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Top 10 of 2019: Wheeling Jesuit Succumbs To Financial Issues

Re-organized as Wheeling University

Former WU Trustee Board Chair Ginny Favede was named president of the university in October.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Intelligencer presents a look back at the past year with the top 10 stories of 2019, as voted on by the newspaper’s editorial staff. The top stories will run through Tuesday.

By HEATHER ZIEGLER

Life Editor

WHEELING — After hints of financial trouble at Wheeling Jesuit University surfaced two years ago, 2019 proved to be a major turning point for the only Catholic institution of higher learning in the state of West Virginia.

In March, the WJU Board of Trustees declared “a financial exigency” at the institution’s sprawling Washington Avenue campus. This came as then-WJU president Michael Mihalyo was completing his seventh month at the helm.

In a letter to students, alumni and friends of the university Mihalyo wrote, “Continued financial challenges have put our university in a position where we do not have the resources to bridge the gap between highly discounted enrollment, associated academic and athletic programming costs, and the revenue needed to support the institution’s operational expenses.”

The money woes became evident in 2017 when in stepped the Roman Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston under the direction of now-disgraced former bishop Michael Bransfield. The diocese purchased the school’s long-term debt in exchange for the campus property. The diocese leases it back to the university for $1 per year.

In May, the writing on the wall proved dire. Wheeling Jesuit would see 20 faculty members lose their jobs at the close of the school year, and academic programs would be scaled back from 30 to 11. All philosophy and theology programs as well as liberal arts programs would be eliminated.

On May 4, the university graduated its final class under the name Wheeling Jesuit University.

In July, the school’s board of trustees announced the school would be renamed Wheeling University. Since its founding in 1954, the school was titled Wheeling College, then updated to Wheeling Jesuit University. The name change marked the end of the university’s affiliation with the Jesuit community of priests that served the school and faith community there.

“Despite the absence of an official Jesuit affiliation in our title, Wheeling University remains the only Catholic university in West Virginia,” Trustee Chair Ginny Favede wrote. “This designation is both a great honor and an important responsibility that we proudly continue. Our name may have changed, but our longstanding values of faith, service, and kindness, as well as our commitment to providing a robust education founded in the liberal arts for students of all creeds, have not.”

On Aug. 2, Mihalyo and Senior Vice President Joseph Petrella were placed on administrative leave, not to return.

On Aug. 3, the diocese gave the school $2 million in an effort to shore up its finances until additional funding sources could be identified.

Gov. Jim Justice entered the conversation, directing his staff to work with Favede, who at the time was university board chair, and its management team to evaluate the university’s future and ensure that students can finish their degrees.

On Aug. 17, the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission approved the annual reauthorization of Wheeling University after a two-week postponement, but the school will have a number a conditions and deadlines to meet if it hopes to stay authorized over the next 10 months.

On Oct. 7, the university’s Board of Trustees named Favede as the 13th president of the school. Days earlier, former university president Mihalyo filed a civil lawsuit against the university, claiming that he was suspended after submitting to trustees budget outlooks that projected the school could run out of money by December. The suit also alleges that widespread fraud and cover-up attempts among school officials regarding financial matters. The suit is pending.

Earlier this month,Wheeling University, West Liberty University and Bethany College entered into a formal consortium agreement which offers students from each school the opportunity to complete courses that will be accepted at their home institution through the Cross-Registration Collaboration.

Billed as the first of its kind in West Virginia, the agreement grants any fulltime, undergraduate student the ability to take one course per semester at a Partner School, either at Wheeling University, West Liberty University or Bethany College. Students will now have the opportunity to take any undergraduate course including online classes, and the home school will accept the credits from the students host school toward their degree.

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