President Hopes Wheeling Jesuit University Will Find New Niche

Photo by Linda Comins From his office overlooking campus, Wheeling Jesuit University President Michael Mihalyo Jr. discusses challenges facing the embattled institution.

WHEELING — Wheeling Jesuit University President Michael Mihalyo Jr. hopes the scaled-back institution finds an academic niche and continues to be an economic driver in the community.

Since assuming the school’s presidency eight months ago, Mihalyo has confronted serious challenges. Faced with financial instability, the university has downsized its programs and eliminated many faculty positions in a bid to survive.

He is blunt about the decisions that have been made: “Our choice was to figure out a way to keep the doors open, or close.”

As part of the new plan, the university’s physical therapy program is moving back to the campus, he said. In recent years, the physical therapy department has been located in the Stone Center in downtown Wheeling.

The school’s board and the Maryland Province for the Society of Jesus also have said the university will end its Jesuit affiliation at the end of the current academic year.

Now, university leaders are focusing on financial challenges and compliance with requirements for accreditation, Mihalyo said.

“Although higher education has changed and matured, our institution has not. … It’s a different world. We’ve got a lot of challenges,” he said.

He wants the rebranded university “to be able to provide the best possible learning experience” for students and “to continue to be an economic driver.” Mihalyo hopes graduates “find meaningful work and be able to stay in the Ohio Valley.”

After the university’s board declared “a financial exigency” in March, it was determined that only 11 academic programs would be offered in the fall 2019 semester.

The remaining programs are:

∫ nursing

∫ respiratory therapy

∫ exercise science

∫ education

∫ business

∫ criminal justice

∫ psychology

∫ doctor of physical therapy

∫ master of business administration

∫ master of arts in education

∫ master of science in nursing

A number of variables were considered in deciding which programs to keep. Market demand and the region’s needs were among the considerations, he said.

“Hopefully, we will be able to provide quality future employees for the area,” he said.

In the near-term, one of the university’s goals is “to retain as many students as we can in the program mix that we have been able to keep,” the president said.

Mihalyo believes the new program mix will be attractive to students. He thinks an incoming class of 125 is realistic for the 2019-20 academic year.

Administrators are “working with faculty who will remain to strengthen the programs we will offer,” he said, citing a need for “a vigorous and relevant course of study.”

Remaining faculty will be responsible for developing general education expectations.

“We will form a general education department that will be named,” he said. “We really have to focus on learning outcomes.”

Within the general education, “written and oral communication will be part of it, as well as critical thinking,” he said, adding that an ethics and values component will permeate the curricula.

Citing three main tasks to be addressed, Mihalyo said, “First and foremost are the financial challenges that have existed here for a long time.”

In May 2017, the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston purchased Wheeling Jesuit in an attempt to secure the school’s future. Earlier that year, WJU’s trustees appealed to the diocese to take action to help lower its operating costs.

“Speaking for myself, the extreme generosity of the diocese is probably unparalleled for the amount of funds they’ve infused into this institution over the last several years. The institution has to find a way to sustain itself,” Mihalyo said.

The second challenge — compliance with accrediting agencies’ expectations —“is a work in progress right now,” he said. “There was a mandate from regional accreditations from 1989, mostly financial. There were other expectations that had not been addressed.”

He added, “The expectations for all institutions nationwide have been pretty clear for some time … The institution (WJU) has gone through a number of reviews over time … There were a fair number of mandates and requests for information that were somewhat unmistakable. I don’t believe the compliance component was a major focus.”

The current president thinks previous changes at the senior level of the school’s administration contributed to a lack of focus.

“It’s just a symptom of constantly changing leadership here, especially over the last 20 years,” he said.

To meet requirements for accreditation, the university must demonstrate “some clear and finite progress that is evidence-based,” he said.

Regarding the third challenge, he said, “Finally, change is difficult … This institution has not been able to make the appropriate changes to right itself.”

But, on a positive note, Mihalyo said the school intends “to correct those challenges we’ve identified head-on and to provide those services to our students to remain and become a stronger driver in Wheeling and the community of the Upper Ohio Valley.”

The school also will need to develop a new name moving forward after losing the Jesuit affiliation. That work currently is under way.

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