Universities to study NCI

February 13, 2011

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

George Mason, Radford and Virginia State universities are among the five universities that have expressed interest in the idea of acquiring the New College Institute (NCI) in Martinsville and making it a branch campus.

Virginia Commonwealth and Old Dominion universities last week also confirmed their interest in possibly making NCI a branch campus of their institutions.

Eugene Trani, president emeritus of Virginia Commonwealth University, on Friday confirmed those universities’ interest. He is chairman of a panel that The Harvest Foundation has charged with examining possibilities for an NCI-university affiliation.

All of those institutions have expressed potential interest in turning NCI into a branch campus initially offering degree programs pertaining to education; business; computer science and information technology; and health, especially nursing, Trani said.

Those fields are expected to have significant career opportunities — not only in Southside but also elsewhere in the nation — in the future, he said. Each of the universities already offers degrees in those fields, he added.

Furthermore, the universities have indicated interest in NCI continuing to teach only third- and fourth-year courses toward bachelor’s degrees plus master’s degree courses, Trani said. As is now the case, students seeking bachelor’s degrees would have to take first- and second-year courses at another institution, such as a community college, he said.

The universities will seek a lot of information on NCI, and vice versa, before any affiliation agreement is reached, Trani said.

He said NCI wants to find out from the universities information such as how they would become involved in the community, such as through participation in economic development efforts.

If NCI becomes a university branch campus, the institution it affiliates with “will be responsible financially and legally” for its operations, said Trani.

How much autonomy the branch campus would have from the university’s main campus would have to be worked out and specified in any agreement between the two schools, he said.

“Certainly the formal duties of NCI’s board of directors would be abolished” but a university may want some type of local advisory panel, he added.

Harvest Executive Director Allyson Rothrock, who also serves on the panel that will examine affiliation possibilities, said she is “very optimistic” that an agreement can be reached with one of the five universities.

They have shown “a tremendous amount of interest” in NCI, Rothrock said. She noted that they were the only ones to send formal letters of interest in response to a letter Trani sent to the presidents of all public universities in Virginia to gauge their interest, and all five “answered pretty quickly.”

NCI offers local access to high-level courses needed to meet requirements for certain bachelor’s and master’s degrees granted by various universities across Virginia. Instructors employed by the participating universities are stationed at the institute to teach courses and counsel students.

Trani said that in negotiating an agreement with a university, “the need for residential faculty” in Martinsville will be emphasized.

Offering some courses by teleconferencing equipment may be possible, but having faculty based in Martinsville is essential because they would “become the link” between the university and the community, he said.

Radford offers a bachelor’s degree in information technology and a master’s degree in secondary math education programs at NCI.

Virginia Commonwealth offers bachelor’s degree programs in criminal justice, accounting and homeland security/emergency preparedness, plus a patient counseling certificate program, at the institute.

Old Dominion offers a bachelor’s degree in motorsports technology and a master’s degree in counseling at NCI.

George Mason and Virginia State do not offer any degree programs at the institute.

However, George Mason spokesman Daniel Walsch said the university is “interested enough” in NCI to give the idea of making it a branch campus “serious consideration.”

George Mason, based in Fairfax, has several branch campuses in Northern Virginia and provides access to its degree programs elsewhere in the state, Walsch said.

Radford is interested in NCI because “we have offered classes (there) and have an established relationship,” said Director of University Relations Jeff Douglas. Reached late Friday, he said he was unable to elaborate.

Officials with Virginia State, based in Petersburg, could not be reached for comment.

Spokesmen for Virginia Commonwealth and Old Dominion have confirmed that the universities are potentially interested in taking over NCI but they have not been able to discuss that interest in detail.

NCI, funded by the state and Harvest, opened in 2006 with the goal of increasing the number of adults in Southside — the only region of Virginia without a public university or four-year college — with college degrees.

Statistics indicate that only about 12 percent of adults ages 25 and older in the Henry County-Martinsville area have bachelor’s degrees, compared to the statewide average of about 30 percent.

Enrollment at NCI has been higher than expected, officials have said.

About 400 students now are enrolled, and 135 people have earned degrees through the institute, said Executive Director Barry Dorsey. He expects about 100 more students to earn degrees this year, he said.

Next year, the General Assembly is expected to decide whether NCI should evolve into some type of university setting. Officials have said that decision likely will be based on a recommendation which would be made by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV).

Kirsten Nelson, SCHEV’s communications director, said it would be possible for NCI and a university to reach an agreement, bypass SCHEV and go to the General Assembly directly for a vote.

“That would be fine with us,” Trani said. Still, he said those involved in any transition of NCI to a university will at least want to keep SCHEV abreast of developments.

Trani said NCI and the five interested universities will seek information on each other during the next few months in hopes that an agreement can be reached and ratified this summer by the NCI and Harvest boards, as well as the board of the university that agrees to take over the institute.

Then, the agreement could be considered by SCHEV and the legislature, he said.


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