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MSU administrator on student lawsuits: 'Bring it on'

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Top Mountain State University officials intimidated and threatened students after learning they were going to sue the university, according to audio files and court records.

In March 2009, Ron Smith, former director of MSU's graduate nurse anesthesia program, told 13 students that "any student seeking legal advice would never graduate," according to the complaint filed by Christy Brewer in U.S. District Court in Beckley.

Brewer and graduates of MSU's now-defunct nursing anesthesia program accused school officials, some who still hold top university positions, of trying to squash the lawsuits students brought against MSU through intimidation.

"I am not afraid of a lawsuit," Roslyn Artis, vice president and chief academic officer, told a group of nursing anesthesia students in 2009. "I am a pretty good lawyer, as a matter of fact. In fact, I'd suggest let's go a couple of rounds in my forte. I don't care. You're not challenging me personally, you're not challenging them personally, and you're not hurting me in any way, shape or form. Knock yourself out."

The Gazette-Mail recently obtained a 2009 voice recording of Artis addressing MSU students several days after Ron Smith allegedly told students that anyone suing the university would not graduate.

That recording, coupled with new interviews with former students and court documents, paint a picture of how top Mountain State University officials dealt with student threats of legal action.

"This implication that I'm trying to insulate myself from lawsuits is ludicrous," Artis told students in the class. "I'm not scared of your lawsuit, bring it on. If we're liable, we'll end up paying and if we're not, then we won't. Bring it."

One student sitting in on the classroom meeting told Artis that her comments amounted to "intimidation -- that's what it's called," according to the voice recording.

Artis has since risen in the ranks at MSU and is one of the university's most highly paid employees. She made more than $239,000 in compensation and other benefits in 2010, according to the most recent forms MSU filed with the Internal Revenue Service.

In a recent telephone interview, Artis said she would not comment on what she said to nurse anesthesia students in 2009 because "we're in the middle of litigation on those issues."

"What I can say is that my intent in visiting the classroom was to say that I wanted to keep the lawsuits and other legal matters out of the classroom and that the courtroom was the place for it," Artis said. "I wanted to keep the classroom focus on learning. Unfortunately, students weren't as appreciative of that, and we're obviously in litigation."

Since July, when MSU became the first institution in West Virginia history to have its accreditation revoked for major leadership, integrity and program issues, lawsuits have been flooding in against the Beckley-based, nonprofit, private school.

More than 130 students in Kanawha County alone have sued Mountain State since January 2008, according to court records. Since August, 40 former MSU students in Kanawha County filed lawsuits against the school.

MSU will shut down at the end of December, at which point the University of Charleston will take control of MSU's Beckley and Martinsburg campuses.

The recent round of lawsuits launched primarily on behalf of undergraduate nursing students allege that MSU administrators lied to students about the school's accreditation status, amounting to a breach of contract.

One lawsuit filed in Jefferson County on behalf of 14 nursing students contends that MSU officials ran the university like a criminal racketeering organization with a concerted effort to deceive students and pad administrators' paychecks.

"Former MSU President Dr. Charles H. Polk was the ringleader of the MSU Enterprise and controlled the racketeering activity and deceptive practices at the MSU enterprise," according to the lawsuit. "Each of these schemes has involved suppression of information, lies, fraudulent misrepresentations and omissions reasonably calculated to deceive nursing students of ordinary prudence and comprehension."

MSU officials said in a statement that the allegations of racketeering and conspiracy were designed to "sensationalize the issues, attract media attention and sway public opinion."

Past nursing anesthesia students, however, say the way MSU officials dealt with their program in 2009 illustrates the university's larger administrative approach to dealing with controversy.

'We were thinking we had wasted $70,000 on nothing'

Students in MSU's nursing anesthesia program said the problems began in late 2008 and 2009, when the program was reeling from tremendous faculty turnover. The nursing anesthesia program ran into problems with the Council on Accreditation in 2009 and was put on probation over issues with governance and program evaluations.

The nurse anesthesia program regained full accreditation in 2010, but MSU shut down the program in October 2011 because of staffing concerns.

When MSU hired Ron Smith to head the nurse anesthesia program in 2009, a number of faculty members left MSU and students were told that, because of the lack of quality instruction before he took the helm, they would have to begin their program all over again, according to students.

"We were thinking we had wasted $70,000 on nothing," said one student, "and it just devolved from there."

At least one of the students decided to sue. According to court documents filed in Brewer's case, Smith heard about the potential lawsuits and made threatening comments, telling students he "wanted to kill all of them" and that "any student seeking legal advice would never graduate."

MSU denied the allegations against Smith, according to MSU's August 2011 response to Brewer's lawsuit.

The day after Smith's alleged comments to students in March 2009, Artis visited the nursing anesthesia class. According to students present in the meeting, Artis then passed out one student's email detailing complaints against Smith to the entire class.

"I get this nasty little email that was sent by one of you," Artis told the students in the recording. "I took pretty good offense to that email, pretty good offense."

She then asked any student in the classroom to raise their hands if they had felt intimidated by Smith's previous comments. Smith was in the classroom as Artis asked the question.

"Do you think it's appropriate to ask with Dr. Smith sitting in the room with us?" one student asked.

"Yeah, don't you think this is sort of a power play right there, trying to scare people?" asked another student.

"You've said clearly that you felt physically threatened, and my understanding is that you know that may be misconstrued," Artis replied to students. "You know, professionally I could have said 'Aww, Ron you know you maybe should have kept that to yourself' and you know, 'maybe that has no place in the classroom.' But the bottom line is [Smith] lives here, he works here. The faculty have demonstrated nothing more than that they are committed to ride this out and to see you through this program."

On March 23, 2009 -- one week after Artis spoke to students -- Smith was fired from MSU, according to court documents.

At least two students in the nursing anesthesia program filed lawsuits against MSU related to how Artis, Smith and other employees in the program handled the 2009 situation.

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


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