The West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission on Friday again postponed deciding whether to let the former Wheeling Jesuit University grant degrees to students.
The decision came after HEPC board members learned that the school’s former president and senior vice president are on administrative leave, that a university governance-related complaint has been filed with the school’s accrediting body and that important information was only submitted around 7 p.m. Thursday.
The private school’s new academic year is supposed to begin Aug. 27, according to a university news release last month.
The information submitted late Thursday involved plans for students whose degree programs have been cut by the school, which is now called Wheeling University.
“There’s not enough time between now and the beginning of the semester for those students to have a teach-out plan, or have anything in place to protect them,” said Sarah Tucker, the top administrator over the state’s higher education oversight agencies, regarding why she didn’t recommend Friday just denying degree-granting authority.
Corley Dennison, vice chancellor for academic affairs for the oversight agencies — the Higher Education Policy Commission and the Community and Technical College System — said it would be very difficult for students to transfer at this time.
The staff of the HEPC, according to Friday’s meeting agenda documents, had planned to recommend that the HEPC’s board grant the school “provisional” reauthorization to award degrees, despite the beleaguered, shrunken school not providing “critical information.”
The staff also planned to recommended that this reauthorization be revoked before May 2020 if the school didn’t provide certain information at set times.
“The Commission has not received a teach-out plan [to help students whose degree programs the school eliminated], audit results or any documentation that demonstrates the long-term financial viability of the institution,” Friday’s HEPC board meeting agenda said. “University officials have told Commission staff about a significant donation to the institution that may stabilize its immediate financial condition, but Wheeling University has not provided any formal information about the donation to the Commission nor the impact it would have on the University’s financial stability.”
Ginny Favede, the university’s new board chairwoman, told the HEPC board Friday that the school has received a $2 million gift from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.
Friday’s agenda said “the school’s recent failure to timely share with the Commission and the [Higher Learning Commission] the critical information Commissioners need to evaluate Wheeling University’s long-term viability hampers the Commission’s ability to endorse the school’s reauthorization as it traditionally might.” The Higher Learning Commission is the regional organization that accredits Wheeling University.
Tucker said staff members learned from news reports minutes before Friday’s 10 a.m. meeting that President Michael Mihalyo Jr. and Senior Vice President Joseph Petrella are on administrative leave. She said she didn’t know why they were placed on leave.
Some Wheeling University representatives joined Friday’s HEPC meeting by teleconference. HEPC board Chairman Michael Farrell asked them why the HEPC had to learn about the administrative leaves from the news.
A lawyer from Pittsburgh answered that question, saying he was “engaged within the last month” and “I think you can appreciate, Mr. Chairman, that there is some sensitivity around this issue.” He said the decisions to place them on paid administrative leave were “just made, candidly, the other day,” and he referred to an unspecified investigation.
HEPC officials said they met with Favede and Laurie McCullough, a university official who’s now leading the school, on Thursday morning, but the two didn’t mention the administrative leaves. Tucker said the two also said that, while they knew the school was on Friday’s agenda, they didn’t know about the requests for the “critical information.”
“We had been having discussions with other members of the institution, requesting this information,” Tucker said.
Favede told the HEPC board Friday that Thursday was the first time she had seen the agenda.
Dennison said the HEPC staff hadn’t had time to review the information provided Thursday night. He also said the Higher Learning Commission told the HEPC Thursday afternoon about the complaint, which was filed Thursday.
The HEPC board votes annually on whether four-year colleges may award degrees. It provided the approval for most colleges in June.
In March, Mihalyo 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.”
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 oversight agencies.
“It was at their request,” Turner said, “and we mutually agreed upon it.”
Two weeks ago, Wheeling Jesuit University announced that its board members had voted to rename the school Wheeling University and had appointed Favede as the board chairwoman. (The fourth bishop of Wheeling founded the school in 1954 as Wheeling College.)
Tucker said she didn’t think it was a mistake to give the school more time back in June to make its case. She said the school “has always operated in good faith.”
“We did what we thought made sense at the time, given a very longstanding prior relationship with that institution,” she said.
The HEPC board plans to meet again later this month, and HEPC staff members plan to visit the school with representatives of the Higher Learning Commission.