Law firms file class action against Mountain State University
Chris Dickerson and Kyla Asbury Jul. 12, 2012, 3:00am
CHARLESTON – Two Charleston law firms have filed a lawsuit against Mountain State University on behalf of students of the university.
The former president of the university, Charles H. Polk, and the University Board of Trustees also are named as defendants in the class action law suit.
The Webb Law Firm and DiTrapano, Barrett & DiPiero filed to seek certification as a class action on behalf of all current and former students affected by the university's loss of accreditation.
Rusty Webb of the Webb Law Firm said he had followed the story regarding the university's issues for quite some time, but became involved when a former client contacted him regarding his son's curriculum issues with the university.
"I spoke with him and he and his son were having curriculum issues with the university and they felt cheated," Webb said. "Then, when the university's accreditation issues surfaced, he contacted me again."
Webb said his firm and DiTrapano, Barrett & DiPiero jointly decided to file the cause of action because of their connection through the former client.
Although still not sure of how many people the class action lawsuit will contain, Webb said he believes there are more than 3,000 students affected by Mountain State University's accreditation and curriculum problems.
"The school's web site says they have approximately 3,000 students," Webb said. "Then, you have to take into account that there are thousands more taking classes online over a four-year period."
The suit seeks compensatory and punitive damages for misrepresentation, loss of accreditation, consumer protection statutes, negligence, breach of contract and breach of duty of good faith and fair dealing.
The regional Higher Learning Commission's board of trustees recently decided to withdraw accreditation effective Aug. 27. In a news release, Mountain State officials said they will vigorously appeal the decision and said accreditation will not be withdrawn until the process is complete.
Mountain State University is a private university headquartered in Beckley, with campuses around West Virginia including in Charleston.
The revocation of accreditation has left "thousands of students with worthless college course credits, now unaccredited, after many Mountain State students had incurred tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt to pay the college," said Sean McGinley, one of the attorneys working on the case.
"The Class Action Complaint explains that accreditation is a third-party stamp of approval that ensures universities or programs are meeting a minimum set of national standards," McGinley said in a statement. "If a university loses its primary accreditation, any subsequent degrees conferred by the university are effectively worthless. The Higher Learning Commission is the regional accrediting agency that accredits institutions of higher education in West Virginia.
"According to a spokesman for the HLC, losing an accreditation 'is a very rare circumstance.' Mountain State University is the first higher education institution in West Virginia history to have its schoolwide accreditation revoked."
Mountain State has faced accreditation issues for years.
In 2008, the HLC told Mountain State in its report that despite the university's strong financial position and rising student enrollment, "it is not clear how the University will continue to respond to future challenges and opportunities with no clearly defined process for updating the University's long-term plans; limited empirical evidence [transparency] guiding planning and budgeting ... no program review processes to determine and sustain academic quality and viability; and a lack of strong communication and collaboration in governance."
The 79-page 2008 report went on to say "long-term planning was remarked as "not necessary" and "pie in the sky" by some employees and board members,' and expressed concerns that there were no mechanisms in place to get feedback on how to improve the university."
In 2010, a national agency ("NLNAC") revoked the accreditation for Mountain State University's nursing school. That prompted the West Virginia nursing board to place Mountain State's nursing program on provisional status, for major problems in leadership and failure to keep up-to-date student records. This action has resulted in scores of lawsuits from students.
"Throughout the accreditation problems, members of Mountain State's board of trustees said they didn't know how bad the issues in the nursing school were," McGinley said. "They promised to take corrective action. But in June 2011, the HLC placed Mountain State University on 'show cause' status, citing the school for its top-down leadership, lack of long-term planning, failure to collaborate with faculty, failure to give information to students, and the loss of specialized accreditation for the nursing program.
"The HLC gave Mountain State one year to make big fixes at the school or risk losing its accreditation altogether. Also, in 2011, the Chronicle of Higher Education indicated in its report that '[n]o other college in the survey [of 519 colleges] devoted such a substantial share of its resources to a president[,]' as did Mountain State University."
Polk, the former president of the school, received a salary of $1.84 million in 2009. That's more than the presidents of Harvard and Yale. He also repeatedly used the school's two private plans to fly to his home in North Carolina.
"From 2008 through July 2012, defendants reassured students and prospective students that Mountain State University was in sound shape, when in fact, such was not true," the complaint says. "On June 28, 2012, the Board of Trustees of the Higher Learning Commission voted to withdraw Mountain State's accreditation, effective August 27, 2012. The HLC's action was made public on July 10, 2012.
"Students found out about Mountain State's accreditation being withdrawn by hearing it on the news. The HLC explained Mountain State lost its accreditation after years of failing to correct major problems in leadership, program evaluations, and campus-wide governance."
For more information, contact Webb at 304-344-9322 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Rob Bastress at 304-342-0133. There is a questionnaire at rustywebb.com.