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MSU officials begin to level with students about school's future

BECKLEY, W.Va. -- Mountain State University officials finally leveled with students at a question-and-answer session on campus Thursday: The Beckley-based institution may shut down for good.

"It would not be ethical for me to say everything is fine," Richard Sours, interim president of MSU, told students during the Q-and-A session with about 40 students on Thursday. "Our situation is serious enough that the possibility of Mountain State closing is real." 

Sours' statement on Thursday, during a session that had been closed to the media, was one of the first formal acknowledgments from the school's administration that Mountain State University's accreditation problems are serious enough to shutter the school completely. A security officer later asked a reporter to leave the meeting.  

The Higher Learning Commission, the regional monitoring agency that accredits MSU, withdrew the university's general accreditation last week, citing the school for systemic breakdowns in leadership, failing to create a strong learning environment, and having no oversight of academic program quality.

MSU was first warned of major problems by the HLC in 2008 and was then placed on show-cause status in June 2011 for failing to correct some of the previous leadership and program issues.

In a press conference last week, Jerry Ice, president of the board of trustees, used blustery language to say that MSU would appeal the HLC's decision and "fight this decision and win." But administrators are now backtracking on the positive assessments and steeling for the possibility that the loss of accreditation could be permanent.

"None of this is good news," said Sours. "We're up against the wall. The message to students is, we're in a serious situation and you should work on your own behalf to do the best you can to move your education forward."

MSU will appeal the HLC's decision in the upcoming weeks with an independent panel. On Thursday, Sours said the appeal would be based on showing that the HLC's ruling was "arbitrary, capricious and not supported by substantial evidence."

"We are working very hard on the appeal document," said Sours. "This is our last chance."

MSU's accreditation loss is set to kick in Aug. 27, but once MSU appeals, the accreditation temporarily extends throughout the appeals process.

Sours also shed light on Thursday about the serious financial hit MSU will face in the wake of having its accreditation revoked.

"Layoffs are imminent," Sours said. "The reality is that our enrollment, and hence our revenue, is going to be way down in the fall. We have a lot fewer students, so we need a lot fewer support staff. This is a painful process, but we have to do it."

MSU employs between 250 and 300 people in the Beckley area, according to Ellen Taylor, president of the Beckley-Raleigh Chamber of Commerce. Those staff members have been briefed by Sours about the possibility of losing their jobs and MSU officials are providing faculty with help on updating their résumés.

MSU is also heavily reliant on student tuition to operate. In 2010, student tuition and auxiliaries made up 92.1 percent of revenues at MSU -- more than the median at other similarly sized private colleges, according to a finance report from Moody's Investors Service.

Sours said MSU also would be putting its property up for sale and weighing which assets to liquidate.

None of the news was sunny, but students said they appreciated Sours' honesty.

"It was like attending a funeral," said Steven Smith, a former MSU student who graduated last year and has a wife in the university's physician assistant program. "Sours was very honest with us. Students used to live in fear under President Polk, but we no longer live in fear."

During the forum, Sours also fielded student questions about whether their credits would transfer to other institutions.

MSU recommends that students who have more than 18-24 credit hours to graduate should transfer to other institutions and should work with the registrars of other schools to see if their credits transfer.

Sours also explained the process and some of the specifics of the teach-out plan that MSU will submit to the HLC next week, but the full details of that plan and its impact on students were not available Thursday.

Reach Amy Julia Harris at amy.harris@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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