In the spring of 2017, Wheeling Jesuit University was deeply in debt and looking for ways to get out. Salvation came from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, which had originally gifted the land for the university campus in 1952.
In a massive deal whose terms weren’t publicly disclosed at the time, the diocese took control of Wheeling Jesuit's physical campus -- its 65 acres and buildings were valued at $47.1 million -- and agreed to lease it back to the university for just $2,418 per month, roughly the sum a group of recent college graduates might pay for a two-bedroom apartment in a big city.
In exchange, the diocese paid off the university’s bond debt, totaling about $32.4 million, according to financial filings.
At the time, Debra Townsley, Wheeling's interim president, called the arrangement “a substantial chunk of relief” for West Virginia’s only Catholic higher education institution and the nation's youngest Jesuit one. “It’s an exciting day. It’s not many schools that can have its debt eliminated.”
Now, less than two years later, the university is again in crisis. It declared "financial exigency" last month and says it will heavily cut back its undergraduate offerings in the fall -- one observer calls it a “major course correction.” Wheeling laid off 20 of its 52 full-time instructors March 28, trimmed its course catalog sharply and substantially lowered its forecast for this fall’s incoming class.
The university is poised to eliminate several majors, including theology, philosophy, history, engineering and literature. Instructors, several of whom spoke to Inside Higher Ed on condition of anonymity, said that if that's the case, the university has essentially given up its role as a liberal arts or traditional Jesuit institution.
Catholic higher education has a long tradition of founding colleges in the health professions, but Jesuit colleges and universities such as the College of the Holy Cross, Georgetown University and Gonzaga University are also known for rigorous liberal arts programs, with an emphasis on fields such as philosophy.
The layoffs will gut the teaching staff responsible for delivering Wheeling's core undergraduate curriculum, which had already been modified in 2017. In that change, the core curriculum shrank from more than 50 credit hours of instruction in philosophy, theology, literature, history, ethics and natural and social sciences to just 36. It was later supplemented with several short undergraduate seminars, but it has never regained its previous stature.
“Wheeling Jesuit University will exist in name only next year. The heart of the school, and its identity, have just been cut out. It’s been pretty heartbreaking.” -Jessica Wrobleski, theology professor
Daniel Weimer, a Jesuit-educated history professor and one of the 20 professors laid off, said the current core curriculum "looks very different, in my opinion," from that of other Jesuit institutions. He said that during an all-employee meeting following the layoffs, President Michael P. Mihalyo told faculty that the question of whether Wheeling would remain a Jesuit university would be part of a longer-term discussion.
Like most of those who lost their jobs last week, Weimer, who is in the middle of his 13th year there, had earned tenure. But the university’s declaration of financial exigency paved the way for his removal, as well as those of his colleagues. The classification is traditionally defined as indicating an “imminent financial crisis which threatens the survival of the institution as a whole” and is often used to terminate long-standing tenured faculty.
“Wheeling Jesuit University will exist in name only next year,” said Jessica Wrobleski, a tenured theology professor who was laid off. “The heart of the school, and its identity, have just been cut out. It’s been pretty heartbreaking.”
In all, the cuts amount to nearly 40 percent of the university’s full-time faculty and nearly all of its core undergraduate faculty. They were not offered buyouts or severance packages, as in past layoffs, faculty members said.
Nearly all of Wheeling’s traditional arts and sciences positions were eliminated, leaving the institution to focus on health care, business, exercise science and a handful of other majors.
“Basically all liberal arts faculty have been cut, with the exception of one person in English, one person in biology [and] one person in psychology,” said Wrobleski. “I can’t imagine that they’re intending on keeping anything like the core curriculum.”
The university didn’t make Mihalyo or other officials available for interviews.
In a statement, it said university officials and trustees "have engaged in hard but necessary conversations" about Wheeling's future, ultimately deciding to offer programs of study "that reflect the intersection of the faculty’s expertise, student and workforce demands, and financial sustainability."
Wheeling said it will offer seven undergraduate majors and four graduate majors this fall. In undergraduate studies, it will offer nursing, respiratory therapy, exercise science, education, business, criminal justice and psychology. It will offer a doctoral program in physical therapy and master's programs in business administration, education and nursing. As recently as this week, the university boasted 47 programs of study, including 18 undergraduate programs. Wheeling said it remains "fully committed to serve its students and provide them with the highest quality education that will prepare them for career and life." It said students will, if needed, be able to choose "a variety of online courses, hybrid courses, independent study options and internships," among others. Students in majors that aren’t offered in the fall will have ways to complete their degree, either at Wheeling or elsewhere. It plans to hold an "Institutional Major Fair" on April 11.
Faculty members said their understanding is that the university’s athletics programs, including its football team, will remain in place.
The Reverend Michael Sheeran, president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, said the changes represent a “major course correction that I think gives them a chance to survive and even thrive” in an area hard-hit by the recession. “Don’t count this one out,” he said of the university.
Despite faculty criticisms of the changes, Father Sheeran described Wheeling as able to remain “authentically Jesuit” without majors in a number of liberal arts fields, as long as it includes those fields in its core curriculum. He said the university is recommitting itself to fields like nursing out of a need to “be of much more service, and much more reliable service, to the people of West Virginia.” Nearby Wheeling Hospital, he said, needs “many more nurses” than local programs can provide. Sheeran called the changes “a very genuine effort to meet the needs of the diocese,” as well as to avoid going broke.
A few of the laid-off professors said a Jesuit institution like Wheeling can continue supplying nurses to a struggling region without abandoning the liberal arts.
For her part, Wrobleski -- who also serves as chair of Faculty Council this year -- wonders what objective criteria and data were used to make the programmatic decisions. She noted that the nursing program expects to graduate just four students this year. Four years ago, its entering class numbered 26. She said just seven nursing students graduated in 2018, a number on par with, or smaller than, many programs that the university eliminated. By contrast, West Virginia University last spring graduated 252 nursing students, both graduate and undergraduate. (A previous version of this article incorrectly included an additional 181 enrolled students who were not due to graduate in 2018.)
Father Sheeran said the U.S.’s 27 other Jesuit colleges are reaching out to both Wheeling students and faculty with opportunities.
Townsley, the former president who brokered the debt/land swap in 2017, this week said the university “has offered a great education over the years with great outcomes -- it certainly has helped the region.”
Now president of Laboure College in Milton, Mass., Townsley said that in both the Midwest and Northeast, “It’s a challenging time in higher education, as we all know.”
“It’s taken all the wind out of campus. You refer to ‘what happened last week’ and everyone there just stares.” -Darin McGinnis, professor of philosophy
Father Sheeran said the entire state is still, in a sense, recovering from the 2010 death of Senator Robert Byrd, who had served in the U.S. Senate since 1959, famously bringing millions of dollars in federal projects and funding home to West Virginia.
The watchdog site Open Secrets found that in just the last three years of his tenure, Byrd sponsored or co-sponsored 330 congressional earmarks, totaling more than $1 billion for West Virginia.
That included four earmarks specifically for Wheeling Jesuit University, totaling $11.7 million.
When Byrd died, Father Sheeran said, “The money stopped.”
By 2010, Father Sheeran said, West Virginia “was already on the downward trend, in terms of lack of money coming into the economy, in terms of coal and other industries.”
Since Byrd’s death, he said, “the schools in that state have all had to adjust to the lack of federal funding, compared to what they were used to. There’s been a struggle at Wheeling Jesuit, but at the other schools, too.”
But Darin McGinnis, a professor of philosophy, said the university could have handled the realignment better. For one thing, faculty were cut out of the process. They don’t know, for instance, which majors have historically attracted more students, a key indicator of whether they are worth keeping. “We don’t have access to any of the numbers to verify if that’s actually the case,” he said.
McGinnis and others said they also don't know of any sort of strategic plan upon which the layoffs were based. “If there is a plan, we have not been apprised of it,” he said. “Certainly to cut all of these programs now is to cut out the Jesuit portion of what’s offered,” he said.
He and others said they anticipate that the university will likely hire part-time adjunct or online instructors to fill holes in instruction.
“It’s taken all the wind out of campus,” he said. “You refer to ‘what happened last week’ and everyone there just stares.”
The university projects about 500 undergraduates and 275 graduate students this fall; last fall, it reported 764 undergraduates and 310 graduate students, as well as 77 in professional and certificate programs, for a total of 1,151 -- that's down about 29 percent from a high of 1,619 in 2013.
McGinnis said students are also scrambling to learn what will be taught-out, and how. “There’s still no plan and won’t be until June or July,” he said. “Staying to be taught-out would really be an article of faith, but for a few juniors, I don’t know what other choice they have.”
Father Sheeran said other Jesuit institutions, from Buffalo, N.Y., to Baltimore, Chicago, Cincinnati and even Omaha, Neb., are willing to consider enrolling Wheeling students. “Kids who really want that Jesuit tradition that they’ve really been immersed in will get that opportunity to go to other schools,” he said.
The association has also begun reaching out to faculty to help them find jobs at the other Jesuit institutions, he said. “You can’t guarantee that people will be hired,” Father Sheeran said, “but we’re committed to connecting them with colleagues from across our network who have expressed interest in helping them.”
For most, the layoffs came too late to find a teaching job for the fall, since other institutions typically hire in the fall for the following year. Wrobleski, who grew up in Morgantown, W.Va., said she plans to take a job as vice president for mission at a Catholic girls’ high school.
Weimer, the history professor, said he is not sure of his plans. “I think it’s pretty dour,” he said of the mood on campus. “I don’t think people were expecting such a large restructuring, if you want to put it that way.”
McGinnis, who has spent eight years at the university, noted that in that time he has worked for four presidents. “I’ve had at least that many deans -- I’ve had at least that many chairs of my department, too. It’s just been in constant flux.”