The West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission conditionally approved an annual reauthorization for Wheeling University Friday, two weeks after delaying a decision because the Roman Catholic institution placed two of its top leaders on administrative leave.
But the struggling university isn’t out of the woods by a long shot.
The commission flagged significant issues that call into question the university’s ability to continue operating beyond the upcoming year. It is also requiring the university to submit more information on its finances, academic support and leadership .
Wheeling University has enough access to cash to stay open for the 2019-20 year thanks to a $2 million unrestricted gift from the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston that was announced Aug. 2, plus an available line of credit, reported MetroNews.
“Without the $2 million it would have been very difficult for them to open this fall,” Corley Dennison, vice chancellor of academic affairs of the Higher Education Policy Commission, told MetroNews.
Wheeling University will need to restructure financial and administrative operations and find more cash in order to be a viable operation beyond the upcoming year in the commission’s eyes, according to MetroNews. The commission didn’t find any long-term strategic leadership plan for the university. And the university’s basketball program and boosters are also under a National Collegiate Athletic Association investigation.
“Reauthorization ensures that we can continue to serve our students with confidence, and without disruption to campus operations,” said Wheeling University’s board chair, Ginny Favede, in a news release. “Moving forward, our entire team is focused on delivering a high-quality educational experience that will prepare our students for rewarding careers in the fields of business, criminal justice, education, and healthcare.”
Over the next several months, Wheeling University will need to provide the Higher Education Policy Commission with teach-out plans for already-shuttered programs, an exit plan for students that would cover the event of the university closing and a report showing the university can be viable for at least five years.
“There are a lot of folks here who want you to succeed and help you to restructure how things are being done at the university,” Commission Chairman Michael J. Farrell told the university’s board chair and leaders during Friday’s meeting, according to remarks released in a news release. “We are concerned with what is happening and how it is affecting your students. We must ask if students at Wheeling University are being treated appropriately and fairly and is the institution sharing with them the information they need about their academic programs.”
Plans are being pursued for the commission to meet with the diocese’s new bishop, the Rev. Mark E. Brennan, to discuss the university’s future. Wheeling University and the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston are closely entwined due in part to a 2017 deal in which the diocese purchased the university’s campus and set up a leaseback arrangement in order to free the university from its bond debt. Bylaws have also given the diocese’s bishop substantial power over the university’s board.
West Virginia’s governor, Jim Justice, had taken up Wheeling University’s cause, visiting its campus Wednesday and vowing that “this school’s not closing on my watch.” Justice last Monday sent a letter to the Higher Education Policy Commission’s interim chancellor encouraging her and her staff to “do everything in your power” to ensure the university is able to remain in operation for its students and surrounding community.
“I’m going to tell you just this; we’ve pushed the right buttons and, without any question whatsoever, we’re not going to close the school,” Justice said, according to a news release about his Wednesday visit to campus. “That’s all there is to it.”
Commission officials have said said they reauthorized Wheeling University because of actions it had taken and their own criteria -- not political pressure, according to The Intelligencer.
The Higher Education Policy Commission’s reauthorization comes after turmoil has rocked the top ranks of Wheeling University in recent months -- and after persistent financial problems sparked major downsizing. In March, the university declared financial exigency, laying off faculty members and cutting majors including theology and philosophy. The changes prompted the Jesuit order to pull out of the institution, and what had been Wheeling Jesuit University was soon renamed Wheeling University.
In June, the chairman of the university’s Board of Trustees stepped down after a leaked report to the Vatican revealed that he had been recommended for removal because of his ties to former Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston Bishop Michael Bransfield. The former bishop departed from his seat in September amid sexual assault accusations and spending scandals.
Then on Aug. 2, Wheeling University announced that President Michael Mihalyo and Senior Vice President Joseph Petrella had been placed on administrative leave. At the same time, the university announced that its new board chair, Favede, would help guide it through state authorization and authorization with its accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission. After that announcement, the Higher Education Policy Commission delayed the university’s reauthorization vote -- the second time it had done so.
In May, the Higher Learning Commission assigned the university a financial distress designation, which keeps it accredited but marks it publicly until the university can prove financial issues have been resolved or that it has a strong plan for resolving them. A comprehensive evaluation of Wheeling University’s accreditation is scheduled to be complete in the spring of 2020.
Wheeling University has about 375 undergraduates, down from 700 or so last year, according to MetroNews.