By Sarah Plummer
For the second year, Mountain State University students, staff, faculty, alumni and the community as a whole have been taken on a roller coaster ride of loss, grief, anger, worry, uncertainty and relief as the university prepared to shut its doors.
The community begins 2013 welcoming University of Charleston’s Beckley campus and bidding farewell to the nearly 80-year presence of Beckley College, College of West Virginia and Mountain State University.
But the face of higher education in Beckley differs vastly today from just a year ago. At its height, Mountain State University enrolled 8,200 each semester, but only 1,100 students remained across the school’s campuses in Fall 2012, the semester following its accreditation withdrawal.
2012 began with swift changes as the MSU Board of Trustees quickly took the helm of the school’s sinking nursing program and fired former president Charles H. Polk in January.
Later Polk would be named in many lawsuits that asserted his “winner takes all” leadership style in part led to the school’s demise. Lawsuits also claim Polk withheld accreditation information from students for more than a year.
On Feb. 16, the West Virginia Board of Examiners for Registered Nurses voted to withdraw accreditation from Mountain State University’s Nursing Program. The board cited a low licensure exam pass rate and the inability for the university to produce student testing documents and clinical assessment tools.
Students and teachers filled the Charleston meeting room to beg the board to allow seniors to graduate in May.
The board heard the students’ plea and the nursing accreditation withdrawal became effective Aug. 31.
In following up with the Higher Learning Commission’s 2011 Show-Cause Order, representatives from the accrediting body visited MSU’s campus and hopes ran high as the community “painted the town blue” to show support for the local school.
Ultimately on July 10, the Higher Learning Commission decided to withdraw the school’s accreditation, effective Aug. 27, stating the school had not met the requirements of the commission’s Show-Cause Order.
The commission found the university did not meet three areas of the criteria for accreditation, showing lack of integrity, resources and administrative leadership.
In addition to stating that the school did not have the resources expected of an accredited institution, the Higher Learning Commission said problems with leadership extended from “a long history of control of the university by a small group of administrators including and surrounding the former president,” Polk.
Board of Trustees president Dr. Jerry Ice filled in as interim president and, after a national search, the Board of Trustees brought in current interim president Dr. Richard Sours, a retired university president with experience assisting struggling schools.
Almost immediately, state officials and surrounding schools reached out to help students with questions. The Higher Education Policy Commission set up a college fair to help students assess their transfer opportunities and many schools stepped forward to offer scholarships and various other assistance.
Transferring credits was not an easy task for all students. Some students enrolled in specialized programs like the culinary arts and the physicians assistant program discovered their credits would not transfer to other schools.
On July 16 Mountain State University sent the Higher Learning Commission its intent to appeal the accreditation decision, which extended the school’s accreditation until Dec. 31.
The effects of the commission’s decision began to hit home when interim university president Sours encouraged employees to “dust off their resumes” and the school began cutting back on staff.
On Aug. 20, the Higher Learning Commission approved Mountain State University’s teach-out plan managed primarily by the University of Charleston. Some programs, like the aviation management, forensic investigation and the medical assistance program were managed by WVU Tech and New River Community and Technical College.
These schools expressed interest in continuing to teach these programs after MSU’s closure. University of Charleston, in particular, expressed the desire to create a campus location in Beckley.
While many students received answers and assistance, no case was cookie cutter. Some students lost two years of study and, because they were able to transfer some of their credits, were not eligible for tuition reimbursement.
In the fall of 2012, Mountain State University had more than 1,100 students enrolled, including 958 on Beckley’s campus, 72 in Martinsburg, and the rest disbursed on campuses in North Carolina, Florida and Pennsylvania.
Students enrolled last fall, more than 600 of them slated to graduate in December, faced additional challenges regarding financial aid.
Because of the school’s accreditation status, the Department of Education required MSU to disburse financial funds from its own cash reserves.
In December, Sours confirmed that students were still waiting for financial aid disbursement for November. Sours said the school was decimated financially and was waiting on the Department of Education to reimburse September and October’s funding before it could disburse November’s.
Leading up to Mountain State University’s appeal, which was presented to an independent panel in Chicago on Dec. 4, school officials spoke openly about the Higher Learning Commission’s decision to pull accreditation.
Ice said the school made great strides and was within compliance of the commission before their decision was made.
Ice said the commission based its decision on the school’s past track record, not the work they have done since the Show-Cause Order.
Just before Christmas, Mountain State University was notified that the panel denied the appeal.
Exactly how the continued loss of the school the size of MSU will affect the community or the outcome of pending lawsuits against the school is unknown.
It is evident, however, that Mountain State University’s demise has left a scar on southern West Virginia that won’t soon heal.
Settlement (undisclosed) was reached in one lawsuit against the school in November but there are still more than 200 cases open against the school for breach of contract, fraud, intentional misrepresentations, loss of wages and emotional distress.
While old wounds close, southern West Virginia looks to the University of Charleston to provide Beckley with a higher education presence.
On Dec. 11 the Higher Learning Commission approved the Kanawha-based school’s request to open campuses in Beckley, Martinsburg and online.
The University of Charleston will increase its academic programs from 23 to 32, adding several new programs that existed at the closed school, and hiring 65 former MSU faculty and staff members in Beckley and three in Martinsburg.
— E-mail: splummer@ register-herald.com