Ousted MSU president’s words shed light on school woes

Christine Miller Ford

With the news this week that about half of Mountain State University employees will be without jobs come September, it’s impossible not to think of Charles H. Polk, the man credited with the massive expansion that enabled so many to come to work for the institution.
Fired as president of Mountain State earlier this year, Polk for decades had been unquestioned as the school’s savior. Prior to his arrival in 1990, the school then known as Beckley College was a struggling junior college with a grand total of three buildings, all in downtown Beckley.
Quickly, Polk began to build an empire – with ever-expanding campuses and a growing number of programs not only in southern West Virginia but in Martinsburg, Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
Under his leadership, Beckley College became the College of West Virginia and then in 2001, Mountain State University. Hordes of other student attended MSU online from across the globe. The school offered not only two-year degrees by master’s programs. And by 2009, he was being paid close to $2 million a year for his work at MSU.
Many associated with the school over the years place say without hesitation that it was Polk – who formerly had served as president of a junior college in Daytona Beach, Fla., where he ran into problems with the state’s Ethics Commission – and a management style they call relentlessly heavy-handed that created the bulk of the university’s current problems.
In its report revoking MSU’s accreditation – a decision that school is appealing – the Chicago-based Higher Learning Commission criticized Polk and the university’s top-down management structure.
“The University has a long history of control of the University by a small group of administrators, including and surrounding the former president … [and a] lack of shared governance, and lack of oversight by the University’s Board of Trustees of serious problems at the University.”
The HLC went on to criticize school officials for focusing on adding to MSU’s enrollment numbers rather than on ensuring program quality and providing proper academic oversight.  Members of MSU’s board of trustees have said that as the school’s accreditation troubles brewed, they were constantly reassured by Polk that he had the situation under control. While Polk hasn’t granted interviews since he was ousted from his post by MSU’s board in mid-January, his approach toward leadership is no secret.
There’s plenty of insight into the native Texan’s mindset in his 2007 book, “Apex Thinking: A Guide to Long-Term Leadership for the Rising CEO” – a handbook that was required reading in MSU’s business leadership program, where he offers praise for power games and manipulation – as well as from media interviews and a rally he held less than a year ago as the school’s accreditation issues began to widen.
A look at the man who created Mountain State University, in his own words:
Hard work
“In reality, working hard, per se, accomplishes relatively little. One discovers that it’s not how hard he works but how ‘smart’ he works that makes the critical difference. ‘Working smart’ means using other people, as often and as advantageously as possible, to expedite goals and objectives.”
– Polk’s book, “Apex Thinking”
Power and control
“An aspirant should concurrently develop a greater ability to influence, dominate, control and manipulate.
“Earning a good reputation as an individual leader also builds power. Such a reputation gains respect and eventually provides the potential for directing others. Remember people not only defer to power, per se; they also defer to what they think is power, to what they think is intelligence, or to what they think is strength.
“Practicing control of the behavior of people who are subordinates, even on a limited scale, assures the opportunity to learn the power role. It is a continuing contest of wits that serves in good stead when building the strength necessary to be a chief executive officer. No one succeeds without enjoying the exercise of power.
“One must gain some satisfaction in the control of others. Those who don’t enjoy amassing and using it have no reason to work to acquire power.
– “Apex Thinking”
Harm to others
“In issues of survival or non-survival, sometimes the deliberate misuse of power becomes the only way to survive, even though such misuse may involve unintentionally harming others. This tactic again requires the chief executive to answer that very important question. How far am I willing to go in the use of my power in order to survive?”
“The belief that one may, once at the top, eliminate the use of force, deceit, or power which may have been employed to get there in the first place is not correct.”
– “Apex Thinking”
Being loved vs. being feared
“… it is more important for a chief executive to be feared than loved. Traditional ideology maintains that when fear can be instilled in subordinates, one can effectively control their behavior.’’
– “Apex Thinking”
On scapegoating
“Depending upon the situation, rather than owning up to an error, a CEO might want to say, ‘Well, it was not my fault. What went wrong happened because either a subordinate or a board member or someone else caused the problem.’ More often than not, the best scapegoat technique is to pass blame along to some abstract agency or organization. Those kinds of institutions can be more easily blamed in many situations when it is awkward or impossible to refute the accusation.
“When passing the blame, however, recognize that one must identify a target with which no one can argue. If possible, pass blame on to a scapegoat that is more theoretical than real. That’s an even better scapegoat game.”
– “Apex Thinking”
“[Mountain State will be seen] as the best institution in West Virginia – if we’re not already. We will deal with this as we deal with every challenge that comes our way. We will deal with it professionally, we will deal with it aggressively and we will deal with it thoroughly.”
– Polk at an Aug. 25, 2011, campus rally in Beckley that he organized after news that the Higher Learning Commission had issued a show-cause order, a serious threat to the school’s accreditation
MSU’s future
“What has happened in the 20 years will really be dwarfed by what happens in the next 10 years. I wouldn’t be surprised in the next 10 years to see Mountain State University have 20,000 to 25,000 students.

 I suspect it will be a major, major player in this business.”
– Polk, in a July 2010 interview with the Beckley Register-Herald as he marked his 20th year with the school
Life at the top
“A … misconception about life at the top is that those who make it do so because they exemplify positive human behavior – honesty, integrity, and morality. Unfortunately there is another side of the success story which, sometimes, involves negative characteristics which we generally … consider inappropriate within our leaders. [Those people who] have the ability to employ politics, instill fear in subordinates, and make power plays that often require hurting others also make it to the top.”
– “Apex Thinking”
Preparing for failure
“Unless you own the company, don’t ever sit in any position and feel so comfortable that you believe nothing can happen to remove you from that position.
“Those who become too comfortable as chief executives are like accidents waiting to happen. They become dangerous to themselves.”
– “Apex Thinking”

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