Gov. Jim Justice came to WVU on Tuesday to ceremonially sign into law HB 2815. The bill gives the four-year educational institutions more flexibility and exempts WVU, Marshall and the School of Osteopathic Medicine from Higher Education Policy Commission approval for certain policies and procedures.

The 99-page bill also precisely defines the role of the HEPC "to serve its core function as a coordinating body and to oversee and undertake regional and statewide higher education policy initiatives for the public good," as explained in a press release from the governor.

Justice signed five copies of the bill in Stewart Hall. As House Education chairman Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, pointed out before the ceremony, the bill represents a collaboration between legislators and the governor.

The Education Committee, he said, began work with the regional four-year institutions on a reform bill to give them more autonomy. When the committee members learned Justice planned to introduce HB 2815, focused on the three big schools, they asked him if it would be possible to blend the bills to benefit all the four-year schools, and Justice agreed.

"It's really a great example of how the governor, the Legislature, our four-year institutions, as well as the other stakeholder groups, can really collaborate on what will be a very meaningful piece of education reform," Espinosa said.

Justice signed the bill surrounded by the presidents of the three schools, Espinosa and Education vice-chairman Joe Statler, R-Monongalia.

WVU President E. Gordon Gee said, "This is a very important moment for us and for higher education."

He praised the leadership of Espinosa and Statler in pushing the bill, which passed the House, 98-2 and the Senate, 30-4. "They were tenacious about this."

Gee said, "This bill represents an opportunity for higher education to take a leadership role in making this state not only a place of dreams and hopes, but a place of opportunity."

Statler said before the ceremony, "I think this is a huge step forward in giving the institutions the flexibility to be able to control their destinies" in a time of budget cuts and belt tightening. "I'm really happy the governor took the time today to come up to sign it. It's fabulous in my eyes."

Justice said the bill gives the schools "the power to make real decisions and move us forward, as they should."

In a way, he said, the need was obvious. "The easy stuff is sometimes really hard to find. But once you find it, it seems so practical that you would step back and say, 'Gosh, anybody could have thought that.' Sometimes it takes a long time to get there.

"The greatness of our universities is somewhat handcuffed. ... We've got real expertise [there], if we'll just stop and listen. They are gigantic economic engines for our state and we're holding them back."

The three presidents -- Gee, Marshall's Jerome Gilbert and the osteopathic school's Michael Adelman -- added in a joint statement, "This new governance structure will help us be nimble and innovative enough to overcome our state's challenges. ... Our new governance structure will help our universities thrive as we continue reducing bureaucracy, increasing efficiency, seeking new revenue sources and doing all we can to lead transformation in West Virginia and around the world."

(c)2017 The Dominion Post (Morgantown, W.Va.)