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Nearly two weeks after West Virginia’s Wheeling Jesuit University laid off most of its core liberal arts faculty and said it planned to focus on health care, business, exercise science and a handful of other majors this fall, the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus said it will strip the university of its Jesuit affiliation.

In a statement issued Wednesday, the society said that with “nearly all Jesuit positions eliminated” and without sufficient lay leadership and programming to support its Jesuit identity, “the Jesuit affiliation of the university will not be able to continue.” It said Jesuit members of Wheeling's Board of Trustees will step down.

The university's president, Michael P. Mihalyo, told campus personnel that the university would retain its Roman Catholic identity. In a statement, he said the “rebranded” university hasn't been named yet.

Mihalyo said Wheeling will continue to offer Catholic Mass and campus ministry, “while the Ignatian ideals of service and Catholic teachings on social justice will also continue” at the Appalachian Institute, which honors Clifford M. Lewis, the first Jesuit to reside in Wheeling in 1954.

“While an end to Jesuit sponsorship is difficult for all, refocusing our academic program on those areas that reflect the intersection of the faculty’s expertise, student and work-force demands, and financial sustainability is the best path forward for the university and our students,” Mihalyo said.

The move to withdraw affiliation is apparently unprecedented in the history of U.S. Jesuit higher education.

Wheeling, the youngest of the country’s 28 Jesuit colleges, was founded in 1954 on land gifted from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston. The diocese in 2017 bailed out the university in a land deal, taking physical control of its 65 acres and buildings, valued at $47.1 million. In exchange, the diocese paid off the university’s bond debt, totaling about $32.4 million, according to financial filings.

Wheeling declared financial exigency in mid-March. Late last month, it laid off about 40 percent of its full-time faculty and said it will eliminate several majors -- including theology, philosophy, history and literature -- this fall. The university will offer just seven undergraduate majors and four graduate majors, down from 47 this spring. 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.

Nearly all of Wheeling’s traditional arts and sciences positions were eliminated.

The curriculum changes have led several faculty to observe that Wheeling would remain Jesuit “in name only” next year. Jessica Wrobleski, a laid-off theology professor, told Inside Higher Ed, “The heart of the school, and its identity, have just been cut out. It’s been pretty heartbreaking.”

The Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities had no comment on the announcement, but a spokesperson noted that a few small colleges have passed from Jesuit control over the past century, in different circumstances: St. Mary's Academy and College in St. Mary’s, Kans., founded by Jesuits in 1848 as a mission to Native Americans, later became a Jesuit boys’ boarding school. In the 1930s, it became the home of St. Louis University’s divinity school. Another former Jesuit college, St. Charles College in Grand Coteau, La., became the Jesuit Spirituality Center. And the College of the Sacred Heart, founded in 1880 in Prairie du Chien, Wisc., and operated by Jesuits from Buffalo, became a Jesuit high school in the 1920s. The order later sold it to the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.

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