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Mountain State University sues over accreditation loss

By Kate White, Staff writer

Mountain State University officials on Tuesday sued the group that stripped the Beckley-based not-for-profit college of its accreditation, leading to its takeover by the University of Charleston.

A lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court asks the Higher Learning Commission to restore Mountain State University’s accreditation.

In the lawsuit, filed in federal court in Beckley, MSU claims the Higher Learning Commission stripped the school’s accreditation — its “lifeblood” — without following its policies, rules, and practices.

“Restoration of accreditation wouldn’t necessarily be a step toward reopening the school, but think of people in the future who are applying for grad school or jobs, I think it would be helpful for them to have accreditation restored,” said Bridgeport attorney Jack Merinar, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of three MSU board members: Elmer Coppoolse, Max Beard and Jerry Ice, the board’s chairman.

In July 2012, the Higher Learning Commission cited MSU’s years of failing to correct major problems in leadership, program evaluations and campus-wide governance when they revoked MSU’s accreditation. That came months after the MSU board fired longtime school president Charles Polk, whose salary — one of the highest in the country among college presidents toward the end of his tenure — and use of the school’s planes raised questions.

The lawsuit tells “a different side of the accreditation story, the side that’s been untold up until now,” Merinar told the Gazette on Tuesday.

The Higher Learning Commission serves as a regional monitoring agency. No one there would comment on the lawsuit, a commission spokesman said Tuesday.

When a university loses its accreditation, any subsequent degrees conferred by the university are effectively worthless. The University of Charleston took over MSU’s campuses in Beckley and Martinsburg.

Revoking MSU’s accreditation “was grossly negligent, was arbitrary and capricious, was not supported by substantial evidence, and was an abuse of discretion — all of which caused MSU to suffer catastrophic and irreparable harm,” the 28-page complaint filed in federal court in Beckley states.

The lawsuit asks for compensation, attorneys fees and punitive damages from the Higher Learning Commission.

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.

Hundreds of lawsuits have been filed over the loss of accreditation for the nursing program. They have been referred to the state’s mass litigation panel. Marinar also represents MSU in those cases.

In 2009, the commission advised MSU that after a comprehensive evaluation it would continue the school’s accreditation until 2018-19, when an evaluation was set to be conducted, according to the complaint. However, the lawsuit contends the commission withdrew accreditation three years later without a comprehensive evaluation.

It also stripped MSU of accreditation even after it provided a prompt response to concerns raised by the commission, the complaint states.

“Rather than the lesser steps of notice or probation, the HLC took the extraordinary step of withdrawing MSU’s accreditation. The HLC took this step despite MSU’s demonstrated progress and despite the HLC’s recognition that an insufficient amount of time had passed to determine the effectiveness of MSU’s changes,” the lawsuit states.

Mountain State officials had hoped that firing the school’s longtime president, Charles H. Polk, earlier in 2012 would have gained them some leniency, according to previous Gazette reports.

The lawsuit states that MSU believes the Higher Learning Commission “considered news articles, editorial opinions and unproven allegations in civil complaints in making its decision to withdraw MSU’s accreditation. Therefore, the HLC’s decision was not based on substantial evidence and did not conform to fundamental principles of fairness.”

Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.


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