Ohio Valley University faces possible shutdown
A vote by the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission…
Ohio Valley University closed its doors permanently at the end of the fall semester after a Dec. 8 vote by trustees.
Years of financial struggles and millions of dollars in debt had left the Christian university, founded in 1958, unable to pay salaries or issue transcripts.
President Michael Ross informed students, faculty and staff of the decision just two days before the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission voted to revoke the institution’s authority to issue degrees.
Ross said OVU also had informed the Higher Learning Commission, one of six regional institutional accreditors in the United States, of its decision. The institution had been on probation with HLC since June 2020 and was awaiting a June 2021 decision regarding its accreditation status. Loss of accreditation, among other things, would have meant students could not receive federal aid.
As a result, the tiny school in Vienna, W.Va., which was associated with Churches of Christ, will not offer classes in the spring semester but has coordinated with other institutions to “teach out” about 30 students who had planned to graduate in May. A teach-out agreement allows a student to maintain academic progress and complete a degree without loss of credit.
Ross told the West Virginia commission that a college fair Dec. 10, the last day of classes, included more than 25 universities from West Virginia and other states. Among them were at least seven sister institutions associated with Churches of Christ: Faulkner, Freed-Hardeman, Harding, Lubbock Christian, Oklahoma Christian, Rochester and York.
Ross said efforts in the final days included a conversation with an unnamed sister institution about acquiring OVU, but that did not work out. However, “lively conversations” were had as long as 18 months ago with Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., Harding University in Searcy, Ark., and Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City about the possibility of taking over OVU at some point, Mike O’Neal said. He is a former president at Oklahoma Christian and a past consultant to OVU.
“The heart was there in each case,” O’Neal said, pointing to OVU’s millions of dollars of debt as the reason those institutions concluded “that would not make sense for them.”
Ross also told the state commission that “faculty and staff will be made whole.” Just a day after the closing was announced, an anonymous donor committed $900,000 to pay all employees their full salaries through the end of December. OVU had about 80 employees in fall 2021; about 40 were full-time.
Don Lallathin, the university’s director of philanthropy, told The Christian Chronicle, “It feels good that we will be able to make payroll, and as we get into the Christmas season, we will be able to pay our employees.”
At the commission gathering, Ross said, “I’ve had so many different meetings over the past month and especially the past few days The meeting with students was horrible — just to make the announcement. And the meeting with faculty and staff — some have given 30- or 40-plus years to OVU. As an alum, it seems like a time in my life is ending, and I don’t like those endings.”
The commission agenda detailed OVU’s noncompliance with state commission requirements and HLC requirements. It detailed a series of failures to meet financial requirements, problems with reporting and accountability, failure to respond to complaints and provide mandated teach-out agreements to either the West Virginia body, the HLC or both and failure to submit annual dues.
The president did not argue with the findings.
The HLC, after the regularly scheduled but virtual visit in 2020, found the university out of compliance on Criterion Five, Core Component 5.A., which requires that “the institution’s resource base supports its current educational programs and its plans for maintaining and strengthening their quality in the future.”
The report cited an ongoing enrollment decline, repeated years of negative net assets, bond debt of more than $14 million and other financial issues.
Other concerns included enrollment as related to retention and a continued emphasis on enrolling student athletes with 226 slots available for athletes as of the report date. (Read the full letter.)
Enrollment subsequently declined even more. Fall 2020 enrollment was 273, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Fall 2021 enrollment, Ross said in a December interview, was “about 175,” and “between 65 and 70 percent” were athletes competing in 16 sports.
In July 2021, OVU moved from NCAA Division II to the River States Conference of the NAIA, a move Ross said would save $1.5 million, but he did not know how quickly the savings would be achieved.
The men’s basketball team earned its first and last RSC victory Dec. 2 in a 85-83 victory over Ohio Christian. Michael Schell, conference commissioner, said in an email that all participation in sports was terminated effective Dec. 8, and no further contests will occur.
In a news release, the conference said men’s and women’s basketball team members will not be charged a season of competition, and NAIA recruiting rules have been waived to allow coaches or staff from other schools to contact OVU student-athletes directly.
“To say I am grateful for my time at OVC would be an understatement. But I am even more grateful for what she gave to me while I was there … what I got to keep within me when I left. That can never be closed.”
The actions by OVU trustees and the West Virginia commission decision may render the HLC vote essentially moot. According to HLC communications director Heather Berg, HLC has informed the institution that, “per HLC policies, it can voluntarily resign its accreditation.”
If it does not, Berg said in an email, “HLC may proceed with withdrawing accreditation following its policies.”
The HLC probation visit took place Nov. 1-2. Its report will not be made public prior to the June meeting. The primary task of the probation visit team was to review evidence of compliance with those concerns cited in the 2020 report.
But on Oct. 26, the HLC president, Barbara Gellman-Danley, informed Ross that “wholly separate from that review,” additional concerns had arisen regarding the institution’s compliance with HLC’s Obligations of Membership.
Specifically, OVU had not responded as required to a student complaint, had not submitted previously required teach-out agreements as part of its provisional plan and was about 120 days past due on annual dues.
Failure to resolve these issues would result in administrative probation.
“I am the second of three generations to attend OVC/U. … I have been associated with OVU in some way for, quite literally, my entire life. I am absolutely heartbroken to see it go, and it hardly seems real that it is truly gone.”
Also in October the West Virginia commission office began receiving complaints from OVU students, parents and employees about the inability to provide transcripts or meet payroll.
In an Oct. 29 meeting between commission staff and OVU officials, OVU confirmed the reported issues ”were accurate and ongoing” and blamed an inoperable server. Donations to help repair the technology were expected but did not arrive when anticipated; subsequent updates to the commission staff were not provided.
The commission said it received “credible information that OVU will have neither English nor math faculty for the spring 2022 semester.”
Ross told the Chronicle that lightning took out transformers under the gym during a July storm, shutting down the campus server. The interruption of power corrupted the server’s drives. Staff could not pull the computer systems back up. The drives were sent to California to a data recovery firm recommended by the system manufacturer. Data was recovered but could not be installed because of software that Ross described as “somewhat out of date.”
West Virginia Network conducted a site visit Nov. 29 to assess the situation and concluded that staff in the IT, financial aid and bursar’s offices lacked “sufficient depth of experience … to help move OVU out of its current descent.”
It also found that the software system had not been updated in seven years, and the company that provides it would not update it for OVU until it was paid for seven years “it has not availed itself of Ellucians’ services.”
Ross told the West Virginia commission at its Dec. 10 meeting that the software was being installed on OVU servers that day, and he was cautiously optimistic they would be able to pull transcripts that afternoon to facilitate student transfers and teach-outs.
The server loss also meant data required by the federal government was unavailable — data required before the government would transfer funds for student loans, Pell Grants or work-study funds.
“While some were very surprised by these events, we serve a God who … was not caught off guard. I don’t claim to know the ‘whys’ of all that has happened, but I will trust that God will bring good through this painful time.”
Ross had sought to maintain his trademark optimism even after the HLC probation visit.
He told the 80 or so faculty, staff, students and community members gathered Nov. 18 in Roberts Chapel for his State of the University: “We come together, and this place flourishes. We become the choice for Christian higher education in the northeastern United States.”
He talked about a plan to raise money for scholarships and repair infrastructure, about fundraising targeting people who could give $1 million and about reaching out to alumni and friends with expertise to offer input: “Give us advice so we aren’t making stupid decisions into the future.”
But he spoke frankly, in the address and on other occasions, about the debt that burdened OVU for many years.
O’Neal was part of the group that hired Ross as president in 2019 despite his lack of academic experience. (Disclosure: O’Neal serves as chairman of the Chronicle’s national board of trustees.)
“I saw in him something a few others didn’t,” O’Neal said of Ross. “I do believe it’s been miraculous he’s kept it open. It’s largely due to his tenacity, his willingness to suffer all kinds of people saying bad things about him and the school. And he’s kept it alive.”
That said, O’Neal told the Chronicle in 2019 that OVU needed to stop the hemorrhaging brought on by longstanding and oppressive debt, originating with bonds sold for purchase of the campus in 2007.
Ross said when he started debt totaled $30 million. It had been reduced to about $25 million. In addition to bond debt, OVU owed between $5 million and $6 million in patron loans, which he said had been reduced to about $4 million. Unspecified debts to vendors and a judgment of $1.3 million in a suit brought by Aladdin Food Management Services added to the total. In his November address, Ross said some utility bills had balances that had been carried since 2014.
Ross told the Chronicle the $1.3 million circuit court judgment handed down in October 2020 on behalf of Aladdin has been negotiated down to $750,000. However, OVU has thus far been unable to pay that amount because bond holders restricted how university funds can be used. The bond debt has been in forbearance for two to three years with the university unable to make payments.
Without cash flow, the university couldn’t pay the settlement or make payroll. Timely payrolls were an occasional challenge as far back as 2018 and perhaps earlier, according to former employees. But usually only a few days’ delay, and only a few times, said Jason Nulton, a former business professor.
Then in July 2021, the payroll issues became constant.
Nulton recalled a speech Ross gave in a faculty meeting just prior to the COVID-19 shutdown.
“A faculty member asked Ross the question, ‘Should we expect payroll at the end of the week to occur normally?’” Nulton said. “His answer was something like, ‘There will be no change in payroll.’ The very next payroll at the end of that week was a delayed payroll.”
Yet Nulton said he does not regret his time at OVU, “not even a little.”
He said the people at OVU “came to my rescue” during a difficult personal time. “I will never ever forget them. It was a blessing to me at that time. I made lifelong friends. Those people brought me back to the church, and I was baptized there.”
Others at OVU declined to talk about the school’s demise but eagerly shared stories of its positive impact on their lives.
In separate stints at OVU, Chad Porter spent 11 years as baseball coach, athletic director or both. He left in August 2021 to coach at a local high school.
“People have their reasons for leaving, and we should respect those,” Porter said, growing emotional as he talked about the place where he went to school, became a Christian and met his wife. “But I also have a great deal of respect and love for so many people working so hard to turn the place around. People need to know how hard people are working.”
Nulton was more pragmatic, “Leadership was so abysmally awful,” the retired military officer said. “I wish they would close because they are hurting more than they are helping.”
Days after he made that statement came the news that OVU would close.
Alumni shared memories and grief on Facebook pages as details rolled out over OVU’s final weeks. One wrote poignantly, “While OVU will close, it did not fail.”
CHERYL MANN BACON is a Christian Chronicle correspondent who served for 20 years as chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Abilene Christian University. In retirement, she is enjoying freelance writing and consulting, especially with churches. Contact her at [email protected].
“As many who have experienced both the student experience and the employer experience, there are a lot of mixed emotions at play. But I do believe it’s significant to understand that while OVU will close, it did not fail.”
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