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Michael Ross, new president of Ohio Valley University in Vienna, W.Va., prays with students by a campus fountain.
File photo by Roxanne Wilson

A ‘mission critical’ president

As it struggles to survive, Ohio Valley University makes a non-traditional choice, naming Michael Ross to its top post.

Ohio Valley University inaugurated Michael Ross as its new president Sept. 20 — an unlikely calling for an optimist.

And he wasn’t looking for a job.

Ross, who spent his career in nonprofit management, actually has been at the helm of the four-year university in Vienna, W.Va., for several months.

Leading OVU, which is associated with Churches of Christ, won’t be easy. Amid concerns about the school’s future, enrollment dropped from 506 students a year ago to 321 this fall — a 37 percent decline.

Michael Ross

Michael Ross

Three sports have been suspended. The faculty is more than 20 percent smaller, and budgets have been cut.

Still, the new president is optimistic about the future. His plan: to grow OVU’s enrollment to more than 600 in the next five years.

Ross, who has worked mostly in the healthcare sector, brings a nontraditional resumé to the role of president.

It’s his first job in higher education. He holds no graduate degrees, though he’s working on a master’s and plans to pursue a doctorate.

But the university’s survival — let alone growth — will require a nontraditional approach, said Mike O’Neal, president emeritus of Oklahoma Christian University.

In the spring of 2018, OVU’s board brought in O’Neal to help address the university’s pressing financial problems.

“OVU is in an area of our country that is not strong in the Churches of Christ,” O’Neal said, “and it’s going to have to reinvent itself — to not be the traditional teacher in front of 15 students in a classroom but to find other ways of delivery that are less financially challenging.”


In addition to roles with several West Virginia health and human services nonprofits, Ross for 10 years ran his own consulting company, Beyond our Boundaries, focusing on customer service, leadership and team effectiveness.

In the fall of 2018, he was communicating with a former youth group member who was then on the board of directors at OVU.

“I was trying to convince him to let me do consulting with the admissions staff, and so I sent a resumé,” Ross said.

Then, on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Ross received a call from Charlie Morris, OVU chief of staff, asking what was his interest in the presidency.

He wasn’t, really.

“That was not my background, not my career,” Ross said.

But Morris persuaded him that the school had academic leadership in place and was looking for someone who brought skills and perspective for running a nonprofit business.

So Ross spent a day in late November interviewing with the board, administrative team and staff, after which they invited him to return for a special meeting on Dec. 19.

“I kept saying, ‘This is a fun experience, but nothing is going to come of it,’” Ross said.

He started work Jan. 1.


Ross and his wife, Kerry, both West Virginia natives, met at Ohio Valley when they were students and when then-Ohio Valley College was still a junior college. They transferred together to Harding University in Searcy, Ark., to finish their bachelor’s degrees, and both remember wishing they could come back someday to work and help OVU.


He even recalled joking, “It would be cool if I could be president someday.”

His wife was thinking more about their serving as dorm parents. But life intervened, and after a few years they had a houseful of their own.

The Ross family grew to include eight children, now ages 6 to 28. Three are their biological children, and five are adopted, including twin boys, Jeremy and Jacob, who came to them through the foster system at four months old, weighing less than 8 pounds each.

The twins, now high-functioning 24-year-olds with developmental disabilities, are still at home, as are the Rosses’ two youngest daughters, Olivia, 15, and Maci, 6.

The family lives in the Charleston area, about an hour and 20 minutes from Parkersburg. Michael Ross commutes every day, leaving home before the girls are up, and is home most nights by 7, which his wife describes as “not awful.”

O’Neal credits OVU’s survival to a long history of generous donors who continue to believe that a Christian university in the northeastern United States fills an important niche.

“It is positive, but it’s a big lifestyle change,” she said. “It’s different having to share him.”

The family is fully committed to Christian education. One older son, Alex, 28, went to Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn. Emily, 25, and Max, 21, are at Harding University in Searcy, Ark.

Kerry Ross said she loves seeing her kids beginning to see OVU as their school. She said the kids love going to the university for games and other events.


Before Michael Ross became president, OVU’s full-time faculty of about 28 was reduced by five or six. Typical for a small school, administrators also serve as faculty, and some adjunct faculty may have fulltime staff roles. In all, about a dozen positions were eliminated, a combination of faculty and staff.


Four degree programs — in sports management, environmental and sustainability studies, history, and wellness — were eliminated from the catalog for 2019-2020.

Athletics budgets have been cut, and coaches are now required to raise funds. Under Ross, OVU has suspended men’s and women’s lacrosse for 2019-2020, at least. The university also suspended the 2019-2020 women’s soccer season after the coach left but they have hired a new coach.

OVU is a member of the NCAA Division II Great Midwest Athletic Conference and is the smallest school in the country in Division II sports. OVU doesn’t have football, but about 65 percent of its students compete in intercollegiate athletics.

O’Neal said he believes the cost of athletics is one of several reasons OVU is struggling financially.

He and Ross acknowledged the school has struggled financially for many years, in part due to debt and declining enrollment, which is affected by declining numbers of students from Churches of Christ.

In addition, a 2017 study by Pew Charitable Trusts revealed that West Virginia is one of only two states with a shrinking population. But OVU is located near the Ohio state line and within a 200-mile radius of larger population centers in that state. Ross believes recruiting in those areas will be important to achieving the needed growth.


Michael Ross’ predecessor, Harold Shank, served seven years as president before stepping down in 2017. E. Keith Stotts, who had twice served as president before, stepped in for the 2017-2018 school year before Michael Ross’ tenure began.

O’Neal credits OVU’s survival to a long history of generous donors who continue to believe that a Christian university in the northeastern United States fills an important niche.

OVU once was one of two colleges in the region associated with Churches of Christ. The now-defunct Northeastern Christian Junior College closed its doors in 1993 and merged with Ohio Valley, which then was also a junior college.

Michael Ross speaks at his inauguration on Sept. 20.

Michael Ross speaks at his inauguration on Sept. 20. Harding University President Bruce McLarty, left, and Lipscomb University President Randy Lowry, right, can be seen in the background.

Now OVU seeks more than $2.1 million to go specifically to student scholarships and the student experience.

“Our students are our No. 1 priority,” Michael Ross said.

The challenge, O’Neal added, will be to depend less on donor dollars to meet the annual operating budgets. Although he’s impressed by how much money OVU’s aging fundraising staff has raised, the school’s budget for too many years has depended on unrealistic fundraising goals.

“Michael has a big task ahead of him.”

Still, Michael Ross is optimistic.

Not only has the university’s staff ramped up and reimagined student recruiting. They’ve also made hard changes. They’ve sought and welcomed advice from O’Neal and Randy Lowry, president of Lipscomb University.

“In the budgeting process, we are breaking down every single line item and not just carrying it forward but asking, ‘What is absolutely necessary? And what is not?’” Michael Ross said.

The new president added that he’s requiring the school’s administration and faculty to be intentional about OVU’s mission and ask regarding every financial decision, “Does it benefit student experience?” he said. “Does it benefit faculty and staff? Is it mission critical?”

“Michael has a big task ahead of him,” O’Neal said. “He’s doing the right things from all I can tell. He’s making good decisions.”

That’s why they hired him.

Filed under: Christian higher education National Ohio Valley University Partners Top Stories

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