WHEELING, W.Va. — Wheeling University has been reauthorized by the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission for the 2019-2020 academic year to confer degrees, but by slim margins.
The West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission (HEPC) voted to approve annual reauthorization Friday morning at a special meeting in Charleston following on-site visits in Wheeling by commission officials this week.
The site overview presented Friday stated that while reauthorization for the upcoming academic year is appropriate, the institution does not currently demonstrate it has the means to sustain past the 2019-2020 year, with reauthorization lasting until May 22, 2020.
Corley Dennison, Vice-Chancellor of Academic Affairs of HEPC, reported that due to the $2 million unrestricted gift from the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and an available line of credit, the institution demonstrated it can maintain operations for the coming year.
Dennison told MetroNews the diocese saved Wheeling University (WU) from closing.
“Without the $2 million it would have been very difficult for them to open this fall,” he said.
The report by the HEPC indicates that WU must restructure its financial and administrative operations, in addition to an infusion of cash through a successful capital campaign, the promise of continued financial support from the Diocese or both to be viable past the coming year. The commission is planning to meet with the new Bishop of the Diocese, Mark E. Brennan, to discuss the financial future. WU officials indicated the university wants to remain a catholic college.
Other findings in the site visit overview include the institution has ineffectively managed its finances and has run a deficit for several years. According to the HEPC report, the deficits were generated in part by the failure to enact curricular, enrollment and staffing efficiencies. A large number of students on campus were not covering their cost of attendance due to excessive tuition discounts of up to 72-percent.
WU’s leadership remains in flux since President Michael Mihalyo and Senior Vice President Joseph Petrella were put on administrative leave in early August and the HEPC found no long-term strategic leadership plan to move the institution forward. The vote for reauthorization was postponed on August 2 due to the administrators being put on leave.
“The problems that this institution has faced have gone on for years,” Sarah Tucker, HEPC interim chancellor said.
“The commission is not in the position to place blame on anybody. What we are trying to do is fix what is happening so their students are taken care of and able to graduate.”
THE HEPC laid out a timeline of conditions and deadlines that must be met for the reauthorization to confer degrees continue at WU.
The first one is on August 23 WU, formerly known as Wheeling Jesuit University, must provide Dennison with viable Higher Learning Commission (HLC)-approved teach-out plans for academic programs that have already been terminated as a result of the public declaration of financial exigency.
161 students were effected by program termination in March with 53 students currently registered that lost their line of study.
“It’s not on the student to figure out what courses he or she need to take in order to graduate,” Tucker said about the teach-out plans.
“It’s incumbent upon the institution to package those courses for the student and say they need to take these courses in order for them to graduate.”
The program and faculty cuts have resulted in the university enrollment nearly shrinking by half.
Currently, WU has 375 total undergrad students, down from around 700 in the 2018-19 academic year. As far as full-time undergraduate students, there are 108 freshmen, 116 sophomores, 50 juniors, and 94 seniors as of Friday.
Dennison said their financial plan demonstrated that the 375 part-time and full-time undergraduate students they had were enough to move forward.
Following the timeline of deadlines, WU must provide Dennison a formal strategic plan for the instance of institutional closure including viable teach-out plans for all remaining academic programs by September 13.
By October 18, a full report establishing the sustained financial viability of the institution for at least five years must be provided to Dennison and the Vice Chancellor for Finance.
By November 22, WU must provide Dennison and the Vice Chancellor for Finance with an updated financial report and enrollment projections for the spring semester.
The HEPC report states that WU must remain in good standing with the HLC and share with the Commission written and electronic communication between the institution and the HLC regarding its status. Loss of regional accreditation will result in the immediate loss of authorization. Dennison expects the HLC to make a ruling on the status of the institutional accreditation at some point during the coming year.
The decision for reauthorization comes on the heels on a press conference at the university Wednesday with Gov. Jim Justice, 1st District Congressman David McKinley (R-W.Va.), Tucker, and more.
Dennison, who took part in the on-site visits faculty, staff and students on Tuesday and Wednesday and called them very productive meetings, said Justice’s comments about not closing the school on his watch did not have any influence on the HEPC’s decision.
“This report was written with what we found at the institution and we presented the report with what we found at the institution,” Dennison said. “While the Governor’s support is a positive thing for the institution, it did not interfere and influence this report.”
Justice tweeted on Friday, “Excited to learn that the WVHEPC just voted unanimously to reauthorize Wheeling University to confer degrees through May 2020!”
Another finding from the on-site visit by HEPC officials revealed that the National Collegiate Athletic Association is investigating the basketball program and booster activity. The HEPC expects that investigation to be concluded at some point during the upcoming academic year. Dennison could not make further comment.
Dennison said the bottom line for reauthorization for WU or any institution in the state is consumer safety and student protection.
“We wanted to make sure that students who enrolled this year were able to get the classes they signed up for and be able to be secure that they could have those classes throughout the academic year,” he said.
“With the gift from the Diocese and the financial plan they have presented we think that can happen.”