MARTINSBURG – A delay is in the works for a lawsuit that provides some insight as to how now-closed Mountain State University lost accreditation for its nursing program.

Attorneys in Helen M. Johnstone’s wrongful termination lawsuit against Mountain State and its former president Charles H. Polk have asked to extend Berkeley County Circuit Court Judge John Yoder’s deadline because Johnstone no longer lives in the area.

Johnstone, a former administrator in the university’s Martinsburg campus, says she lives in Omaha, Neb., and can’t be available for a deposition until after the May 10 discovery deadline.

Johnstone is now the director of nursing at Kaplan University. The two sides also said in an April 3 filing that additional discovery is needed, and a July 16 trial date should be pushed back.

Several former nursing program students have already sued MSU, which lost is accreditation for its nursing program in 2010. The details Johnstone alleges in her complaint show how it happened.

Johnstone’s complaint, filed Jan. 25, 2012, says she was hired at the Martinsburg campus in July 2007 as the director of nursing. She was charged with establishing two new nursing programs and the task of growing enrollment, which she did by 40 percent over the next eight months, she says.

In September 2007, she says she requested four additional full-time nursing faculty members be hired, but was denied by Polk. Three months later, a full-timer was hired in Keyser and another in Martinsburg.

However, the person in Keyser had “personal issues” and couldn’t fulfill the duties of the job, and the person hired in Martinsburg was “merely a replacement for a full-time faculty member assigned to different duties,” Johnstone alleges.

In May 2008, Johnstone was nominated as the new dean of nursing but refused to move to Beckley, opting instead to be appointed interim dean of academic affairs for branch campuses, she says. Another full-time member of the nursing faculty was designated as the assistant director of nursing, she says.

The same month, the position of a faculty member who died was replaced, as was the Keyser position, the suit says. However, Johnstone alleges the “net gain was zero” new employees because other employees had shifted job titles.

In October 2008, MSU hired a new dean of nursing and health sciences, Dr. Haley, the suit says. His or her first name is not given in the complaint.

Under Dr. Haley, staffing remained “grossly inadequate,” Johnstone alleges, and the issue threatened accreditation of the nursing program by the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission.

In March 2009, Johnstone said she found out she had breast cancer, and she received a new job title as dean of new program development, which gave her no academic responsibilities. In late 2009, she says she found out her name had been included as a full-time member of the nursing faculty on a self-study prepared for an NLNAC accreditation visit.

During the visit, MSU was found to be in non-compliance, and the West Virginia Board of Examiners for Registered Professional Nurses subpoenaed Johnstone, the lawsuit says.

During an October 2010 hearing, Johnstone testified that the facility did not have adequate faculty and that her requests made in the past had been denied, she says.

In November 2010, during a meeting with the Martinsburg leadership team, Polk said someone had provided inappropriate testimony, the lawsuit says. After a two-week vacation, Johnstone was fired on Dec. 12, 2010.

Her lawsuit seeks general damages, lost future wages and punitive damages. She is represented by Martinsburg attorney Harry P. Waddell.

After Johnstone’s testimony, the WVBOERPN voted unanimously to require that MSU’s nursing program cease and desist all admissions to all nursing programs/pathways or any other program representing progression toward a nursing degree.

In July, the Higher Learning Commission said it was withdrawing Mountain State’s accreditation. They listed “systemic breakdowns in leadership, program oversight, integrity issues and failing to provide accreditation information to students” as the reasons for the withdrawal.

On Aug. 1, the University of Charleston announced it is taking over Mountain State University’s campuses in Beckley and Martinsburg.

Fourteen lawsuits were filed in Jefferson Circuit Court on Aug. 6, by students who claim the university engaged in widespread criminal enterprise and racketeering activity.

The university only has a 2.5 percent graduation rate for students seeking bachelor’s degrees, which is the lowest graduation rate of any private school in the Chronicle of High Education’s analysis.

In 2009, Polk’s salary was $1,843,746, which was 3.5 percent of the university’s annual budget and was the highest percentage of a college budget received by any president of a private university that year, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

From the West Virginia Record: Reach John O’Brien at jobrienwv@gmail.com.

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