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Accreditation on the line: A 'thriving institution' similar to DSU didn't think it would lose its HLC backing; It thought wrong

Dickinson State University's May Hall is pictured on a clear day in Dickinson in this undated photo. DSU's accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission hangs in the balance, a position West Virginia's now defunct Mountain State University found itself in last year.

While the leadership and the rest of the campus at Dickinson State University is waiting for a resolution on the school's accreditation status, a campus nearly 1,500 miles away sits mostly empty after going through a similar process.

Formerly a vibrant campus with about 2,000 students and largely the centerpiece of Beckley, a city of about 17,000 in southern West Virginia, Mountain State University closed its doors for good in January after being stripped of its accreditation by the Higher Learning Commission, a wing of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools that oversees institutions in 19 states.

"Mountain State University was a thriving institution," said Carl "Butch" Antolini, editor of The Register-Herald newspaper in Beckley. "There are a lot of very qualified and capable people who were degreed there in all types of different fields. (MSU) went from being fully accredited two years prior to everything blowing up to actually closing down. It was shocking."

While there are many differences between the situations at MSU -- which was a private institution -- and DSU, Antolini said people from other institutions in similar circumstances could learn from what happened in Beckley.

"There were so many innocent people who were negatively affected by this -- it was a real shame," Antolini said. "It really took its toll on our community. We lost 300 good-paying jobs and that institution pumped a lot of money into the economy in our entire region. My advice to the people in Dickinson would be to not take anything for granted. All along, people at MSU were telling us everything would be fine and, in the end, the accreditation did get pulled."

At Mountain State, the genesis of its issues in the eyes of the HLC were in its nursing program, which, in a public disclosure notice from 2012, the HLC noted was employing "insufficient credentialed faculty" and had "low-pass rates" on nursing licensure exams, according to the disclosure. At DSU, a scandal involving what the HLC called "oversight of admissions and transfer procedures" became public in early 2012.

Both university presidents at the time the transgressions came to light -- Richard McCallum at DSU and Charles Polk at MSU -- were fired by their respective institutions.

While Antolini's warning was clear, the numbers might be on DSU's side with regard to seeing through a positive outcome from its "on notice" status with the HLC. While there are currently 11 institutions with an "on-notice" status, HLC spokesman John Hausaman said a school actually losing its accreditation is "rare."

Since 2005, schools besides MSU that have been served with withdrawal actions by the HLC include Ellis University and NAES College, both in Chicago, and Lewis College of Business in Detroit, Hausaman said.

Citing HLC policy, Hausaman said he couldn't provide a complete list of all the schools that have been stripped of their accreditation in the past.

"The situations between Dickinson State and Mountain State are in no way comparable," DSU spokesperson Marie Moe stated in an email. "Dickinson State remains fully accredited by the Higher Learning Commission. Dickinson State has taken positive and proactive action to address the concerns of the Higher Learning Commission."

Moe also pointed out that DSU continues to be in good standing with a number of other discipline-specific accreditation agencies, including the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education and the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission, among others.

Following the submittal of a "notice response" in February, DSU hosted an HLC "visiting team" in April, which was charged with evaluating the changes noted in DSU's response. The next step in the process is scheduled to come from the HLC board, which will take up DSU's "on notice" status at its meeting in November.

While DSU's outcome is yet to be determined, Antolini said it shouldn't take anything for granted after he saw the shocking shuttering of his small town's university.

"If I'm Dickinson State, I would be nervous," Antolini said. "Based on what our experience was down here, I don't think anybody at all believed for a minute that they were going to have their general accreditation pulled. Some people thought that the nursing program would be shut down, but nobody thought the entire accreditation would be pulled. It was just incredible."

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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