Report: Align NCI with university

November 4, 2010

A commission of educators and business leaders is recommending that the New College Institute (NCI) evolve into a branch campus of a state-supported university.

NCI’s board of directors on Wednesday unanimously approved a report by the New College 2012 Commission that includes the recommendation.

A four-member exploratory team has been formed to evaluate possibilities for affiliating with a university.

Becoming a branch campus is “the best and most expedient way” for NCI to take on a university environment, said commission Co-Chairman Eugene Trani, president emeritus of Virginia Commonwealth University.

The commission’s report shows that to grow and meet the state’s future higher education needs, NCI will need an infusion of resources — including programs, faculty and expertise — that can be gained most effectively by becoming a branch campus of an established university.

By aligning with such a university — officials indicated it is to soon to say which ones might be interested — NCI would gain name recognition and a sense of “public awareness” statewide that the name New College Institute does not have, said commission Executive Director Bill Leighty.

Such recognition, coupled with a university’s marketing expertise, could boost student and faculty recruitment and financial support, officials said.

The “mentor university” could provide increased administrative support to NCI, which currently has nine administrators, Leighty said. It also could help streamline student transfer agreements with community colleges, he said.

Due to the economic downturn, the possibility of NCI becoming a stand-alone university in the near future is “an unrealistic goal,” Trani said.

Every college or university founded in Virginia since 1830 started as a branch of an existing university, according to Leighty.

By evolving into a university environment, NCI could help fulfill initiatives of two commissions launched by Gov. Bob McDonnell to try and improve higher education efforts statewide, Leighty said.

The Governor’s Commission on Higher Education Reform has set a goal of increasing the number of Virginians with associate or bachelor’s degrees by 100,000 during the next 15 years, said Leighty, who was chief of staff to former governors Mark Warner and Tim Kaine.

It also wants to expand rural educational outreach efforts, he said.

Also, with its focus on preparing students for “high need” jobs in the state, NCI could be an incubator for ideas put forth by the Governor’s Commission on Job Growth and Economic Development, he added.

NCI, with offices and classrooms in several buildings in uptown Martinsville, gets matching funds from the state and The Harvest Foundation. It offers local access to advanced courses needed to earn certain bachelor’s and master’s degrees accorded by universities statewide. Classes are taught by instructors who work for the universities conferring the degrees.

In fiscal 2012, the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) officially will decide how NCI should evolve and make a recommendation to the General Assembly. Officials said they expect the 2012 Commission’s recommendation will significantly influence SCHEV’s recommendation.

“The General Assembly doesn’t have the capacity to dig into the details” of NCI’s success that commission members have had, said Del. Ward Armstrong, D-Collinsville and the House minority leader.

Armstrong, a member of NCI’s board, said, “I’m going to do everything I can” to convince lawmakers to help the institute evolve into a university branch campus because the commission’s recommendation “makes sense.”

“I agree 100 percent with the findings” of the commission, said Del. Danny Marshall, R-Danville, who also is on NCI’s board.

The institute opened in 2006 — a year ahead of schedule — with a goal of increasing the number of Southside residents with college degrees.

Southside is the only region of the state without a public university. When NCI opened, about 11 percent of Southside residents had degrees, the lowest percentage of any region, officials have said.

Fifteen degree programs are offered through NCI, which served more than 400 students in its 2009-10 academic year. So far, 135 people have earned degrees through the institute.

In its first four years, NCI already has achieved the success it had hoped to achieve in six years, officials have said.

For that success, the institute “deserves high praise,” Trani said.

With every degree earned, “we are developing an educated citizenry” that will help Martinsville and Henry County attract companies that will bring new jobs, said Paul Toms Jr., president of The Harvest Foundation’s board and a member of the 2012 Commission.

“Universities and colleges are critical to economic development” in their localities, Trani said.

He mentioned that Virginia Commonwealth, which was founded in the 1830s as a branch of Hampden-Sydney University, has helped attract businesses and retailers, both large and small, to Richmond.

“When I look at Martinsville,” he said, “I see circumstances that will change for the better” with NCI evolving into a university branch campus.

The Harvest Foundation convened the 2012 Commission, charging it with helping state officials make a decision about the institute’s future.

John Casteen, who retired earlier this year as president of the University of Virginia, served with Trani as a co-chairman of the commission. Casteen did not attend the NCI board meeting Wednesday.


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