It's been a tumultuous year at Wheeling University -- formerly Wheeling Jesuit University until the Jesuits cut ties. In the latest shift, the university announced the president and a vice president have been placed on administrative leave.
The decision came almost immediately before a meeting at which the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission (HEPC) was set to vote on reauthorization of Wheeling as a degree-granting institution. In light of the news, the HEPC chose to reconvene Aug. 16 for a reauthorization vote.
Little information has been given on the reasoning behind placing President Michael Mihalyo and Senior Vice President Joseph Petrella on paid administrative leave, and the university has not announced the appointment of an interim president. A Wheeling press release called the decision a “reorganization of its executive leadership.”
“Our board and administration are deeply committed to providing hands-on leadership and guidance during the reauthorization process and throughout the upcoming 2019-20 academic year,” Ginny Favede, chair of the Board of Trustees, said in a press release. “We are working collaboratively with the Higher Learning Commission and HEPC during this process and we appreciate the HEPC’s understanding in agreeing to set a new date of Aug. 16 to reconvene for our reauthorization, following their planned visit on Aug. 12.”
A campuswide message sent out last Friday from Wheeling communications director Julia Cook informed the community of the decision to place Mihalyo and Petrella on administrative leave and said more information would be released “in the coming days.”
Jeff Rutherford, a former history professor at the university who lost his job when the university trimmed most of its liberal arts programs, said he believed the announcement that Mihalyo and Petrella would be placed on leave was done in order to gain a continuance from the HEPC.
“When the president was hired, he made a big show of bringing in Petrella for our upcoming accreditation process,” Rutherford said in an email. “My guess is that he failed to deliver, based on what I have read about the West Virginia education commission's decisions. So the two of them were sacrificed to gain another continuance in the process. Accreditation was the primary issue that the two of them talked about in the fall semester and the first month or two of the spring semester.”
The episode is one of many in a year of problems for the institution, which has included a declaration of financial exigency as well as layoffs for a number of faculty members. The cuts eliminated the history, theology, philosophy, literature and engineering majors, as well as 20 of the university’s full-time faculty members.
Additionally, the university’s ties to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston led to scandal. The local bishop of the diocese wielded great power within the institution and at any given time served as the chair of the Board of Trustees or appointed someone to do so.
This arrangement is what caught the university in one of the Catholic Church’s scandals as a leaked report to the Vatican published by The Washington Post revealed former bishop of the diocese Michael Bransfield had engaged in sexual abuse and financial impropriety. One of Bransfield’s top aides, Monsignor Kevin Quirk, served as chair of the Board of Trustees until June, when he stepped down as a result of the scandal. Quirk was board chair when Mihalyo was chosen as president.
Rutherford said that most of the main power at the university was held by the board instead of its administrative staff.
“Many faculty members saw the president as having no real power or inclination to use whatever power he had and viewed him as a figurehead, while real power rested in the board,” Rutherford said.
With all the issues facing Wheeling, Rutherford said he would be surprised if the university was able to survive in the long term.
“This might be my bias showing, but I would be shocked if the university was open next fall,” Rutherford said. “You cut 40 percent of your faculty and about two-thirds of your majors, start abolishing athletic teams; its only real benefactor is the local diocese, which is mired in its own scandal, and finally it has lost whatever goodwill and support it had among the community as well as alumni -- things aren't good.”