Home rule for MU, WVU could lead to growth - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

Home rule for MU, WVU could lead to growth

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Brooks McCabe Brooks McCabe

Brooks McCabe is managing member and broker of West Virginia Commercial LLC. He has been involved in commercial and investment real estate for more than 30 years, and he also is general partner of McCabe Land Co. LP. He has served in the West Virginia Senate since 1998, and is a special project consultant to The State Journal.

With politics trumping decisive action at the national and state level, perhaps the best opportunity for accelerated growth in West Virginia's economy rests with its cities and major universities.

Home rule has been an active topic of discussion with our cities and maybe that discussion should be expanded to West Virginia University and Marshall University. Few can doubt that these two universities are well run and are economic engines for both their local community and the state as a whole. In many ways, West Virginia's future prosperity is tied directly to these two institutions. Like so many things in West Virginia, their growth and development is hampered by a burdensome and outdated regulatory environment. Could it be time for home rule at WVU and Marshall?

The basis of home rule is trust in local leadership and the understanding that some ventures will succeed and some will fail; but on the whole, progress will occur at an accelerated rate through diversity and creativity of the initiatives undertaken at the local level. The goal is to be more agile and less bureaucratic. Concentration should be on the simplicity of getting from point “A” to point “B,” and not letting form overtake substance. Regulatory processes can be stifling in the fast-paced environment of the new economy. The focus on a pre-audit mentality vs. a post-audit mentality slows the decision making and limits creativity.

Home rule has a lot to offer to WVU and Marshall. West Virginia's future prosperity is directly related to these two universities. Let them lead the state into the 21st century rather than trying to manage and control them through the Higher Education Policy Commission and the Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability. Oversight is important and necessary for public institutions; but that line is crossed when preapproval becomes the norm for all substantive initiatives. Oversight in a fast and fluid environment should focus on outcomes and that oversight should not be diverted by signing off on new or expanded programs. This pre-audit mentality is beginning to adversely affect the dynamic nature of West Virginia's two major universities.

Home rule for WVU and Marshall will be an unsettling discussion for many, but let's look at some initial points to begin such a discussion. The Higher Learning Commission (not to be confused with the HEPC) performs a regional accreditation of each university in the country every five years. This is a rigorous review and sets a high standard of excellence. Without such accreditation, the universities could not survive as a viable entity. It represents the imposition of a national standard critiquing both outcomes and internal processes. Accreditation assures quality and does so from a multi-state perspective. Yet the HEPC requires an annual review through its campus compact requirements — much of which is duplicative of the regional accreditation review. This is time consuming and diverts the universities from other important tasks. The HEPC might well step back and look at how its oversight can be efficiently tied to the five-year accreditation review by the Higher Learning Commission. Perhaps the HEPC could analyze its procedures from the perspective of reducing its bureaucracy and allowing WVU and Marshall to be more nimble. This is just one example of many where the HEPC is becoming too involved in the decision making of its major universities.

LOCEA requires the universities to report on a regular basis on programmatic, budgetary and facilities initiatives and requires its approval before the universities can proceed. LOCEA has become more than an oversight commission focusing on outcomes. It has become what amounts to a pre-audit review commission. In addition to slowing the process, it has injected state politics into the decision making process. The state funds a substantial, but ever decreasing, percentage of the budgets of these two universities. In many ways, the reporting requirements seem to increase as budgetary support decreases. Everyone wants well-run universities, but so far bureaucracy seems to be winning over lean and flexible management.

Oversight is needed for good financial management and protection of the public dollar. Post audits are a necessity and help managers properly assess work performed. As deficiencies are identified, corrections can be made. The HEPC and LOCEA have a role in this regard. However, one must not forget that the national rating agencies keep a very close eye on our two major universities. Bond ratings are a major indication of financial health. When a rating downgrade occurs, HEPC and LOCEA must take notice and enter the discussion. An important distinction is that the Standard & Poor's and Moody's of the world look at the numbers as the stark reality. They do not look at numbers through the filters of local or state politics. They are concerned with outcomes and future ability to perform. Unfortunately, politics often play a noticeable role in HEPC's and LOCEA's decision making.

Less state regulation would be good thing for our universities. WVU and Marshall will never get away from West Virginia politics. Their alumni and major donors will see to that. Let's just try to lessen the politics at the regulatory level and give them more freedom to act quickly and decisively. State government must get away from making the universities justify all their actions in advance. Perhaps more focus should be on outcomes. That is where the discussion at the state level should occur. With the prospect of a continued reduction in the percentage of state dollars going to WVU and Marshall, now could be a good time to start looking at home rule for these two drivers of West Virginia's new economy.