NCI commission speeds up work: Report on institutes future now set for August, not December

June 3, 2010

A commission helping to determine the future of the New College Institute (NCI) aims to have its work completed four months earlier than planned.

The New College 2012 Commission, established by The Harvest Foundation, includes higher education, business and government leaders from throughout the state. Officials announced in April that the commission would look at NCI’s progress and recommend options for its future in a report to be issued in December.

Bill Leighty, executive director of the commission, said Wednesday that the target date for completing the report has been moved up to August.

That will allow the findings to be considered by state government reform, higher education reform and jobs and economic development commissions recently established by Gov. Bob McDonnell, according to Leighty and NCI Executive Director Barry Dorsey.

Those commissions are to issue reports on the issues they are examining later this year, Leighty said.

Besides, NCI’s progress so far has been “a good story,” he said. “We need to get it out (to leaders and other people across the state) as soon as possible.”

NCI, in uptown Martinsville, is a state- and Harvest-funded school offering local access to higher-level courses needed to earn certain bachelor’s and master’s degrees conferred by universities statewide.

It opened in 2006 with a goal of greatly increasing the number of adults in Southside — the only region of the state without a public university — with college degrees. Studies done around that time revealed that only about 11 percent of adults in Southside have degrees — the fewest of any region in the state.

A total of 135 people so far have earned degrees through NCI, which now is offering 17 degree programs. Enrollment in degree programs is anticipated to increase to more than 400 students this year.

NCI officials have said that in four years, the institute already has exceeded progress that state officials wanted to see it make over six years.

“The data is pretty stunning,” said Leighty, who was the chief of staff for former governors Mark Warner and Tim Kaine.

In 2012, the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) is to make a recommendation as to whether NCI should stay in its current form, become a branch campus of an existing university or start evolving into a stand-alone university.

The New College 2012 Commission’s report is intended to influence that decision, according to officials.

Leighty said, however, that he does not know whether the report actually will make a recommendation as to how NCI should evolve.

“It’s not the job of the commission to make a recommendation ... as much as it is to make it self-evident as to what the recommendation (of SCHEV) should be,” he said.

He added that the report will outline NCI’s history and accomplishments, as well as possible models for the institute’s future.

Leighty said he is optimistic that the institute will be permitted to evolve into a university setting due to its successes so far and attention it already has received from state officials.

He so far has had conversations with SCHEV officials, lawmakers on “money committees in both houses” of the General Assembly and governor’s office staff about the need for NCI to evolve into a larger school, he mentioned.

“There is a pretty broad understanding by key decision-makers in Richmond as to the importance of the New College Institute,” he added.

To continue the momentum of support for the institute’s evolution, Leighty said officials must “continue to emphasize the economic development aspect of NCI.”

The better educated and trained area residents are, the better able the area will be to attract businesses and industries in the future, officials have said.

The commission recently held its first meeting at NCI. It is planning a future meeting in Richmond, then another in Martinsville and a meeting by telephone before the report is released. Dates for the meetings are not yet determined.

Because the commission was established by Harvest, it technically is not a public body, and its meetings are not open to the public, Leighty said.

But “we’d like to do everything (business) as publicly as we can,” he said.

The commission is chaired by John Casteen, who will retire Aug. 1 after two decades as president of the University of Virginia, and Eugene Trani, an NCI board member who retired last year after serving as Virginia Commonwealth University’s president for 20 years.

Casteen was in Maine and could not attend the commission meeting at NCI, Leighty said.

He said he expects that he and the commission will be able to complete their work by the end of August because its members are “a pretty high-powered group. They know what they want, and they know how to give directions.”

Some of the commission members “have had no association with NCI” in the past, Dorsey said. Yet he perceives that all of the members are supportive of the institute growing in some way.

During the recent meeting, Leighty added, “you could feel the remarkable level of commitment” to the cause among the members.


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