Panel will assess NCI, mull its future course

April 2, 2010

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

The process of determining what type of school the New College Institute (NCI) eventually may become received a major boost on Thursday.

The Harvest Foundation, which matches state funds the institute receives, announced during the NCI Board of Directors’ quarterly meeting that it has set up a commission of business, government and higher education leaders that will examine NCI’s progress and recommend options for its future.

The commission will be chaired by John Casteen, who soon will retire after two decades as president of the University of Virginia, and Eugene Trani, an NCI board member who retired last year after being Virginia Commonwealth University’s (VCU) president for 20 years.

William H. Leighty will be the commission’s executive director. Formerly the director of the Virginia Retirement System, he also was the chief of staff for former governors Mark Warner and Tim Kaine. Currently, he teaches courses in public administration and policy at VCU and does consulting work there.

Rob Spilman, chairman of the NCI board, said the commission will be “an exciting new chapter in our evolution” as a higher education institution.

NCI provides local access to higher-level courses needed to earn certain bachelor’s and master’s degrees from various universities in Virginia.

It opened in Martinsville in 2006 with the goal of significantly increasing the number of adults in Southside with a college degree. At that time, the region had Virginia’s lowest percentage of adults with degrees — about 11 percent.

In 2012, the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) plans to recommend to state lawmakers whether NCI should stay as it is, evolve into a stand-alone college or university or become a branch campus of an existing college or university.

NCI Executive Director Barry Dorsey said there may be some other options that can be explored as well.

Despite its current focus on educating students from the area, NCI was established “to meet the needs of the entire commonwealth,” he said.

As it grows, NCI needs to find a niche within the state’s university system, Dorsey said. One idea he noted is evolving into a university that focuses on educating adults beyond the traditional college ages of 18 to 24.

People aged 25 and older have been the bulk of NCI’s student body so far.

Harvest Foundation Executive Director Allyson Rothrock said that during the next nine months, the New College 2012 Commission will evaluate how NCI’s operations, administration, facilities and programs can best meet the future needs of southern Virginia. Based on its findings, the commission likely will recommend one of those three options for NCI’s future, she said.

A resolution adopted by the NCI board expressing appreciation to Harvest states the commission will “review all aspects of NCI and ... recommend the institution’s future direction and a strategy for achieving the desired goal.”

“I don’t expect the commission will have one option” to ultimately suggest, Leighty said.

He said the commission’s main intent is to analyze NCI’s progress and impact on the area so far, then “place into context” that information so SCHEV can understand it thoroughly and make the recommendation that it determines is best for the area.

It is not the committee’s purpose to make the decision for SCHEV, he said.

Gov. Bob McDonnell aims to create a “higher education reform commission.” Dorsey said he has not heard whether it is intended to replace SCHEV. Some bills to abolish SCHEV were introduced during the recent General Assembly session, but none made it out of the committee stage, he said.

If SCHEV is abolished in the next year or two, it may be up to whatever person or entity gets SCHEV’s responsibilities to decide NCI’s future, he said.

So far, 114 students have earned degrees through NCI, and enrollment this year is anticipated to exceed 400, said Dorsey. The institute currently offers 17 degree programs, along with four educational certificate programs.

Harvest is “thrilled with the success of the New College,” Rothrock told the board. “It has grown probably two or three times as quickly as we thought it would. We look forward to its future success.”

She added that NCI always has made “the best use” of funds it has been allocated.

The New College 2012 Commission will immediately begin seeking data and other information from NCI, Leighty said. It will issue a report, which will be a culmination of its work, in December, he said.

That will give SCHEV all of next year to consider the report and determine what is best for NCI’s future, then make a recommendation to the General Assembly for its 2012 session, Dorsey said.

Rothrock said the commission will be “an independent commission of The Harvest Foundation,” even though it will be funded by the foundation.

Along that line, neither Harvest nor members of the commission have any preconceived notions as to what NCI will become, she and Leighty agreed.

The commission’s work will be “a straightforward look” at the institute and its accomplishments so far, Leighty said, noting that “there never have been any discussions” about what the outcome will be.

Rothrock said Harvest has taken a strong interest in NCI’s future because the institute is the “centerpiece” of local efforts to attract businesses and industries and revitalize the area’s economy.

“Without their support,” Dorsey said of Harvest, “we would not have been able to achieve the successes that we have.”


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