Universities explore fit with NCI

March 8, 2011

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

Evolving the New College Institute (NCI) into a university branch campus is the logical next step toward improving higher education options in the Henry County-Martinsville area, university administrators agree.

Virginia Commonwealth (VCU), George Mason (GMU), Virginia State (VSU), Radford (RU) and Old Dominion (ODU) universities have expressed interest in the idea of making NCI a branch of their institutions.

The universities are gathering information that will influence their decisions on whether to pursue negotiations to acquire the institute. As a result, none has definite plans for it yet.

Various universities already offer bachelor’s and master’s degree programs through NCI. Affiliating it with a single university would help people view NCI the same way they view other universities and colleges, which could prompt area students to seek higher education without leaving the community, said VCU Vice Provost for Instruction Joe Marolla.

RU President Penelope Kyle recalled that several stand-alone universities in Virginia began as branch campuses of other institutions. For instance, GMU was a University of Virginia branch campus, and Christopher Newport University was a College of William & Mary branch campus.

The concept of launching universities as branches of other institutions “has worked so well around the commonwealth,” so it would make sense for NCI to do the same, Kyle said.

Officials have not ruled out the possibility of NCI someday becoming a stand-alone university. But the New College 2012 Commission, a group of educators and business leaders from around the state, has recommended that NCI initially evolve into a branch campus. That was mainly due to state financial constraints and the ability of another university to give NCI instant name recognition, officials have said.

The General Assembly is expected to decide on NCI’s future next year with guidance from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.

Because no public, four-year higher education institutions are nearby, VCU Interim Provost Beverly Warren said she sees “a huge need in the (Henry County-Martinsville) area for post-secondary educational opportunities.”

For the foreseeable future, plans are for NCI to continue being — even if a university takes it over — a “two-plus-two” institution providing third- and fourth-year courses toward bachelor’s degrees. Under that arrangement, students take their first two years of courses at a community college or other institution.

Warren said the two-plus-two concept “fits nicely” with higher education opportunities that already exist locally, including Patrick Henry Community College.

If NCI becomes a university branch campus, it initially will focus on offering degree programs related to education; business; information technology; and health, especially nursing, according to VCU President Emeritus Eugene Trani, who heads a committee that will explore affiliation possibilities.

All five universities have highly regarded degree programs in those fields, their officials said.

Administrators with four of the five universities interested in NCI say their institutions would strive to develop unique presences in Martinsville.

“Every university does things differently,” said VSU President Keith Miller.

Kyle said it will be “critical” for any university that acquires NCI to take part in community and economic development efforts.


Virginia Commonwealth University

VCU, in Richmond, already has met with NCI to discuss the possibility of an affiliation.

The university wants to develop partnerships with communities to find ways to help people attend college who otherwise would have a hard time doing that, Warren said. Having NCI as a branch campus would fit well into that mission, she said.

Warren noted that the Carnegie Foundation has given VCU a “Community Engagement Classification” in recognition of its community involvement. VCU is one of a small number of colleges and universities nationwide that received the honor, she said.

Right now, VCU is aiming to find out “what a partnership (with Henry County and Martinsville) would mean,” said Warren.

If the university acquires the institute, she said, “we’d seek to find out areas of need” and then find ways to meet those needs.

In doing so, VCU would “engage in conversations” with area businesses and organizations, she added.

George Mason University

GMU is younger than the other universities, having been founded in the late 1950s. Since then, it has “had a lot of experience in starting campuses from scratch,” said Vice President of University Relations Christine LaPaille.

GMU is based in Fairfax County and also has campuses in Arlington, Loudoun and Prince William counties. It is the only one of the five universities that has branch campuses outside the locality where it is based.

LaPaille said she thinks being a relatively young institution contributes to GMU’s uniqueness.

“We’re a very flexible institution,” she said. “We are extremely innovative in how we run our programs,” such as by designing programs to best meet the needs of a campus’ location.

“It has been sort of our hallmark ... to develop campuses that enhance the economic vitality of their regions” through the degree programs they offer and research done at the campuses, said LaPaille.

Having a campus in Martinsville would help GMU have “more of a statewide impact” instead of just influence on Northern Virginia, she said.

Specifically, GMU envisions opportunities in Southside to expand clinical opportunities for students in health programs, as well as opportunities for students to help in developing the region’s economy, she said.

Virginia State University

Officials at VSU, in Petersburg, think having a branch campus in a different part of the state could result in new ideas in research and academics that would benefit the entire state, Miller said.

Yet programs that the university develops at NCI would be geared toward meeting Southside’s unique needs, he said. Feasibility studies would be done to determine how VSU could best meet those needs, he added.

“It would not be a cookie-cutter approach to education” that duplicates academic offerings at the main campus, he emphasized.

Miller said he thinks what makes VSU’s academic programs unique is a focus on providing students with a “hands-on” education, such as through internships and cooperative learning opportunities.

That way, students can get a “balance of theory and practice,” he said, “practicing what they learn in a controlled environment” before becoming professionals.

Radford University

Kyle said it would make sense for Radford to acquire NCI because it is the closest public university to the Martinsville area.

Also, she said Southwest Virginia, where Radford is located, has many of the same types of businesses and industries as Southside, and the university is accustomed to preparing students for jobs there.

“We’re very similar communities ... with very similar needs,” she said.

One of NCI’s goals is to attract students who are the first in their families to go to college. Kyle said that goal fits in well for Radford, where more than 30 percent of students are “first generation” college-goers.

Radford, like VCU and ODU, already has some degree programs at NCI. Kyle mentioned that although Radford has no branch campuses, it has programs at higher education centers — institutions similar to NCI — in Abingdon and Roanoke, so the university has much experience in replicating its programs elsewhere.

To boost the Henry County-Martinsville economy, Radford’s Small Business Development Center and Governmental and Nonprofit Assistance Center could assist businesses and organizations, such as by providing financial counseling and help with developing marketing plans, Kyle said.

Old Dominion University

In responding to an inquiry from Trani as to whether it may be interested in the institute, ODU “asked some questions and received some ... information, but nothing further has happened,” Assistant Vice President for Marketing and Communications Jennifer Mullen Collins wrote in an e-mail.

“At this point, it doesn’t mean we are or are not interested; we are simply reviewing ... the information they provided,” Collins wrote. “Should anything change, we’d be happy to speak with you further.”

ODU is in Norfolk.


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