Sunday, August 05, 2012

No inquiry into jet use at Mountain State University: Thousands of flights took millions of dollars away from ailing school

Click here to see a map of flights taken by former MSU president Charles Polk.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Six months after Mountain State University fired its longtime president for steering the school into an accreditation meltdown, MSU's trustees have still not investigated the ousted president's frequent use of the university's private jet, as they said they would. 

When the MSU Board of Trustees fired Polk in January, its members publicly pledged to investigate how he had used the school's two airplanes after The Charleston Gazette reported that Polk had made hundreds of flights that appeared to have no university purpose.

Yet six months later, when MSU is just months away from shutting down after losing its accreditation, Polk has yet to face any sanctions from the board for his plane usage, and no investigation has been launched.

"With everything going on at the institution, we have not done any kind of investigation with Dr. Polk's use of the plane," Jerry Ice, chairman of the Board of Trustees, said last week.

Newly acquired flight records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show that MSU officials made thousands of flights that sucked millions of dollars from the struggling college's bank account.

In the past decade, more than 1,400 flights were made on Mountain State's two aircraft, a Cessna 500 jet and a single-engine Cirrus SR22 propeller plane. Those flights cost MSU about $2.5 million in fuel and in landing fees, according to Federal Aviation Administration records.

The cost breakdowns are based on per-hour estimates provided to The Wall Street Journal by aviation consulting firm Conklin & de Decker Aviation.

Most of those flights were made to and from Beckley, where MSU's main campus is located. In the flights to and from Beckley alone, MSU officials used a university plane to travel to 24 states more than 1,100 times in the past 10 years.

In an interview before he was fired, Polk said all of the flights were made solely for university business, but he could not specifically identify what the business purpose was when asked about particular flights.

"I guess that depends how you define solely university business," said Polk. "There's a university purpose behind every use of that plane."

Not all the flights made by MSU's jet departed from or arrived in Beckley. School officials often would make a trip to Florida and then fly from there to North Carolina.

In the past decade, 249 flights were made on MSU's jet to the North Carolina airport about 20 minutes away from Polk's home in Mooresville, according to flight records. MSU opened a branch campus in Mooresville in 2009, but flights to the North Carolina airport near Polk's home began in 2002.

Fifty-nine flights also were made to Polk's hometown of Lufkin, Texas, according to the flight records.

Last month, MSU became the first institution in West Virginia history to have its general accreditation revoked by the Higher Learning Commission.

MSU will shut down on Dec. 31, at which point the University of Charleston will take over the school's Beckley and Martinsburg campuses.

After he was fired, many school officials blamed Polk for creating a university culture where program quality was second to a relentless drive for profits -- a model that ultimately led to MSU's demise.

In the wake of MSU's accreditation loss, the Board of Trustees has said it plans to sell both university aircraft.

MSU purchased the 1974 Cessna 500 jet in 2001, according to FAA licensing records, and school officials made frequent use of the aircraft. MSU paid between $1 million and $1.5 million for the twin-engine jet, said Polk. He justified its purchase as a way to cut down on travel and hotel costs.

MSU bought the single-engine 2002 Cirrus Design Corp. SR22 airplane in 2009 for about $200,000, Polk said.

No public universities in West Virginia own private aircraft, according to the Higher Education Policy Commission.

West Virginia University leases a jet from an aviation company but does not own an airplane, said WVU spokesman John Bolt. From July 1, 2010, to June 30, 2011, WVU's leased plane made 127 flights.

Click here to see a map of flights taken by former MSU president Charles Polk.

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