BECKLEY, W.Va. -- Students and administrators at Mountain State University said Tuesday they were stunned after the Beckley-based school learned it was the first college in West Virginia history to have its primary accreditation revoked.
"We were very surprised by this action and disappointed by this action," said Richard Sours, interim president of Mountain State. "I had remained optimistic that we were satisfying the requirements of the Higher Learning Commission. They didn't think so."
On Tuesday, the Higher Learning Commission posted a letter on its website that said MSU had lost its primary accreditation with the regional monitoring agency after years of failing to correct major problems in leadership, program evaluations, and campus-wide governance.
The HLC's decision will take effect Aug. 27, but the full ramifications of that decision on students, the institution and the region remain unclear. MSU officials said they would appeal the decision.
Accreditation is a kind of third-party stamp of approval that ensures universities or programs are meeting a set of national standards. If a university loses its primary accreditation, any subsequent degrees conferred by the university are effectively worthless.
"The University has not conducted itself with the integrity expected of an accredited institution with regard to ensuring that its students have accurate and timely information about the status of their academic programs and consistent quality across all academic programs," said the HLC's letter.
"[The school] does not have the human and financial resources expected of an accredited institution and has not demonstrated that it can plan realistically for the future to anticipate and overcome institutional challenges."
The HLC letter went on to say that Mountain State "lacks effective governance and administration to provide appropriate oversight over all levels of the institution" and lacked the support and staff to create "an effective teaching and learning environment."
Jerry Ice, chairman of MSU's board of trustees, disputed the findings on Tuesday, saying MSU had made significant changes in recent months that had transformed the university.
"It is the board's intention to promptly appeal the decision," Ice said at a news conference at the school. "We expect to fight this decision and win."
Mountain State officials had hoped that firing the school's longtime president, Charles H. Polk, earlier this year would have gained them some leniency.
This week's decision means undergraduate and graduate students currently enrolled at MSU must finish out their classes through a university-devised teach-out plan, which MSU must submit by July 23. The specifics of that teach-out plan are still pending.
As of April, more than 3,000 students were enrolled at Mountain State.
Students scheduled to graduate before the Aug. 27 deadline will still graduate with diplomas from a technically accredited university, said John Hausman, spokesman for the Higher Learning Commission.
After that date, any classes or degrees will not be officially recognized as legitimate. School officials were scrambling Tuesday to understand exactly what the HLC's decision means - partly because losing accreditation is such a rare event.
MSU is the first higher education institution in West Virginia history to have its school-wide accreditation revoked, according to the state Higher Education Policy Commission.
And even across the United States, universities almost never have problems serious enough to trigger school-wide accreditation failure.
Losing accreditation "is a very rare circumstance," said Hausman.
The Higher Learning Commission first placed MSU on "show cause" status in June 2011, citing the school for its top-down leadership, lack of long-term planning, failure to collaborate with faculty, failure to give information to students, and the loss of specialized accreditation for the nursing program.
The commission gave Mountain State one year to make big fixes at the school or risk losing its accreditation altogether. The HLC board met in Chicago last month to decide the school's fate.
MSU officials can appeal the commission's decision if they think it was "arbitrary, capricious, or not supported by substantial evidence." They have two weeks to file an appeal.
"Our appeal will be on what the university is today, not what the university was a year or more ago," said Ice. "In some cases, putting in something takes time to see results. [The HLC] is not giving the university enough time."
Hausman, of the HLC, said he doesn't know how many universities appeal after having their accreditation revoked or what the chances are of success.