Sunday Sit-Down: The Rev. James Fleming

– You’re coming up on your one-year anniversary at Wheeling Jesuit. How would you characterize the state of the university at this time?

Fleming: The academic programs are as strong as they’ve always been. The physical therapy program downtown is growing, that’s an important item for us, to be a university that integrates into the community. The question I keep asking folks around here is what does a university uniquely bring to a community. … Part of it will be the free clinic that will be part of the physical therapy program downtown. We’re on the upswing with students, in the last three years we’ve gone from 1,300 to 1,800 students. The undergraduate program is growing slowly, but undergraduate programs do grow slowly … because you have one time a year to grow that class. This year we’re on target to hit last year’s numbers, which is exactly what we wanted to do.

… I think where we are right now … you would have to understand where universities, particularly small, private universities, are in the country right now. They’re in a pretty tough spot. We would be similar to them, I just think that our smallness, and our nimbleness allows us to deal with the crises maybe more quickly … and more accurately in the sense that there isn’t a huge institution to review, it’s a smaller institution to look at. I’d say we’re growing in our ability to do community-based research, and we’re right-sizing given the needs that we have for education right now. We’ve been through a period with a number of presidents, so to have an administration and a president signed on for five years, with an option for five more, gives people the idea … it’s interesting, of all the presidents of the university, I’m the only one who was actually here before I was president. I was here for three years, the rest came in and had to learn the place. … Also, in the last four presidents, I’m the only one with an earned Ph.D., and that’s different when talking with faculty.

– As a follow-up, you are the fifth president of the university since 2000. With the changes at the top, has the university suffered a lack of continuity in leadership, in your opinion? What’s your plan to establish a solid foundation upon which the university can grow?

Fleming: Yes, because leadership comes from the top. I think the institution, the organization, the folks that are here that make up Wheeling Jesuit, it’s a very resilient group of people, and they’ve gone through a lot, they’ve experienced a lot together, and they really do love the place. … So it’s easier, in some ways, to deal with people who want to be here and have been the consistent factor about this place. … When I first came here four years ago, when I was executive vice president, I did spend a lot of time listening to people – I guess what I would say, is given my role as a priest, I would say I spent a lot of pastoral time listening to people talk about what they had gone through, what they had experienced. Not that it was directed at any one person, just that the change was uncomfortable. But the fact the university was able to sustain itself and actually grow in the past couple of years means that resilience was there and we just needed to polish it off, and clarify for people what their roles were.

– Back in April, you said that Wheeling Jesuit, as a small university, fits the description of small schools that have recently closed because of lack of funding and support. How are the university’s finances today, and how do you go about growing revenues in the future?

Fleming: I think when I was talking to the Moundsville Rotary, I was telling them about some research that had been done by one of the presidents of a Jesuit university in Spokane, Wash.

One of the things he found out, which led me to look at the research, is that the 100 or so schools that had closed in the last three years, what they had in common, is that they were rural, small endowment, and had a decrease in students. Although that’s true, I don’t know that being rural, or having a small endowment, caused their closing.

When I looked at the research myself, what I found is that what seemed to me to cause their closing is they were religiously-affiliated schools where the organization pulled out. There were fewer students and there was less money being given by the alums and the benefactors.

If you think about those three directions, we’ve gone in the last three years from four full-time Jesuits to nine full-time Jesuits working here; the average age of Jesuits in the country is 71 – we’re a relatively old crowd – the average age of the Jesuits here next year is 57, so we’re a relatively young crowd; of the nine who work here, seven have earned Ph.Ds. So we’ve got a young, vibrant group of Jesuit priests, sent here by their provincials to work here, because of the universities available – Loyola, Md., Boston College, Fordham, Marquette – these Jesuits decided to come here because they know they can make a difference.

So when it comes to religious orders backing out of smaller universities, we’ve actually sent young, accomplished Jesuits here. …

Second, the enrollment numbers are going up. And thirdly, the gifts from our benefactors have more than doubled over the past three years. Those are all the signs of what I thought were the health of the institution.

Where do we see it going, or how do we deal with it? Every organization changes over time, and we need to change, as well. And the changes we need to make will mean that some programs continue and some programs are discontinued or shrunk. We also need to look at what students need, and what the world needs. And when we look at those two things the existing programs may not be the ones.

As for growth, we have over 200 online master of science in nursing students. We would like to start a doctoral online program for nursing, it would be a doctorate in nursing practice. We have the physical therapy program downtown, and we purposely left it large enough to consider a PA program or occupational therapy. So we have room to grow downtown. On campus, part of the growth has been in the last four years, we have started three new sports – women’s lacrosse, men’s rugby and men’s wrestling. That has brought in 75 new students a year – over the course of four years, that’s 300 additional students. We have an MBA program that I think might be helpful to put online, and we also need to partner with some businesses – we’ve had a couple of local businesses and national corporations come and ask us if they could work with us in the undergraduate business programs. …

The project on Washington Avenue is moving along faster than we thought. Those 36 apartments will be filled come August. From there, I suppose the next move – we’re kind of limited with 60 acres here – I would love Wheeling to become more of a vibrant college town, because it can be. Most of the research refers to it as the “eds and meds” so that what saves old downtowns are educational facilities and medical facilities. When you think about Wheeling Hospital, OVMC, West Virginia Northern, Wheeling Jesuit, West Liberty, think of all the colleges and institutions in the area, the eds and meds. If there were an opportunity for us to work together downtown, one thing we would all need is good housing. The housing stock, especially apartments in the area, isn’t so strong. That could make for a vibrant downtown. When I first started talking to city officials and the Regional Economic Development Partnership and the chamber of commerce, they were talking about moving retail downtown. One of the things is that we started talking about what a university could bring – a university brings young, active adults who are here for a period of time, two or four years, so what we’re offering is the ability to bring people downtown, and retail follows. (The businesses around the Stone Center) love us, because there are 124 faculty and students who show up downtown every day now, and they’ve got to go somewhere for lunch, and they can’t go to the same place all the time. Then on Saturdays, when they have conferences, those people have to park, so the city makes parking money; they have to eat lunch, they have to get gas. … That’s one of the things that a university can do, it can provide opportunities for people who otherwise wouldn’t come to the city to pull into a city.

– You mentioned earlier about programs at Wheeling Jesuit, what works and what does not. We’ve been hearing about the foreign languages program here, that big changes are taking place and adjuncts have possibly been let go. What’s happening there, and why?

Fleming: We were never thinking about eliminating foreign language, what we were interested in was trying to figure out how we could maintain foreign languages and do it in a way that was cost effective. We’ve got a single French professor who for the last three years has been teaching about 32 students a semester, while the rest of the university faculty are teaching three times that. That doesn’t make sense to us, so we had to try to figure out what to do. But thinking about the French question really misses the point of what we’re trying to do. What we are doing is looking at the outcomes of our students. If you think about the Class of 2012, we looked at them a year later and we found out that 93 percent of them were in jobs for which they needed a diploma. That’s a pretty good passage rate. Seventy-six percent were in full-time jobs, and others were in graduate school or in a combination of the two. That’s a measurable outcome. What else is a measurable outcome. Our students leave college with what is the national average in student loan debt, about $30,000. The next question is do they pay it back or do they default on their loans? We have an amazingly low default rate. The average default rate nationally is 24 percent. … With the Class of 2012, and we’ll do the same with the Class of 2013, what we can say is that our strongest evidence is that our students graduate on time, they get jobs, they do leave with the average debt, but they pay their debt off without defaulting.

The other questions about outcomes is an academic question, and that’s where this question of foreign languages comes in. If we think about what do we want, what academic skills do we want our students to have when they graduate – I’d like to say it a little more broadly, what kind of person do we want graduates to be – we want them to be competent, conscientious, and we want them to be compassionate. … Once we figure out … those outcomes we want, the kind of person we want, the kind of intellectual skills we want them to have, then you can back into a curriculum or, I would say, an academic experience, and I would even step outside of the classroom and say an intellectual experience, what is the kind of intellectual experience do we want students to have here so that they will, in the end, fit our profile (of a graduate). When you back that down, and you think of all that goes into that, you realize that a French class … the question isn’t do we need French, the question is what do they need to reach the goals.

– The relationship between Wheeling Jesuit and the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston appears to be much stronger now than it was in the past. How beneficial is the relationship between the university, which is outside of the diocese, and the Diocese in working for the betterment of the community?

Fleming: Unlike some other Jesuit universities in the country, Wheeling Jesuit University – our founder was Bishop (John Joseph) Swint, we weren’t founded by the Jesuits, we were founded by the bishop – he said I’ve got 60 acres, I’ll build the first three or four buildings, you send us Jesuits from Georgetown. So the Jesuits got on National Road, they came out here in 1955 and they started teaching. … This institution is part of the Catholic Church in West Virginia. Bishop Bransfield has made education a priority, as did Bishop Swint, as did some of his predecessors. When I first came here, we sat down and spoke, and what we both agreed on is that we want to provide a Catholic education, from cradle to the grave – from early preschool right through elementary school, high school, college and graduate school. One of the programs we’ve been thinking about reactivating is a Master’s of Theology. Our responsibility to be again, not just a university in a community, but a Catholic university in a diocese means we have something different to give the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston than any other institution does. We’re the only institution qualified to offer degrees in higher education in areas that could help the diocese. … We have to step up to the plate and do that. Whether that means we have to train students to work in hospitals, whether we deal with questions of child poverty in the state. … The history (between Wheeling Jesuit and the diocese) has been tight, my relationship with the bishop has been a strong one, and I think that he and I both agree on the unique role that a Catholic university has within a diocese.

– Wheeling Jesuit is entering its third year of a five-year strategic plan, which focuses on four pillars for the university’s success: a vibrant student experience, operating four successful colleges, having a global campus and expanding global awareness for Wheeling Jesuit and operational excellence. Where does the university stand today in successfully implementing the plan?

Fleming: The plan was a five-year plan, we’ve actually begun planning our 10-year strategic plan because this is over at the end of academic year 2016, and we will need to spend 2015-16 with a broader group of people putting together our plan for 10 years. We have gone from 1,300 to 1,800 students …

– Your goal was 2,600 students, correct?

Fleming: That was the goal that was written. That goal was backed into in the sense that if you took 2,600 full-paying students, that’s what you would need to balance the budget. What we’ve decided is that we’re not going to get there quickly so it’s easier to make some changes in the budget because we can’t have an organization to support 2,600 students when we’re supporting 1,800. We needed to right-size some of the institution, that would be the question about OK, do we right-size just based on arbitrary cuts or do we say what do we want to be, and back into the size we need to be.

The physical therapy program’s downtown, the field is done and the track is going to be done this summer, the Washington Avenue property will be ready to be moved into, and the recital hall downstairs is complete. We’ve added a recital hall with an opportunity for people to get back in touch with the legacy of the Sisters (of Visitation from Mount de Chantal) here. … The Sisters gave us about an eighth of the total gift, and the rest was raised from alumni of (Mount de Chantal). … That was good for us because those were sources of funding we weren’t already using. We don’t want to start butchering your standard set of donors for another project, you really want to expand.

The same goes with the field. Part of this relationship with the Wheeling diocese is that we see our role as working with the local parochial schools. One of the ways it shows itself is that if you go over to the field today, the Central Catholic football team is having their summer, two week afternoon sessions there.

When the field is finished and the new stands are up, they will be playing their home football games there on Friday night. … We plan to dedicate (the field) this fall with one game, the reason we wouldn’t start the games here for the high school … we really need about 3,000 seats there. My point is many of the folks who have given us money to make the field, the stands, even the scoreboard a reality, those are donors to the high school and to the diocese that in the past have not had a good reason to provide money to the university. So besides the money we’re raising, there’s about another $15 million in fundraising going on that really isn’t the university’s fundraising as we know it, it’s particular projects being built. It’s the housing, downtown, recital hall, the field, all together it’s about $15 million in extra funding that’s going on.

– There’s been a lot of talk about Wheeling Jesuit starting a possibly Division II football program – hence the new athletic field. Is that true, and if so, why is it important, with the other challenges the university faces, to start a football program at this time?

Fleming: In the near future there’s no plan to begin football, but we do have to consider all the possibilities. We have to consider what we do to the academic programs, what we do to life on campus, what we do to facilities.

When we do decide, there would probably be a two-year lead-up.

– There was much opposition from your neighbors over the Washington Avenue housing plan. Have you been able to mend fences with the community?

Fleming: Yes. The other thing is all those folks come onto campus, so when I walk back to the Jesuit community, particularly on evenings or weekends when most employees are gone, those neighbors are walking their dogs, walking through the university, and I stop and talk. … Those folks that live right near to us, they’re very happy that we took down one of the old houses. Once we got folks here working on the large project they sent their men over … and took it down. Now, kids are playing there. In a sense, a lot of the questions they have are questions I wouldn’t have known because I had just come on the scene with that responsibility. Also, we weren’t spending a lot of time talking about that because we were dealing with the stability and regularization of the leadership of the university.

Some of the neighbors – one of their concerns, I think, was that they rented out apartments also. They were concerned about students wanting apartments that had bathrooms that were built after 1960, and kitchens that were built after 1950. When you look at these brand-new apartments, the rental fees we’re charging are comparable with rental fees in the area. I don’t think there’s going to be a problem for us to fill those with our students … and maybe some employees.

– Part of Wheeling Jesuit’s mission statement reads: “By integrating learning, research, and economic development with classical knowledge and Christian revelation, the University seeks to foster competence, creativity and innovation throughout and beyond the campus community. Graduates of the University enter the world of work with socially responsible goals, a lifelong appetite for learning and the desire to make our universe a better place. … Wheeling Jesuit University firmly believes its graduates will enter the professional world prepared to use their God-given talents not solely for personal fulfillment but as men and women in service to others.” Given all that’s going on in today’s world, how important is it to train young people to not only be competent in their field, but to be compassionate in life?

Fleming: That’s what we can do more than other places. … The freedom of being a private, religiously-affiliated institution is we can have an opinion about the way we want our students to be when they graduate. Large universities … there are educational philosophers who say the college experience cannot influence the moral development of students, so they shouldn’t even try. And I think that’s ridiculous, because any environment influences the way people grow, change. And if you don’t understand that or don’t agree to that, then you’re letting an existing environment do the influencing without having an opinion about what kind of influence you want to have. We take it very seriously.

One of the things that I often say is that the experience here is always aimed at … an intellectually informed set of serious conversations about important topics in a moral context. That’s the difference. … We want to educate students who will be lawyers and judges and business people and nurses and administrators and teachers and religious leader, and we expect them to live up to the standards. I know that we always don’t, no question about it. I’m not holding myself out, as I have more flaws than most. As our Pope recently said when someone asked him to describe himself, he said, “I am a sinner.” He takes that from a Jesuit document … that starts out with “We are sinners, loved by God.” That’s who we are. That’s who he says he is, that’s who I say I am. Our students need to know that, because they need to understand that we’re not holding ourselves up as perfect, but we do know the tensions. … Because for the last 50 years many of the institutions in America that we held up as ways that we were going to understand what was right and wrong have fallen, individuals have to do it more than they used to. I do think that’s an enormous part of our job – in fact, I would say that’s the biggest part of our job, because the other stuff they can get somewhere else.

– It’s been about three years since the federal government undertook an investigation into the sponsored programs here at Wheeling Jesuit – an investigation that remains active. Can you provide any update?

Fleming: I would say that there’s not much I can say. I can say I do believe there will be a settlement that will be acceptable to all parties.

– This month, the trial ended in the death of student Kevin Figaniak. How has the university community responded to that tragedy?

Fleming: On the afternoon of that decision, Valerie Figaniak, Kevin’s mother, said to me that Kevin was a “very forgiving person. Now I need to be like that.” There was an amazing willingness for her to accept that the justice system in the United States had done its best job with what it was assigned to do. I don’t know whether she wanted revenge – I think that any mother losing a child doesn’t really know what, because nothing will ever take his place. What I would say would be that it seems to have moved both his friends and his family to another place in the grieving process. I think (Elisabeth) Kubler-Ross says the last stage is acceptance. I don’t know that they’re all there yet, but I know they’re all moving in that direction. The language I hear them using is that now I have to try to accept the reality as it stands. Doesn’t mean they like it, doesn’t mean it satisfies their loss, but they can’t let the anger and resentment of the experience travel with them for the rest of their lives.

– Has the university used this tragedy as an opportunity to educate students about their behavior while at Wheeling Jesuit?

Fleming: What it points out is that the same confusion and problem that every university deals with on Friday, Saturday nights, sometimes Thursday night, is the use and abuse of alcohol and drugs on campus. We’ve doubled our efforts, first with the athletes because they’re a tight-knit group that we can get to relatively quickly, and then with the rest of the students. There’s no way we want this to happen ever again, and there’s no way of completely avoiding it, but there are some choices that students can make that are better than others, and we’d like to help them make some of those choices.