Editorial: The Case for a College in Martinsville

October 24, 2004

           By Ronald E. Carrier


           Since June, when the Harvest Foundation asked me lead the effort to develop a new college for Southside to be located in Martinsville, I?ve made regular trips to the city from my home in Harrisonburg. Walking the streets of uptown, as I do each visit, I?m aware of a community with a proud and prosperous past.

            But these days many of uptown?s splendid and historic buildings stand vacant and one sees few people out and about. There is a justifiable and palpable sense of worry among the good people here. Like residents in other small towns and rural communities across this nation who have been adversely affected by the loss of manufacturing due to globalization, the people of Martinsville and Henry County seek something that will turn the tide of economic decline, stop the exodus of jobs, and the ?brain drain? of the community?s talented young.

What can be done to reverse the downward economic and social spiral? That question haunts nearly every conversation that touches on the community and its future.

            Put simply, I believe the answer is education.

Any program of renewal and economic recovery must begin with a broad-based program that integrates higher education into the community and its secondary school system, and does so in tandem with other institutions in the area such as Patrick Henry and Danville Community Colleges and the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research in Danville, as well as by reaching out to private institutions such as Averett University and Ferrum College.

            My abiding faith in the power of education to transform an individual and a region arises from my own life experience. That is to say, I?ve gained my conviction honestly.

Like many families in Southside, my own family never placed much value on education. My parents were decent, hardworking people who never graduated high school. In many respects, Martinsville reminds me of my hometown area east Tennessee, a region (with a speedway) also been hit hard by globalization and job losses in recent years (although, unlike this area, the impact there has been softened by the presence of a regional university). 

The decision I made to attend college came to me gradually during my final two years of high school. Although the choice to do so was incremental, it had one profound consequence: it opened a wider world to me?professionally and culturally?and in that way it transformed me so that I could open many other doors of opportunity throughout my life.

My college experience?as that of a young man from rural Tennessee and an ?uneducated? family?and the opportunities it later gave me was not unique. It has been repeated by countless other young men and women from the mountains, hollows, and small towns of east Tennessee.

Yet all our aspirations would have been worth little more than a cup of warm spit had we not had access to a public college within our region (in this case East Tennessee State University).

In the way that ETSU opened opportunities for me and others, Southside needs a public baccalaureate institution to serve its rural youth.

A college in Martinsville will transform regional attitudes here about education and offer real hope to young people who might otherwise?whether for geographical, financial, or cultural reasons?skip out on higher education. Its visible presence will make a lasting and penetrating change in the community.

Southside is one of the few regions of Virginia that lacks a public baccalaureate college, and it is no accident that the absence correlates with the area?s dismal high-school graduation rates or high unemployment and poverty. 

At the individual level, the economic, social, and political benefits of attending college have long been documented: More education translates into a better quality of life, higher salaries, longer working lives, and increased career mobility.

Additionally, a college-educated citizenry enhances a community?s economic development and tax revenues, and decreases government welfare assistance, among many other positive correlations.

Martinsville and Henry County?where economic losses during the past decade have been the greatest in the state?is the right place for locating the New College of Virginia (NCV).

The college has the potential to generate each year in the town and county, using even a conservative estimate, $17.1 million in revenue and 229 direct and indirect jobs.  New College could bring to Martinsville the assets that many other college communities enjoy: jobs, increased tax revenue, greater economic development, and more cultural and recreational activities.

Now is the right time for NCV?with the Harvest Foundation?s commitment of $50 million to develop and establish the school. No other community in Southside can offer the state this kind of incentive for supporting a new cost-efficient public institution of higher learning. 

Moreover, the projected steep increase in students attending Virginia colleges during the next ten years makes it imperative that Southside have a regional institution. Growing enrollment entails stiffer competition for admission, meaning Southside youth, who are already underserved, risk falling further behind.

NCV will be unlike any other college in the state or the nation. As a model, it offers an innovative approach in higher learning by combining the best features of liberal arts and professional education through an integrated curriculum.

NCV will prepare graduates for the workplace of the twenty-first century, developing in students a core set of leadership, entrepreneurial, and collaborative professional skills, and emphasize applied and technical training across an array of disciplines.  Students will perform community service and internships as part of their degree obligations. And courses will feature traditional in-class faculty instruction, complemented by Web-enriched material taught by leading experts in academia, industry, and business.  

A degree can be earned in twenty-eight months through a residential program in which students attend classes 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, during an academic year consisting of four ten-week quarters, running from July 15 through December 15 and January 15 through June 15.  Because students will be evaluated by way of regular and ongoing competency testing and assessments, they will know exactly what courses they need and what skills they must demonstrate to graduate.

If located in an academic village in uptown Martinsville (one of the options currently under consideration), NCV will have an immediate salutary effect on the town, especially when the college reaches its goal of 1,000 full-time residential students by 2008. These students will require restaurants, cafes, entertainment venues, and retail shops.

The long-term economic boost to the region will result from graduating ?knowledge workers? who can attract to Southside the new technology-based industries and businesses of the twenty-first century. Graduates can also fill positions currently available in the region that require skilled knowledge workers and thereby prevent further attrition of existing jobs.

Even with the generous support of the Harvest Foundation, it will require sustained effort during the next six months to convince Governor Mark Warner and the General Assembly to fund and approve the creation of the New College of Virginia at Martinsville. The people of this community and region must come together in visible and vocal support for the school.

The first opportunity to do so publicly is this Tuesday and Wednesday when the State Council of Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV) convenes two town hall meetings for discussion of the NCV proposal. The first meeting is October 26, 7 to 9 p.m., at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research in Danville. The second one is October 27, 10 a.m. to 12 noon, on the campus of Patrick Henry Community College in Martinsville.

Not all the news in Martinsville and Henry County is discouraging. This community has an historic opportunity to grasp something hopeful and tangible: the creation of an innovative public college for Southside. This could prove an uplifting story for other rural towns and areas throughout the state and the nation and an example of how a community transformed itself through education.

A Japanese proverb of which I am fond says, ?Vision without action is a daydream; action without vision is a nightmare.?  The New College of Virginia offers us a bold vision, but the people of this community must provide the action.


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