Officials briefed, lobbied on proposal for university

October 27, 2004

Martinsville Bulletin
Bulletin Staff Writer

DANVILLE -- Officials of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) on Tuesday listened to a cross-section of people expressing both support and opposition to the proposed college in Henry County and Martinsville.

Those in support touted a university's innovative approach to higher education, its ability to rejuvenate the area's economy and serve otherwise neglected students.

One of the supporters, State Del. Danny Marshall, R-Danville, said that the best way to sell the idea of the college is to make it clear that the proposed institution is about "creating wealth in the area. It wasn't that many years ago that the Virginia Business Magazine listed Martinsville as having the most number of millionaires per capita in the state. We need to reinvent that wealth."

Those opposed said there are existing state facilities that, working with an expanded program at Patrick Henry Community College, could more economically and efficiently serve those students.

SCHEV is holding three forums to solicit community opinions on such a university to fulfill a state General Assembly charge to consider establishing a college or university in Southside. The first, on Tuesday, was held in Danville.

The second will be held from 10 a.m. to noon today at Patrick Henry Community College (PHCC) and the third will be held at the SCHEV headquarters in Richmond on Thursday.

Tuesday's session was broke into three parts. The first featured officials of The Harvest Foundation and Dr. Ronald Carrier, director of the group spearheading the establishment of the college. The second featured regional educators and the third featured regional business leaders.

The event largely was comprised of people championing what is being called the New College of Virginia, the proposal put forward by Carrier and supported by a $50 million challenge grant put up by The Harvest Foundation.

Highlights of the meeting were presentations by state Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine, who successfully sponsored legislation in the General Assembly last year which led to the SCHEV study, and Dr. Patricia P. Cormier, president of Longwood University, who offered a counter proposal to Carrier's.

Kaine said despite having numerous educational resources in this area, there is still a "knowledge gap" which the New College of Virginia is trying to address. "And that knowledge gap is hard to tackle with the current (college) configuration."

Kaine added that the closest state college or university for Southside is in North Carolina.

Kaine, a former Richmond mayor, said he presided over the city when it was dealing with some of the same problems hampering Southside -- population decline, disinvestment of businessmen in the city and consolidation and closing of businesses. Kaine said that Virginia Commonwealth University carried the city economically with such economic stimulants as $320 million spent in the city by students and faculty and $30 million spent in property taxes.

"If we're going to have to create capacity (for more college students), why not do it in an area that not only helps students but also the economy," he added.

Also speaking on in support of the college were Chuck Davies, Martinsville-Henry County Chamber of Commerce board member, and businesswoman Elizabeth Haskell, who formerly served on Martinsville City Council.

Saying that the quality of his college education and that of his daughter is about the same, Davies said colleges have become inflexible. But the new college has a greater chance of more fully implementing technology improvements common in business and industry, he added.

Haskell added, "I see the new college in Martinsville and Henry County as a major step toward the goal of reaching undeserved students from around the state in a dramatic, innovative and cost-effective manner. Classes will be from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., five days a week, teaching skills for 21st century jobs. This would be unique -- applying a work force mentality to college."

While businessmen and government officials generally approved the idea of a college in Martinsville and Henry County, area college presidents by and large voiced disapproval.

In addition to Comier, the educators present included Carlyle Ramsey, president of Danville Community College, and Richard Pfau, president of Averett University in Danville.

Comier, as did other presidents, said the challenge of meeting the expected rise in state enrollment of college students over the next decade could be economically and efficiently better met by using existing institutions.

Speaking on behalf of Longwood College, PHCC and Old Dominion University, Comier proposed a plan for expanding PHCC's bacclearate program. Through a collaborative arrangement among the schools, Comier said PHCC could have an expanded degree-granting program by next fall that, unlike the New College of Virginia, would be fully accredited.

The other proposal would create a "2 plus 2" contract that would serve community college graduates. Students getting a two-year degree could pursue their final two years at Longwood or ODU.

Giving an example of the cost effectiveness of her proposal, Comier said ODU gave SCHEV a proposal for increasing its enrollment by 7,500 full-time students at a cost to the state of $25 million annually. Comparatively, the New College of Virginia is proposing an enrollment of 1,000 students at an annual cost of $27 million.

Carrier, Don Hodges, president of The Harvest Foundation, and Harry Cerino, its executive director, outlined the structure and goals of the New College of Virginia, how the idea originated and what role The Harvest Foundation played in supporting the idea.

Carrier touted the New College of Virginia as the next innovative change to necessary to meet the underserved population of potential college students in rural America.

"One problem is that rural families, by and large, don't participate in education at the same level or degree as urban families." As a result, he added, the goal of the college is "to transform the community into one that places a greater value on higher education by making it financially and psychologically possible for the area's underserved youth to go to college."

Setting the background for The Harvest Foundation $50 million challenge grant to the state to create the university, Hodges said the initial mission of The Harvest Foundation was to donate 5 percent of its more than $150 million for social improvement grants in the area. When Kaine proposed pushing forward the idea of a four-year institution in Southside, the foundation recognized that a college could be the most community-transforming opportunity presented.

"We threw the play book out the window," he said.

Hodges said the foundation then turned to former governor Gerald Baliles, who amassed a group of six former college presidents to study the idea.

The group recommended a non-traditional college, citing six reasons why a traditional college likely would not be approved, said Hodges: larger cities argue for a state-supported college or university, colleges team up with community colleges to offer four-year programs, state colleges are badly underfunded, slow or negative population growth in Martinsville and Henry County as compared with other areas, and no good evidence that simply having a college transforms communities.


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