West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission officials said Friday Wheeling University still hasn’t provided full plans on how it will help students whose degree programs it cut, and the HEPC officials said they’re still unsure whether the private school will remain in good standing with its accrediting body.
HEPC staff also lack clarity on who will lead the school — formerly called Wheeling Jesuit University — long-term or whether it can financially survive beyond the upcoming academic year.
The HEPC’s board did vote Friday to finally give the school degree-granting authority in its upcoming academic year, which starts Aug. 27. Board members decide annually whether four-year colleges may award degrees.
But board members, upon the HEPC staff’s recommendation, only gave this approval conditioned on the university providing significant reports, with the first due at the end of next week.
If the school misses that deadline, the board could revoke the degree-granting power, said Corley Dennison, vice chancellor for academic affairs for the HEPC and its sister community college oversight agency, the Community and Technical College System.
Despite the conditions, the university sent out a news release Friday morning saying it had been “fully reauthorized by the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission.”
“This reauthorization is an important validation of the rigor and quality of our education delivery, which remains consistent and unwavering through some unusual times,” Ginny Favede, chairwoman of the school’s Board of Trustees, said in the release.
She said, among other things, that the school plans to add online graduate classes in the spring.
The reports due next week are “viable, [Higher Learning Commission]-approved teach-out plans for academic programs that have already been terminated.” The Higher Learning Commission is the regional organization that accredits Wheeling University and other colleges, such as West Virginia University.
At the time the school declared “financial exigency” in March, Dennison said 161 students required teach out, which allows current students to get their degrees despite a college canceling programs leading to those degrees.
Dennison said it appears at least 53 students with canceled degree programs have returned to the college for the upcoming academic year. Sarah Tucker, chancellor of the HEPC and CTCS, said the teach-out procedure wasn’t clear to those students.
The school only identified these students to the HEPC Thursday, after Dennison discovered the issue through interviewing students. Tucker said after she called Favede, the school said it would be emailing and calling the students immediately regarding class registration.
The university provided the HEPC information about online courses students could take to finish their degrees, Tucker said, but she said she’s told the school “it’s not on the student to figure out what courses he or she needs to take in order to graduate. It’s incumbent upon the institution to package those courses for the student.”
Favede said that has now been corrected.
Wheeling University’s total number of students was about 1,170 in fall 2018, Dennison said, and it’s now counting about 680 total between the latest undergraduate numbers and expected graduate student registrations. But Dennison said it’ll probably be October before the HEPC can get an accurate count for the fall 2019 semester.
By Sept. 13, Wheeling University must provide a strategic plan, including teach-out plans, for all programs if the school closes.
By Oct. 18, the school must provide a “report establishing the sustained financial viability of the institution” for at least another five years.
And by Nov. 22, the school must provide an updated financial report and enrollment projections for the spring semester.
Tucker said she doesn’t think the school is too far in debt right now, but it’s taken out a credit line of up-to $7 million. She said she didn’t know how much debt the school has taken out so far through that credit line.
Favede has said the school received a $2 million gift from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.
Board members Dale Lowther and Steve Paine, the state schools superintendent, were absent for Friday’s meeting. The vote for the conditional degree-granting approval was a voice vote with no nays heard.
The vote came after urging from U.S. Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., and Gov. Jim Justice to keep the school open. Tucker said her staff would’ve recommended Friday’s approval even without the pressure.
Regarding the Aug. 2 postponement of the approval, Tucker noted that she’d learned minutes before that scheduled HEPC board meeting began that the school’s president and senior vice president had been put on administrative leave.
“We needed to know more information before we felt comfortable authorizing them in that second,” Tucker said. HEPC staff said they visited the school this week and spoke with students, staff, faculty and leaders.
Favede declined to say Friday why the two administrators were put on administrative leave, saying “those are HR issues and they’re not privy to the public until they’re dealt with.”
She said President Michael Mihalyo Jr. filed a previously reported complaint with the HLC. She said of the allegations that “it was all very general” and didn’t provide the document Friday.
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.”
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.
“A number of their departments are down to one person,” Dennison said.
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 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,” the school announced that month in a news release.
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.”
On July 18, 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.)