolling agreed, saying “you’re on the right track” with the branch campus concept. A stand-alone university would be “a good long-term goal,” but “it would be a very challenging thing to do” financially right now, he said.
Spilman asked Bolling what local leaders need to do when they go to Richmond to lobby lawmakers on NCI’s behalf.
Stay focused, be modest in funding requests and show the large amount of community support shown for NCI, such as through Harvest’s match of state funding for the institute, Bolling said.
Harvest committed $50 million to match state funds for NCI. It so far has spent between $7.5 million and $8 million on the institute and “absolutely” plans to honor the commitment, said Executive Director Allyson Rothrock.
“We anxiously await the proposals coming in” from the universities, Bolling said. “I think you’ll have a receptive audience. The more focused and modest (the proposals are), the more receptive” the audience of lawmakers will be.
Rothrock told Bolling that in her 32 years of living in the area, she never has seen so many residents rally around one cause as she has seen with NCI.
“Nobody has twisted anybody’s arms,” she said, noting that supporters of developing a university in Martinsville “have been here from the beginning.”
“It gives us excitement and hope and belief that this is really going to happen here,” she said.
On Friday afternoon, state officials announced that Bolling would not be able to visit Martinsville on Monday as planned due to a special Senate session, but Bolling was able to make it after all.
State Secretary of Education Gerard Robinson was to have replaced Bolling. Robinson did not make the trip. Instead, he sent Deputy Secretary of Education Laura Fornash, who did not comment at length.
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