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UC taking over Mountain State campuses in Beckley, Martinsburg

Chip Ellis
The University of Charleston will take over Mountain State's Beckley and Martinsburg campuses in January.
Chip Ellis The University of Charleston is "committed to filling the void that will be left and to maintaining a private higher education presence in Southern West Virginia and in the Eastern Panhandle," said UC President Ed Welch.

To see a video of Wednesday's news conference, go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FkqVS7fkDm0&;

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The University of Charleston is taking over Mountain State University's campuses in Beckley and Martinsburg at the end of the year, when the beleaguered private college will shut down.

"The closing of Mountain State University is sad and tragic for students, for faculty and staff, and for the Beckley and Martinsburg communities," UC President Ed Welch said in a news conference at MSU's Beckley campus on Wednesday morning. "UC is committed to filling the void that will be left and to maintaining a private higher education presence in Southern West Virginia and in the Eastern Panhandle."

Wednesday's announcement provides some clarity for the hundreds of students, community members and faculty around the state reeling after MSU became the first institution in West Virginia history to have its accreditation revoked a few weeks ago.

"This is the best news I've heard out of MSU in a long time," said Ryan Ratcliff, a Mountain State sophomore and president of the Student Government Association. "I get to continue my education in my hometown. Everything has been a roller coaster and now I've got a better idea of what's going on. It's awesome."

The Higher Learning Commission withdrew MSU's general accreditation in early July for years of breakdowns in leadership, program oversight, integrity issues and failing to properly communicate with students.

MSU officials worked out a deal with the HLC to extend the school's accreditation through Dec. 31 to allow MSU to implement a teach-out program for students who are eligible to graduate by the end of 2012.

After that December date, "the university will cease to operate," said Richard Sours, interim president of MSU.

MSU trustees initially said they planned to "fight the HLC's decision and win," but Sours now admits there is scant chance of success and doesn't know whether MSU will even appeal the decision.

For now, MSU is trying to cut its losses and, as Beckley Mayor Emmett Pugh put it at Wednesday's news conference, "make lemonade out of lemons."

Under the arrangement, UC faculty will officially set up shop and begin teaching classes at MSU's West Virginia campuses during this fall's semester.

"Current MSU students are encouraged to transfer to the University of Charleston and continue their studies in Beckley," said Welch.

A more formal arrangement, in which UC will buy Mountain State's Beckley and Martinsburg property, will take place at the end of December.

"Once MSU goes out of business on Dec. 31, there will be a transfer of assets for UC to acquire MSU's property," said Welch. "We're still working out the details."

MSU bought the 79-acre Martinsburg Mall property, located at 800 Foxcroft Ave. in Martinsburg, in 2010 for about $11 million. MSU also has a Martinsburg campus located about a mile away from the Martinsburg Mall off Viking Way, where UC will set up.

For now, MSU and UC have drafted a "memorandum of understanding" in which UC has agreed to continue offering undergraduate and graduate programs on the Beckley campus and eventually appoint board members from the Beckley community to the UC board.

It was unclear Wednesday what will happen to MSU's out-of-state branch campuses in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Florida.

"This is an absolute win for the city of Beckley and Raleigh County," said Sours. "We are thrilled."

So is the University of Charleston.

In recent months, UC has launched a series of aggressive bids to expand its reach, and the Beckley school's collapse dovetails with UC's growth aspirations.

Even as UC was in discussions about abandoning its pharmacy school plans in Kentucky, Welch said the idea of opening up a campus at MSU's Beckley site was "a possibility." Welch and Sours began discussing UC acquiring MSU as early as April. 

In April, UC announced it was scuttling plans to build a branch campus of its pharmacy school at Midway College in Paintsville, Ky. UC had begun discussing the possibility of opening a branch campus in January and would have established a four-year pharmacy program in Paintsville beginning in January 2013. 

In November, UC grabbed national headlines when it announced it was one of the first higher education institutions in the country to slash its tuition. But the size of its tuition reduction -- 22 percent next year -- particularly drew attention.

Beginning in the fall 2012 semester, no undergraduate student at the University of Charleston will pay more than $19,500 in annual tuition and fees. That's a 22 percent drop -- or decrease of $5,500 -- from this year's cost of $25,000.

UC's tuition cut came as the private, nonprofit school was reeling from an unprecedented drop in student enrollment in 2011. Seventy-five fewer students than expected began classes in the fall 2011 semester, which cost UC about 3 percent of its revenue.

Undergraduate students at MSU taking two semesters of 12 credit hours (a full load) paid more than $9,500 in tuition and fees for the 2011-2012 school year.

UC currently enrolls about 1,400 students.

Now, UC will attempt to grow its presence in Beckley and Martinsburg. Welch admits that the first year in Beckley will be difficult because MSU's enrollment is way down, but he said UC is up to the challenge.

As UC figures out its student enrollment at the Beckley and Martinsburg campuses in the fall, the school will also evaluate how many new faculty members they must hire. Welch said priority for staff and faculty hiring would be given to existing MSU faculty.

Last week, Mountain State laid off half its workforce -- a total of 146 people. All but 14 of those jobs came from the Beckley area.

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


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