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Aerial view of Ohio Valley University campus, via OVU.edu
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Aerial view of Ohio Valley University campus, via OVU.edu

Ohio Valley University faces possible shutdown

Payroll hasn’t been met in months as debt piles up.

A vote by the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission next week may be the final strike ending the long-beleaguered history of Ohio Valley University, The Christian Chronicle has learned.

According to a meeting agenda, the commission will consider a resolution next Friday, Dec. 10, recommending revocation of OVU’s authorization to confer degrees in the state, effective June 30, 2022.

Founded in 1958, OVU — located in Vienna, W.Va. — is associated with Churches of Christ. Enrollment has plunged below 200.

Update: Ohio Valley University decides to close

The West Virginia college merged with the former Northeastern Christian Junior College in Villanova, Pa., after that school’s 1993 closure. After operating as a two-year college for decades, OVU became a four-year institution in the mid-1990s.

If the policy commission’s recommendation is approved, OVU would be required to “wind down its operations pending loss of its authorization.” That would include not enrolling new students or returning current students for the spring 2022 semester “except for seniors scheduled to graduate at the end of the semester who wish to return and complete their degrees.”

Ohio Valley University's ability to offer degrees in West Virginia could be revoked.

Ohio Valley University’s ability to offer degrees in West Virginia could be revoked.

The commission agenda, released today, includes a detailed account of OVU’s noncompliance with state commission requirements and requirements of the Higher Learning Commission, one of six regional institutional accreditors in the United States.

“The WV HEPC has some concerns,” OVU President Michael Ross said in a text message, in response to a request for comment. “We will be answering those concerns. I will be glad to comment after the meeting next Friday.”

The resolution and supporting documents (beginning on page 215 of the agenda) detail a series of failures to comply with financial requirements, reporting and accountability, failure to respond to complaints, failure to provide mandated teach-out agreements to either the West Virginia body, the HLC or both and failure to submit annual dues.

Probationary accreditation since 2020 

OVU has been on probation with the Higher Learning Commission since June 2020. Prior to the pending action by the West Virginia board, OVU was awaiting a June decision by HLC board of directors. Loss of accreditation, among other things, would mean students could not receive federal aid.

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.

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. (Review 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 an interview earlier this week, was “about 175,” and “between 65 and 70 percent” are athletes who compete in 16 sports.  

In July 2021, OVU moved from NCAA Division II to the NAIA, a move Ross said would save $1.5 million, but he had no time frame on how quickly the savings would be achieved.

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 approximately 120 days past due on annual dues. Failure to resolve these issues would result in administrative probation.

The West Virginia commission decision could render the HLC vote essentially moot. But as of now, the probation visit report will be presented to the HLC board of directors. According to HLC communications director Heather Berg, HLC policy dictates that the board will determine whether to “remove Probation, specifying any interim monitoring that should be attached to the removal, or in the event of ongoing non-compliance, whether to extend Probation, issue a Show-Cause Order or withdraw accreditation.” 

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

In a 2019 file photo, Michael Ross, president of Ohio Valley University in Vienna, W.Va., prays with students by a campus fountain.

Student, parent and employee complaints

Meanwhile, on or about Oct. 20, the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission office began receiving complaints from OVU students, parents and employees that “ranged from the inability of the institution to provide academic transcripts to the institution’s failure for months to compensate employees for work performed,” according to the resolution being considered by the West Virginia commission.

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 that were expected to help repair the technology were expected but did not arrive by the expected date, and subsequent updates to the commission staff were not provided.

The resolution reports that OVU failed to provide the required information and also could not confirm a date when the payroll situation would be resolved. And, it said the commission had 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, he said, so the drives were sent to California to a data recovery firm recommended by the system manufacturer. Although data was recovered, installation requires a software that Ross said is older and “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.”

Regarding the condition of the servers, WV Network said a power surge rather than a lightning strike caused the crash. But it also found that the software system had not been updated in seven years. And Ellucian, 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.”

Related: After struggling for years, OVU forced to close

“It’s a critical thing for us to be able to provide transcripts and we have a running list,” Ross told the Chronicle. “Last week we were able to use some data available elsewhere to provide a few but not very many.”

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. 

Ross said the university delayed sending invoices or bills to students who had not received their aid, “because it was not fair to do that.”  

Michael Ross, president of Ohio Valley University speaks at his inauguration in the fall of 2019.

Michael Ross, president of Ohio Valley University speaks at his inauguration in the fall of 2019.

State of the University

On Nov. 18 — after the HLC probation visit and the meeting with the West Virginia commission but before the visit by the technology group — Ross gave a State of the University Address.  Only the most committed optimist could conceive of a future for OVU at such a time. Ross, consistent with his reputation, is that optimist.

“We come together, and this place flourishes,” he told the 80 or so faculty, staff, students and community members gathered in Roberts Chapel. “We become the choice for Christian higher education in the northeastern United States.”

Ross speaks frankly about the debt that has burdened OVU for many years. But he also talked about a plan to raise money for scholarships and repair infrastructure. Fundraising is targeting people who can give $1 million, he said, to support faculty development and to create an endowment. And he said he is reaching out to alumni and friends with expertise to offer input: “Give us advice so we aren’t making stupid decisions into the future.”

“Give us advice so we aren’t making stupid decisions into the future.”

Mike O’Neal, former president at Oklahoma Christian University and a past consultant to OVU, was part of the group who hired Ross to become 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 has been reduced to about $25 million. In addition to the $15 million bond debt, OVU owed between $5 million and $6 million in patron loans, which he said has 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 add to the total.  In his November address, Ross said some utility bills had balances that had been carried since 2014.

Of that total debt, $5.2 million was OVU’s guarantee of tax-exempt bonds issued by ACE Educational Foundation Inc., which was created by Mark Wiley, who is now deceased, former OVU administrator Jeff Dimick and O’Neal explicitly to purchase for $4 million a gasification technology license from OVU that had been donated by Wiley to help the school survive.

Since OVU was to be the primary beneficiary of the bonds, the bond purchasers required that OVU be a guarantor even though, O’Neal explained, that guarantee was essentially worthless since it was subordinate to the $14 million in bonds OVU already owed. At the time the ACE bonds were issued, OVU received $2 million in cash and was relieved of $2 million in short-term debt in exchange for the license. Though the ACE bonds were never considered to be a debt of OVU, and OVU made no payments on them, the HLC considered them as a financial burden on OVU.

In 2020, O’Neal and Dimick negotiated a settlement with the bondholders to release the guarantee for a payment of $240,000, half of which was raised by OVU and half was raised by Dimick and O’Neal.  

In his address, Ross spoke in disparaging tones about the ACE bonds. But regarding the remaining $15 million debt from 2007, he said, “I don’t want to disparage anyone who came before me — I don’t know what I’d have done.”

Like Ross, the leadership of that decade was seeking a way to keep alive a Christian university in the northeastern United States.

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 have 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. 

“We had a plan to use an accounts receivable due by early 2022, but bond holders restricted us from being able to do that,” Ross explained. 

Without cash flow, the university can’t pay the settlement, or make payroll.

Students gather in a circle to pray at Ohio Valley University in Vienna

In 2017, students gather in a circle to pray at Ohio Valley University in Vienna

No cash flow, no paychecks

Timely payrolls were an occasional challenge as far back as 2018 and perhaps earlier, according to former employees. But at that point it was 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.

Ross said in his speech, “Probably the hardest thing I have to do is to make that decision every two weeks to say we can only do so much.” In his interview with the Chronicle, he declined to say whether “so much” means anyone is being paid. He confirmed that “a full payroll has not been met since summer.”

Jason Nulton

Jason Nulton

Ross said OVU has about 80 employees; about 40 are full-time. Several left or contracts were not renewed after the last school year. He wasn’t sure how many.

Nulton recalled another 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.”

“Leadership was so abysmally awful,” the retired military officer said. “I wish they would close because they are hurting more than they are helping.”

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.”

“Leadership was so abysmally awful. I wish they would close because they are hurting more than they are helping.”

Others at OVU declined to talk about the current troubles but eagerly shared stories of the school’s 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.”

In an email update sent to alumni Thursday, Ross said that after the comprehensive review, “We know that there are deficiencies to address. These issues create a negative aura that is hard to overcome.” 

Indeed, it may be impossible.

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].

Filed under: Christian higher education Christian universities Education higher education National News Ohio Valley Ohio Valley University Partners Top Stories West Virginia

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