VCU group pays visit to NCI

February 22, 2011

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) administrators who visited the New College Institute (NCI) on Monday liked what they saw, and some already have ideas on how the university’s presence could benefit the community.

VCU is one of five public universities statewide that have shown interest in acquiring NCI and making it a branch campus of their institutions. If such a takeover occurs, plans are for NCI to — at least initially — continue offering only third- and fourth-year courses toward bachelor’s degrees, plus courses needed to earn master’s degrees.

Degree programs at NCI, which currently has about 400 students, are being administered by a variety of universities across Virginia.

Beverly Warren, VCU’s interim provost, declined to say Monday whether the visit by university officials made them more interested in possibly taking over NCI.

The universities are in the process of gathering information on the institute, and no negotiations have occurred yet, officials have said.

However, VCU officials said everything they found out about NCI and the community on Monday either met or exceeded their expectations.

“We’re just as interested” in NCI as they were previously, Warren said. “We’re exploring this opportunity with full sincerity.”

VCU already has bachelor’s degree in accounting and certificate in patient counseling programs at NCI.

“We’ve enjoyed working with people (executives) at NCI, and we see a lot of potential here,” said David Urban, executive associate dean of the VCU School of Business. He said that NCI staff members “have always been enthusiastic, optimistic and collaborative partners.”

Warren and Michael Davis, interim dean of the VCU School of Education, said they were impressed with modern technology used at NCI, such as two-way communications equipment that could enable classes in Martinsville to be televised live at VCU’s campuses in Richmond or anywhere else.

Classrooms at NCI are “as technologically advanced as any classrooms we have at VCU,” said Warren.

Davis said he was impressed with how the institute has converted buildings in Martinsville’s uptown central business district for educational use.

Yet what really struck them were efforts by community leaders to improve the educational levels of area residents.

“What impresses me most,” Warren said, “is the passion this community has for education and the ability to use education to transform people’s lives.”

“I’m very much impressed with the passion” area leaders have for improving higher education offerings locally, Davis said.

He added that he thinks NCI — whatever form it takes in the future — will be “an economic engine” that helps lure and retain businesses.

Urban said he envisions VCU, if it acquires the institute, setting up “a living laboratory” in which students work with area residents to launch businesses and/or help them grow, such as through helping them develop business and marketing plans.

Experts affiliated with the university could lecture to business owners on various business-related topics, such as finance, he said.

“The real engines for economic development are small businesses” because they are more likely to undergo expansions than large companies, he noted.

Local leaders have said NCI has a potential to revitalize uptown because as more and more students enroll at the institute, there will be more people in the district, which will lure stores, restaurants and other businesses. There also are opportunities to develop housing for students, they have said.

Urban said he knows what they say is true because he has seen it occur around the VCU campuses.

“Not too many years ago, the central part of Richmond was a pretty dead place,” Urban said. Then as the university grew, it attracted more people to the district, and they needed services that led to new businesses, he said.

They also needed housing, which resulted in buildings being redeveloped “with retail on the bottom and loft apartments on top,” he recalled.

Plans are for NCI, as a university branch campus, to initially provide degree programs related to education, business, information technology and health.

The VCU School of Education focuses mainly on graduate programs. Davis said he envisions opportunities for the school to help area teachers develop and grow in their careers, perhaps with staff from local schools as mentors.

Finding out “what’s going on in the schools from day to day, and from the people doing it ... enhances learning,” he said.

Another possibility, he mentioned, would be for VCU education students at NCI to get involved in efforts to improve adult literacy locally.

VCU was the first of the five interested universities to visit NCI, which is funded by the state and The Harvest Foundation.

The other universities that have shown interest in turning the institute into a branch campus are George Mason, Radford, Virginia State and Old Dominion.

Harvest Executive Director Allyson Rothrock, who serves on a panel that will examine affiliation possibilities for NCI, said officials hope to meet with staff from all five universities in the coming months. To her knowledge, no dates for meetings with other universities have been set, she said.

NCI opened in 2006 with the goal of increasing the number of adults in Southside with college degrees. Statistics show that about 12 percent of adults ages 25 and older in the region have degrees, compared with the statewide average of about 30 percent.

Southside is the only region of the state without a public university.

Averett University in Danville and Ferrum College in Franklin County are private four-year higher education institutions. Because they are private, Warren said, they are “almost cost prohibitive” for many area residents needing less costly options for college.

Whichever university takes over NCI will need outreach efforts informing students and parents about options that make college affordable, such as seeking scholarships and going to state-supported schools, she said.


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