Southside college proposal debated

January 14, 2005

Senate panel holds hearing in light of skeptical report Richmond Times-Dispatch


Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine pressed his case yesterday for a new university in the Martinsville area, telling a Senate subcommittee that it would help revive the lagging economy in Southside Virginia.

In the wake of a State Council of Higher Education for Virginia report Monday which said the new college might not be needed, the higher education subcommittee of the Senate Finance Committee summoned proponents and opponents to a meeting in the General Assembly Building.

Representatives of SCHEV did not attend but will appear before the subcommittee next week.

Some legislators are angry about SCHEV's report. Kaine has made the proposed new university a major element of his campaign for governor and expected SCHEV to recommend the college. Gov. Mark R. Warner has included $1.5 million in his proposed budget to begin planning for the college.

SCHEV said the state first should study whether a new college is needed, determine what programs students in Southside Virginia want and decide which of the proposed models should be adopted.

Among the cautions voiced by SCHEV was the experience of the University of Virginia's College at Wise in Southwest Virginia's Wise County. The institution has been in existence for 50 years and the economy in Southwest Virginia continues to lag, the report said.

But Kaine said "the economy of Southwest Virginia would be in much worse shape were it not for the college."

Kaine suggested the proposed college could do for the Martinsville area what Virginia Commonwealth University has done for Richmond.

A private, Martinsville-based foundation, The Harvest Foundation, has gotten behind the proposed school and promised $50 million to get it off the ground.

Ronald E. Carrier, former president of James Madison University and consultant to the foundation that proposed the college, said the college would offer a new, more practical educational experience that could be completed faster and more cheaply than a traditional four-year college experience.

He said the college is needed to change the culture of the Martinsville area, which has been beset by high unemployment, low educational levels, alcoholism and domestic violence.

Longwood University in Farmville is the nearest public institution to the Martinsville area, about two hours away.

Wayne McWee, interim vice president of Longwood, told the subcommittee that Longwood, Old Dominion University and Martinsville's community college, Patrick Henry, could offer a collaborative effort that would be cheaper and could begin this fall. It also would be immediately accredited, while it would take years for the new college to gain academic accreditation, he said.

Asked by Sen. Charles J. Colgan, D-Prince William, why Longwood had not proposed the collaboration until Martinsville stepped forward with the proposal, McWee said the collaborative effort would need financial help from the Harvest Foundation.

Charles Guthridge, a lobbyist for the Harvest Foundation, said, "We do not endorse the Longwood project. I doubt if the $50 million would be available for it."

He said Longwood did not even approach the foundation about financial help and then in "a casual conversation" until Oct. 26. McWee disputed this, saying Longwood first approached the Harvest Foundation last January.

Sen. John H. Chichester, R-Northumberland, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said the Harvest Foundation's stance precluding other options was "problematic." Everyone should have an interest in promoting higher education in Virginia, no matter what form it takes, he said.

A lobbyist for Virginia's 25 private colleges also urged a go-slow approach, noting that the existing colleges have been serving students from Southside Virginia for centuries.

"Statewide policy leaders need to give very serious consideration to the precedent that would be established by the creation of a public college that is intended largely to serve economic development purposes," Robert Lambeth told the subcommittee.


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