BECKLEY, W.Va. -- Charles H. Polk, the longtime president of beleaguered Mountain State University, was fired Wednesday night by MSU's board of trustees, university officials said Thursday.
Jerry Ice, chairman of MSU's board of trustees and president and CEO of private nonprofit university Graduate School USA, has stepped in as interim president until the board finds a permanent replacement for Polk.
"[Polk] respected the recommendation and action of the board and we are going to work closely with the president as he leaves the institution," Ice said during a packed press conference at MSU's Beckley campus on Thursday.
Ice said Polk's firing came at a "critical time" for the university, as Mountain State battles to maintain its provisional accreditation with the state nursing board and risks losing its general university accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission.
"We looked at what has been repeated by the Higher Learning Commission and state nursing board and decided it was now time for the board to get involved," said Ice. "While we felt that this is not the best time, we felt as a board that we had to change leadership. We have come to a conclusion that we cannot wait any longer."
Last week, at a meeting of the West Virginia nursing board to determine whether the struggling program would maintain its provisional accreditation status, Max Beard, vice chairman of MSU's trustees, said school officials would do "whatever it takes" to fix the university.
Beard said MSU's trustees had been in the dark about the gravity of the nursing program's woes, which have escalated since 2010. The state nursing board first addressed concerns with the program in 2004.
"There was a breakdown somewhere that's going to be remedied," said Beard. "We never realized the depth or the severity of this. We knew there was a problem and we assumed it was being taken care of. We can no longer assume that."
The state nursing board voted to extend MSU's provisional accreditation status, but called MSU leaders' conduct "inexcusable and defenseless."
Charles Polk came to MSU in 1990, after he resigned as president of Daytona Beach Community College in Florida amid an investigation by the Florida Ethics Commission that he had violated Florida law for having a contractual relationship with a real estate developer who was doing business with the college.
In 1991, the Ethics Commission found that Polk did violate Florida law and said he should be publicly censured, according to the Ethics Commission case report.
During his tenure at MSU, Polk was responsible for expanding MSU's reach from its main campus in Beckley, opening up campuses in Martinsburg, Center Township, Pa., Mooresville, N.C., and Orlando, Fla., according to MSU's website. Programs are also offered at sites throughout West Virginia, in Hickory, N.C., and online.
As the Gazette has previously reported, Polk was one of the most highly compensated university presidents in the country in 2009, according to Mountain State University's Form 990 filed with the Internal Revenue Service. Polk's base salary for 2009 was $371,269.
He received more than $1.4 million in other pay and more than $4,000 in nontaxable benefits, according to the tax forms.
Polk's compensation eats up a sizable portion of MSU's overall budget -- about 3.5 percent, according a report by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Most colleges only spent about 0.4 percent of their budgets on their presidents.
Ice said the board would honor Polk's current contract, but said he would not receive any severance or retirement pay.
Accrediting agencies have previously cited a lack of strong leadership and governance as major problems at the university.
Almost three years before Mountain State University was told it was in jeopardy of losing its general accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission if it didn't make big fixes at the school, the HLC told MSU leaders it was concerned with deficiencies in the university's governance, long-term planning, communication with faculty, and program evaluations, according to a 2008 evaluation.
Despite having three years to make improvements, the Higher Learning Commission placed MSU on "show cause" accreditation status in June 2011 and Polk called the HLC's move "certainly not expected" during an interview with the Gazette in early January.
"I didn't think that the institution deserved to be where it was in the first place," said Polk.
A five-member team of the Higher Learning Commission will visit the Beckley campus in mid-February to see whether MSU has made sufficient improvements to areas identified by the HLC in its show-cause order.
The HLC will make its final decision about whether to yank Mountain State's primary accreditation in June 2012.
Stephanie Rinehart, a senior traditional nursing student at the Beckley campus, has had a front-row seat to MSU's rollercoaster accreditation problems. She said Polk's firing was a long time coming.
"I think this is a positive move. I just wish it could have come sooner," said Rinehart. "We might not have had these issues in the first place."