Polk fired as Mountain State University president
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."
As the Gazette has previously reported, Polk has also been a frequent flier on MSU's two private airplanes, jetting to an airport near his North Carolina home and visiting his hometown in Texas on the university's dime for at least the past five years.
Ice said Polk's use of the university's two private planes did not play a role in the decision to fire Polk, saying the board's "major concern was this accreditation." Still, he said the board of trustees was reviewing Polk's use of the university aircraft.
Polk has made more than 100 flights to and from the Statesville Regional Airport in North Carolina since 2007 -- an airport about 20 minutes away from Polk's $457,000 Mooresville, N.C., house, according to Federal Aviation Administration records.
Polk also owns another 12-acre piece of land in Mooresville, N.C., worth more than $101,000, according to housing records.
Polk has also used one of the university planes to make at least 18 flights to and from his hometown in Lufkin, Texas, where his mother still lives, according to flight records.
The flights to North Carolina have cost MSU at least $170,000 and the Texas flights have eaten up more than $62,000. All of MSU's flights are expensed to the university's operational budget, which is about $55 million this year.
MSU paid between $1 million and $1.5 million for the university's Cessna 500 jet and more than $200,000 for the single-engine Cirrus Design Corp SR22, said Polk.
In a previous interview with The Gazette, Polk denied taking hundreds of flights on the university jet, saying the FAA records were incorrect. He did say that all the flights are used for university business.
Last week, Beard said Polk may have been "mistaken" about the aircraft's intended use.
No public universities in West Virginia own private aircraft, said the Higher Education Policy Commission.
"We can hand Charles Polk congratulations for his growth and development of the school," said Ice. "I don't want to indicate that Charles Polk didn't have a tremendous influence on where the university is today."
Going forward, Ice said the Board of Trustees would select a search committee to launch a national search for a new university president.
While there is not yet a set timetable to find a new university president, Ice said he hoped his term as interim president would be "the shortest in history."
"We are very, very aware of the problems at the school," said Ice. "We've got a team in place to win. We are all committed to making MSU the very best."
Mikita Pradhan, a junior and former nursing student at MSU, said while she was relieved the Board of Trustees was committed to transforming the school, action should have been taken much sooner.
"[Polk's firing] will help students five to 10 years down the road, but it's too late for us," said Pradhan. She quit the nursing program last week amid fears that the state nursing board would withdraw the program's state accreditation. "It's too late for me." In her three years at MSU, Pradhan said her one interaction with Polk was receiving a mass email from him in November informing all students that MSU had failed to receive national nursing accreditation from the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education. "All I remember was that the end of the email said, 'Do not reply to this message.'"
Reach Amy Harris at email@example.com or 304-348-4814.