West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission interim Chancellor Sarah Tucker announced Wednesday that her staff would recommend to the HEPC board allowing the former Wheeling Jesuit University to grant degrees to students in the upcoming academic year.
The HEPC board votes annually on whether four-year colleges may award degrees. The private university, now just called Wheeling University, is set to start its new school year on Aug. 27.
On Aug. 2, the HEPC board had postponed for a second time deciding whether to give degree-granting rights to the school.
That delay came after Tucker learned, through the media minutes before the Aug. 2 meeting started, that the school’s president and senior vice president had been put on administrative leave. Other university officials hadn’t told HEPC staff, whom they met with the day before, that they’d be making such moves.
The delay also came after HEPC staff said they learned that, on Aug. 1, a university governance-related complaint had been filed with the school’s accrediting body. Wheeling University also only submitted important information, including plans for students whose degree programs the school cut, to the HEPC around 7 p.m. on Aug. 1.
The HEPC board is now set to vote on whether to give degree-granting approval 9 a.m. Friday in the ninth floor conference room of the Boulevard Tower, 1018 Kanawha Blvd. E., in Charleston.
“My staff has been here for the past two days, asking lots of questions, getting lots of answers,” Tucker said at a news conference streamed from Wheeling on Republican Gov. Jim Justice’s Twitter account.
“They told me that they would be recommending to the commission on Friday morning that this institution is reauthorized for the next year,” Tucker said.
Applause filled the room, where members of the school’s football team joined with Justice, U.S. Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., state Sen. Ryan Weld, R-Ohio, and other local officials.
McKinley noted his family connections to the school, including that his wife graduated from it. He also said “we were part of the design team that designed this campus.”
“We’re not going to let this thing close,” he said. “... I didn’t go there to make a change in Washington to see something decay in my backyard.”
Justice began publicly pushing Monday for the school’s continued operation. He said McKinley brought the issue “directly to my attention.”
The governor said “we pushed the right buttons and, without any question, we’re not going to close this school, that’s all there is to it.”
In March, President Michael Mihalyo Jr. announced on the university’s website that its Board of Trustees had declared a “financial exigency.” He wrote that this allowed the school to “maximize our ability to improve the University’s financial condition.”
“Continued financial challenges have put our University in a position where we do not have the resources to bridge the gap between highly discounted enrollment, associated academic and athletic programming costs, and the revenue needed to support the institution’s operational expenses,” Mihalyo wrote.
Later that month, Mihalyo announced that the board “believes that the University can marshal the resources necessary to sustain operations for academic year 2019-2020.”
“This plan, however, requires difficult decisions,” Mihalyo said. “Those decisions include a narrowed set of academic programs and co-curricular activities, and a reduction in faculty and staff.”
HEPC Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Corley Dennison said 20 of the university’s 52 full-time faculty members were laid off and the academic programs it was offering would be reduced to eight.
In April, the school announced that its board and the Maryland Province for the Society of Jesus had decided to end the Jesuit “sponsorship.”
“The decision in no way impacts the academic credentials of past, present or future students, or changes its distinctive Roman Catholic identity,” the school announced that month in a news release. “The decision follows recent announcements that the current academic profile of the University and related cost structure are no longer sustainable given declining student interest in other disciplines and the resulting inability to maintain majors in Theology and Philosophy.”
Regardless, the release said “a new relationship between the Jesuits and the University to ensure an ongoing Jesuit presence and influence is being finalized. Details will be communicated in due course.”
In June, Dennison said the school was projecting enrollment of 700 to 800 students in the upcoming fall, about half of its enrollment in this past academic year.
Later that month, the HEPC board agreed with the school to postpone the vote on allowing it to grant students degrees, said Matt Turner, executive vice chancellor for administration for the HEPC.
On July 18, Wheeling Jesuit University announced that its board members had voted to rename the school Wheeling University and had appointed Ginny Favede as the board chairwoman. (The fourth bishop of Wheeling founded the school in 1954 as Wheeling College.)