School under fire

MARTINSBURG – The news that Mountain State University no longer meets accreditation standards has thousands of West Virginia students scrambling to figure out what’s next.

School officials have vowed to appeal the regional Higher Learning Commission’s decision to revoke the school’s primary accreditation. The decision, which was made public in a posting on the HLC’s website last week, won’t take effect until the appeals process has concluded in the fall.

Mountain State University student Rebecca Oliver needs just five more classes to finish her accounting degree. She and her fiance´
Joey Eason drove to Martinsburg from their homes in Pendleton County Monday for a college fair at Blue Ridge Community and Technical College.

This week, representatives from a dozen schools – including West Virginia University, Martinsburg’s Blue Ridge Community and Technical College, Shepherd University and other public institutions as well as private schools such as Alderson-Broaddus College in Philippi – came to Martinsburg for a two-day college fair aimed at helping Mountain State students.

More than 200 Mountain State students attended a similar gathering hastily arranged last week in Beckley, where Mountain State is based.

“None of the schools are approaching this as a recruiting fair – it’s about getting information out to students about what options they have,” explained Kathy Butler, the vice chancellor for academic affairs of the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, who organized both events.

Butler called the accreditation decision “so unfortunate” for Mountain State, a private, not-for-profit school.

But, Butler said, while “there’s not much anyone can do for the institution, we can support the students. They’ve invested so much – not only financially, but in time and commitment – and now they’re wondering what they have to show for all of it.”

Based in Chicago, the Higher Learning Commission handles accreditation for colleges and universities for schools not only in West Virginia but Ohio, Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, New Mexico, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Mountain State, which began life as a junior college during the Great Depression, moved from years of slow or no growth and deep financial struggles into hyper-growth mode following the arrival in 1990 of Texan Charles H. Polk as the school’s sixth president.

Soon, Mountain State had new buildings in Beckley as well as a slew of new programs, including four-year degrees in nursing and other fields and then master’s-level courses.

In 1999, the school began offering classes in Martinsburg. In the years since, the school has grown to enroll as many as 10,000 students total, although reports vary widely. Butler said this week that it’s unclear just how many students are affected by the Higher Learning Commission’s accreditation decision.

Some attended Mountain State solely online while other students took classes in traditional classrooms in Beckley, Martinsburg and Charleston as well as outside of Pittsburgh and in North Carolina and Florida.

But, according to the Higher Learning Commission’s accreditation decision, under Polk and even after his firing in January, the fast-growing school failed to meet set criteria in leadership, resources, planning and oversight.

The Higher Learning Commission posted a public notice of the decision on its website late on July 10, after the July 11 edition of the Spirit of Jefferson already had gone to press.

In wake of the news, several lawsuits are in the works, including one being handled by Charles Town attorney Stephen Skinner on behalf of Mountain State’s nursing students. It was the school’s nursing program, in 2010, that first lost its program accreditation.

Skinner has said his suit seeks compensation for students, many of whom took on debt to pursue a nursing degree and now must pay another institution for training if they hope to work as nurses. He has said Polk should be held liable for the trouble caused to Mountain State students.

Meanwhile, a team of attorneys in Charleston has filed a class-action suit in Kanawha County Circuit Court on behalf of Mountain State students. In that suit, filed July 11, the lawyers say the students were intentionally misled about the school’s academic standing.

Another lawsuit was filed in Kanawha Circuit Court on July 12 by Kimberly H. O’Toole, a onetime Mountain State psychology professor and adviser. In her suit, she alleges that Polk told university staff in 2010 that any employee who talked about the nursing school’s accreditation issues or assisted students in transferring out of the school would be “fired for treason.”

The suit also says that Polk fired her last year with no warning after Mountain State officials apparently discovered that she had been talking about accreditation issues with students.

Rationale behind the decision

Butler, who holds her doctorate in curriculum and instruction from West Virginia University, said she was involved in readying her school for accreditation reviews during her long tenure at Glenville State College. The reviews are grueling, she said, and that no one from the Higher Learning Commission or the five other regional accrediting bodies would ever make the decision to revoke a school’s standing lightly.

“They know the implications of an accreditation loss – for students, for the faculty, for the school,” Butler said. “It’s not something that would be handed down without an extremely thorough review of every aspect of what was happening at the school.”

In its finding, the commission found that Mountain State had not “conducted itself with the integrity expected of an accredited institution with regard to ensuring that its students have accurate and timely information about the status of their academic programs and consistent quality across all academic programs.”

The commission also 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,” the commission states, “[and a] lack of shared governance, and lack of oversight by the University’s Board of Trustees of serious problems at the University.”

The notice went on to criticize school officials for focusing on growing enrollment rather than on program quality and sufficient oversight of academic offerings.

The commission also cited Mountain State’s administration for failing to correct problems with the school’s nursing program following the loss of the program’s accreditation from both state and national accrediting bodies.

Mountain State officials have said they were surprised that the school wasn’t put on probation and given more time to fix problems.

In January, the school’s board of trustees had fired Polk, who had remained publicly upbeat about Mountain State’s future.

At a community forum he organized in Beckley in August, Polk vowed that the university would emerge from the “show-cause” order issued in June “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.”

Mountain State’s board named Richard E. Sours as interim president in March. Since then, the school has put in place a new administrative structure and worked to improve its oversight.

Following the decision, Sours last week released a statement in which he said the university is “disappointed and surprised” by the HLC’s action.

“We do not believe the action was warranted, particularly in the context of the far-reaching and comprehensive changes that have taken place at Mountain State University over the past 12 months,” Sours stated.

Added Jerry Ice, the chairman of the school’s board of trustees: “To apparently discount all of that is very disappointing.”

The Higher Learning Commission’s decision will take effect Aug. 27, unless the school appeals. Mountain State’s deadline to file an appeal comes July 27; school officials have said they will seek to overturn the commission’s finding.

Ice stated in a news release: “The Board is committed to continue to do what is in the best interests of the students, faculty and staff of Mountain State University and the community it has served since 1933. It is the Board’s intention to promptly appeal the decision in accordance with the procedures available to the University, and to forcefully pursue our appeal.

“We are also weighing all options to preserve and protect MSU.”

If an appeal is filed, the school would keep its accreditation while the appeal is considered. That period could last between 10 and 16 weeks.

There are other problems facing Mountain State, too:

+ Moody’s Investor Service has downgraded the school’s bond rating from Baa3 to B1 – what’s known as “junk” status. A school’s bond rating is used to determine the amount of money it can borrow and also affects how much interest it pays on its debt.

+ An audit of Mountain State’s finances by the Higher Education Policy Commission found problems with how the school handled state financial aid for students, with more than $50,000 in state financial aid never being paid out to students.

+ Mountain State’s woes are being felt even as far away as Texas. Officials in Houston last week told the city’s police officers they’ll no longer be able to count credit hours for “life experience” awarded by Mountain State after questions arose about the number of credits officers were claiming.

According to the Houston Chronicle, dozens of officers had enrolled at Mountain State and won academic credit for required, routine police training – allowing the officers to apply for promotions and higher pay.

+ The future of the struggling Martinsburg Mall, purchased by Mountain State in 2010, also is in doubt.

Andy Wessels, the spokesman for Mountain State, has said the issue of the school’s real estate holdings won’t be settled until after the school’s accredition appeal is decided.

Just in January, Mountain State unvield its Academic Support Center, a hybrid-learning center housed in the Foxcroft Avenue mall, in the corner that formerly was home to a Rex electronics store.

The mall had been in receivership since its Baltimore-based owner, Prime Retail Inc., defaulted on loan payments.

At the time of the mall’s purchase, Polk in an interview hailed the idea of expanding the school by putting classroom space alongside retail stores.



Mountain State University saga, at a glance

+ The private school opened its doors as a junior college in 1933. Beckley College started with 97 students meeting in classrooms rented from a local church. As the Depression grinds on, the school is welcomed as an alternative for students who find it difficult to travel to other state schools because of poor roads and the area’s mountainous terrain.

+ In mid-1990, Charles H. Polk, who turns 70 this month, is hired as the school’s sixth president. A native of Texas, Polk had become a college president at age 31. He’d been serving as president of Daytona Beach Community College for 16 years.

+ In interviews, Polk has said he had big dreams for the tiny school, then struggling financially and serving between 800 and 900 students from three buildings on South Kanawha Street in Beckley.

+ By the early 1990s, the college is a four-year school offering degrees in nursing and other in-demand programs. It boasts a dorm and several other new structures in Beckley. Renamed the College of West Virginia, the school begins to offer master’s-level classes and new degree programs in the humanities, arts and sciences as well as professional and technology fields.

+ In 1999, the school begins offering classes in its second West Virginia location, just off Interstate 81 in Martinsburg.

+ In August 2001, the college adopts its current name. Enrollment surged (Polk in a 2010 interview pegged the number of students at 10,000 total), with students coming to MSU’s Martinsburg campus from D.C. and Baltimore and others enrolling in distance learning courses in 43 states as well as other countries around the globe. Besides its locations in Martinsburg and Beckley, MSU offers classes in Charleston, the Pittsburgh suburb of Center Township, Pa., Orlando, Fla., and Mooresville, N.C.

+ In 2009, Polk earns an annual compensation package of $1.84 million, according to a Chronicle of Higher Education report.

+ In late 2010, MSU’s nursing program loses accreditation from the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission. The school is barred from accepting new students into its undergraduate nursing program after the West Virginia Board of Examiners for Registered Professional Nurses finds the school hadn’t maintained at least an 80 percent passing rate on the licensure exam for first-time registered nursing candidates. Problems cited include MSU’s failure to match student enrollment to the clinical and teaching facilities available or to the size of the school’s nursing faculty.

+ On June 23, 2011, the board of trustees from the Chicago-based Higher Learning Commission reports the school may not meet all criteria for general accreditation and issues a “show-cause” order to the school.

+ On Aug. 25, 2011, Polk reassures a packed-house community forum in Beckley that the university will emerge from a recent “show-cause” order “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.”

+ On Jan. 19, MSU’s board of trustees votes to fire Polk.

+ From Feb. 13 to 15, a team from the Higher Learning Commission visits MSU to review its accreditation status and its response to the show-cause order. The matter is reviewed and weighed through the spring.

+ On March 20, Richard Sours is named the school’s interim president. He most recently served as interim dean of Mountain State’s School of Arts and Sciences. He formerly served as vice president of Ferrum College in Virginia.

+ On June 28, trustees from the Higher Learning Commission vote to revoke the school’s general accreditation – a first for a West Virginia school.

+ On July 11, notice of the school’s loss of general accreditation is posted on the HLC’s website. The school has said it will appeal.

+ MSU’s deadline to file the appeal paperwork comes July 27.

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