VCU overloads while considering Martinsville campus

Colin Hannifin

Martinsville is a small city in south central Virginia. The city itself has a population of just fewer than 14,000, while the surrounding area’s population hovers right around 75,000.

It may be better known for its NASCAR track, the Martinsville Speedway, which is the shortest track in all of NASCAR. So why is Martinsville drawing attention from VCU, Virginia State University, Radford University, Old Dominion and George Mason?

Located in the relatively non-descript Martinsville is a young college, known as New College Institute (NCI). It’s not yet a decade old and provides the people of Southern Virginia access to bachelor’s and master’s degree programs through partnerships with other universities, including VCU.

For example, a student can currently earn an accounting degree from VCU while attending NCI. Other colleges and universities have similar programs set up with NCI, including Longwood University, UVA, Radford, James Madison and ODU. The Virginia universities listed previously (VCU, VSU, Radford, ODU and George Mason) have now all expressed interest in acquiring NCI as a branch campus.

It comes as little surprise that VCU has expressed interest in expanding, as the university is constantly looking for ways to spread its base of students and offer new opportunities.

The real question is whether this is a good opportunity for VCU. The answer is no.

VCU’s president emeritus, Eugene Trani, is the chairman of the The Harvest Foundation, which has been charged with examining the possibilities for NCI to become a branch campus, though it’s important to note that this indicates no favoritism toward VCU. Emphasis has been placed on the fact that it would offer third- and fourth-year courses – that is, courses in a particular major. The general education requirements would have to be fulfilled at a local community college.

Furthermore, adoption of NCI as a branch campus would render the university financially and legally responsible, according to Trani, and residential faculty would have to be established. Currently, much of the teaching is done via teleconference. This could be done on a limited basis if it were to become a branch office.

For all the opportunity this offer holds for VCU, the university would be wise to turn it down. While it does offer a chance to cover more students in the state of Virginia and truly move toward becoming a state-wide university, with the degree of expansion and work on the MCV and the Monroe Park campuses, it would be unwise for VCU to shift attention away from its core in Richmond.

This is particularly true in light of VCU’s financial issues, which include Gov. McDonnell’s plan to withhold $17 million in state funds from VCU in fiscal 2012 that he announced earlier during this year’s General Assembly session.

No matter where the blame lies, the fact is that VCU is strapped for cash. The partnership with NCI currently works well for VCU, chiefly because VCU faculty teach from afar while holding none of the financial responsibility of the institute. If possible, it would seem that this is the relationship VCU should strive to maintain with NCI.

It appears that VCU is constantly focused on growth. Every day around campus we hear the bulldozers and construction workers outside VCU’s next dormitory or parking garage. The VCU Monroe Park and MCV campuses educate more than 30,000 students. While a Martinsville branch would be a great opportunity to spread the VCU brand, the additional 400 students’ tuitions it would supply to VCU is almost certainly not worth the financial responsibility it would require.

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