NCI forming partnerships

September 9, 2011

By DEBBIE HALL - Bulletin Staff Writer

The next step in the New College Institute’s (NCI) evolution will be to partner with three universities in offering future degree programs, not to become a branch campus of a university, officials said Thursday.

Radford University, Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and Virginia State University (VSU) have agreed to partner with NCI to offer bachelor’s and master’s degree programs related to business, education, information technology and health care, said NCI board Chairman Robert Spilman Jr.

Officials have determined those are career fields in which professionals will be in demand locally in the future.

It is not yet known which universities will spearhead specific programs, but all three “are equally committed” to the partnership, Spilman said.

A committee had been exploring the possibility of NCI evolving into a branch campus of one of the three universities. That idea has been put on the back burner due to economic and timing issues, officials said.

Spilman said paring the number of universities participating in NCI from the current eight to three will allow the institute “to perfect our product and refine our vision.”

“All three bring something different to the table, and all three have various levels of expertise,” he said.

As a result of narrowing its focus, NCI will become “a more cohesive entity and partnership,” he said, reiterating that the partnership “is the next step to where we’d like to end up. ... We’re in a better place.”

That may be an affiliation with a state-supported university, he said, adding there is no time frame for reconsidering that.

First, NCI must work to have the entire community as well as state officials and legislators embrace the new concept, fully develop and implement it, Spilman said.

“If we do all this,” he said, “we can go to Richmond and tell our story” with a track record to justify state support.

He described the arrangement as “the next step to where we’d like to end up,” and characterized the partnership as Phase III in NCI’s evolution.

Phase I, he said, was getting started and creating the New College, Spilman said. That “took a lot of effort and time” to sell the idea, develop and create the entity that now is NCI, he added.

NCI opened in 2006 in Martinsville, said Executive Director Barry Dorsey. Its goal has been to increase the number of adults in Southside with academic degrees. Studies have shown the region has the fewest adults — about 11 percent — with degrees of any region in the state.

The institute receives funds from the state that are matched by The Harvest Foundation.

Phase II involved hiring staff, working with other institutions and having students graduate, Spilman said. It also included “telling our story” locally through outreach programs, such as internships, and opening the facility to various groups, such as for meetings, he said.

In considering NCI’s third phase, Spilman said officials examined three options: not changing NCI’s operations; becoming a stand-alone university; or affiliating with another university to become a branch campus.

The status quo may not have provided as much room for growth as the other options, Spilman said. And, “we quickly realized the stand-alone” concept was out of reach due to financial constraints, he said.

So in the fall of 2010, officials decided to earnestly pursue the affiliation option. Initially, there were five potential candidates: VCU, Radford, VSU, Old Dominion and George Mason universities, he recalled.

Old Dominion and George Mason withdrew from consideration, and negotiations continued with the others, Spilman said.

“I can’t tell you the amount of manhours” involved in negotiations as teams from Martinsville visited the universities to meet with officials, and their officials visited here, he said.

The “complexity of affiliating became apparent to us” during that process, Spilman said. A major factor of the complexity, he said, was circumstances such as current economic problems.

The “pressure on public universities is acute. There have been a lot of cutbacks in state appropriations,” and “that has become a very big issue,” he said.

“Quite frankly, it was a roller-coaster ride as these negotiations were under way,” Spilman said. Due to the economy and the timing, “we felt the best thing to do was to partner with these three” universities, he said.

Teams from each university will visit NCI in the next few weeks to “tighten up the relationship,” Spilman said. As that occurs, other changes also will be under way.

They will include NCI paring down the list of entities offering classes there, he said.

NCI currently offers 11 degree programs and eight certificate programs through contracts with eight universities, including VCU, Radford, Averett, Longwood, Norfolk State, Old Dominion, Duke and James Madison universities and the University of Virginia (U.Va. at Wise).

Only programs offered by the three partners announced Thursday — and a two-week Non-profit Management Intensive Track program offered through Duke — will remain when the new curriculum starts in the fall of 2012, Dorsey said.

Contracts with the other universities will cease in December 2013 or shortly thereafter, he said. There are “a couple (of) exceptions” to that, but those programs are slated to cease in March 2014, he added.

Dorsey estimated 250 students are “in that pipeline” of courses of study at NCI and will have until the contracts end to complete their degrees.

Universities were notified last year that their contracts with NCI would end in 2013, and as a result, they did not enroll new students, Dorsey said.

NCI Associate Director Leanna Blevins said negotiations with the three universities will continue during the next few months, and she hopes the new slate of degree programs will be announced by the end of the year.

Dorsey said enrollment at NCI peaked at more than 400 students. When the new classes begin in the fall of 2012, he anticipates that many or more will be enrolled.

He said he anticipates new programs will be offered both in the classroom and through distance learning, which incorporates technology such as the Internet and videoconferencing systems.

Currently, “there is sufficient space to meet the immediate demand,” Blevins said of NCI facilities in Martinsville. “We don’t anticipate needing additional space for at least another year or two.”

Spilman added that personally, “at some point, I may have been disappointed that NCI is not becoming a branch of a state university right now.”

But the “complexity and enormity (of issues involved in becoming a branch campus) became apparent,” he said.

At the least, “we’ve moved the ball down the field. That’s significant,” he added.

Blevins emphasized that the New College Institute name will continue to be used for the foreseeable future and that it will continue to be overseen by a local board of directors.

She noted that the partnership will not require approval by the General Assembly, as becoming a university branch campus would require.


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