Although it had already been in existence for 57 years, in 1990, the future of Beckley College was murky at best.
In deep financial distress and still trying to regain its footing following the death of its longtime president, the two-year college was struggling.
A lot can change in 20 years.
In 1990, Dr. Charles Polk was in his 16th year as president of Daytona Beach Community College.
Polk was looking for a change, however, and the Texas native was ready to accept the same position at a community college in the Northeast.
Plans, as most know, can easily change.
“I had all but accepted the presidency of another school, but circumstance and talking to people here, who said, ‘You really should come here. We need you here,’ I made the decision to come here,” Polk said.
It was a risky move.
“When you look back on it and come to grips with what it (the school) was at that time and how much difficulty it was in, financially and otherwise, you almost have to say it was a little bit of insanity and a desire for punishment, I guess,” he said with a laugh.
“But I had this gambling spirit and risk-taking tendency and I thought it was just something I would really like to try to do.”
The first step for Polk upon his July 1, 1990, start date was to try to pull the school out of the financial cellar.
“We needed to try to get to a point where it could just breathe,” he said. “The first year was a year of really tightening things down, reducing numbers and trying to create an idea of what we could do, where we could go and what we could be.”
The president had some big dreams for the tiny school, which served between 800 and 900 students from its three buildings on South Kanawha Street.
While addressing financial woes, Polk also addressed an overhaul of what the school had been since its 1933 inception.
Although Beckley College had many students throughout the years, it offered only one certificate program and mostly served local residents who took a few classes or sought associate degrees and transferred to four-year schools.
In his first year in Beckley, Polk sought and received permission from the accrediting body to grow into a four-year, baccalaureate-granting institution.
“That happened in the spring of 1991, so we made our announcements about what we were going to do and began to lay the foundation to move forward,” he said.
Nursing, business and interdisciplinary studies were the school’s first bachelor programs.
The nursing program would prove to be a key in the college’s growth as Polk recognized a void in education opportunities for those interested in the allied health field.
“We made the decision that it was really something we should try to take on because, in all of southern West Virginia, there was really no one doing very much with it,” he said. “We said that will be our turf, and today, we dominate the allied health fields.”
The shift to a four-year school was not the only change in 1991 as Beckley College changed on the most fundamental level.
“There was a lot of fondness for Beckley College, but I felt in order to move forward, we needed to transcend,” Polk said. “We needed to get beyond Beckley College and be somebody else.”
In September 1991, the school did just that: Beckley College became The College of West Virginia.
“We were now an institution and we began to brand ourselves as The College of West Virginia,” Polk said. “I think we were quite successful.”
Polk’s big dreams for moving the institution forward also required that it grow physically.
“When I got here, there were three buildings,” he said. “If you blinked your eyes on South Kanawha Street, you really missed it because there wasn’t much here.”
There were limitations with growing a school in a residential area, however, as CWV’s three buildings were surrounded by residential houses.
“We couldn’t do much because there were houses everywhere, so we bought them,” Polk said.
Some of the houses were torn down to make way for new construction and others were converted into administrative offices.
“It was a slow process, but that’s how we began to build the institution, really,” Polk said.
The first building constructed under Polk’s tenure was the Robert C. Byrd Learning Resource Center, a building that contains what Polk said was a key to the school’s success.
“Being able to get the library built was the big turning point for the institution,” he said. “No institution moves forward without a learning resource component.”
Also a key, Polk said, was the construction of the school’s first dormitory.
“Hogan Hall gave us the ability to establish ourselves as a residential institution,” he said.
Like it did with the houses, the school continued to convert, with possibly the biggest instance happening with the purchase of the old Beckley Junior High School.
“Since then, we’ve just bought and bought and now own most everything from Beaver Avenue to Beckley Junior High on both sides of the street,” he said.
The College of West Virginia continued to grow throughout the 1990s, with the addition of programs, the return of athletics (which includes national powerhouse men’s basketball team), the online, distance-learning boom and the addition of post-graduate degrees.
Also, during that time, one of Polk’s initial goals came to fruition, as branches of the once fledgling, three-building school began popping up in other areas of West Virginia and other states.
With such tremendous growth, Polk thought another name change was in order, and in 2001, Mountain State University was born.
“I felt we needed to grow into who we wanted to be and to mature into something else,” he said, explaining the title of university means something special. “It carries with it a different ethos.
“We are a lot different than we were in 1990.”
Shortly after the change to university status, the school again expanded its reach, this time into the realm of secondary education with the establishment of The Academy at Mountain State University.
The private school for grades 6-12 is adjacent to MSU and enables students to get a jump on the future by witnessing college life and taking college classes.
“We took off with it and I think we’ve built a very unique, interesting opportunity for kids,” Polk said. “It’s something the community can certainly benefit from.”
Today, Mountain State University has approximately 2,500 students on its Beckley campus, and with online learning and students enrolled in branch campuses in Martinsburg, Pennsylvania, Florida and North Carolina, Polk says he expects total enrollment to reach close to 10,000 this year.
A new dormitory is under construction on the Beckley campus, but Polk says he expects the “mothership” campus to reach its maturity in the next two to three years, serving about 3,000 students.
At that point, he said, the attention will shift to the Martinsburg campus, where the school recently acquired 81 acres of land and 700,000 square feet of space.
“I think you’ll begin to see that become larger than Beckley,” he said. “This will still be the mothership, but that will be fairly large.”
Although online learning is a major part of MSU’s offerings, Polk said additional branch campuses are important.
“Institutions like this fare better and have more credibility when people can associate the name with a facility and they can touch it,” he said. “So we’re looking at other markets where we can export programs from here to there and grow campuses.”
From 900 students and three buildings to 10,000 students and campuses throughout the East, the old Beckley College has changed a lot in the past 20 years.
Polk, who will turn 68 in July, and has plans of further expansion (student center/sports complex) as opposed to plans of retiring, says he’s happy and proud of his “insane” decision to move to the Mountain State.
“The first year I was here I thought I was crazy, but when you finally get traction and you see things moving, you have a much better feel about what you’ve done,” he said. “It’s been an exciting ride.
“I get up every morning and feel just as excited about what we’re doing today as I did 20 years ago.”
Although Polk said he’s proud of the tremendous success the past two decades, with further expansion and online classes, even greater things are to come.
“What has happened in the 20 years will really be dwarfed by what happens in the next 10 years,” he said. “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.”
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