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Report leads to retirement of Bluefield State president Capehart

Former Bluefield State University president Robin Capehart speaks at a Joint Education Committee meeting during November 2021 legislative interim meetings. (Photo courtesy of WV Legislative Photography)

CHARLESTON — For the second time in eight years, Moundsville native Robin Capehart has resigned as president of one of West Virginia’s four-year universities after issues were discovered at Bluefield State University.

According to an October report based on a focused visit in September by representatives of the Higher Learning Commission, a regional college accreditation agency, Bluefield State University officials will have to go before the HLC’s Institutional Actions Council next March in Chicago to further explain actions by Capehart and other Bluefield State officials, including alleged unethical behavior toward faculty and staff.

The report was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request filed Nov. 8 with the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission.

The BSU Board of Governors accepted Capehart’s resignation Nov. 2 during meetings that same day. According to a press release, Capehart is assisting the board during the transition period with a search for a permanent president beginning after the end of the year. A request for comment from Capehart was not returned.

The board of governors announced Tuesday that BSU alumnus Darrin Martin, Ed.D., would become interim president of BSU following a special meeting by the board Monday.

“The Board of Governors is excited to have a three-generation Bluefield State graduate leading this institution to greater things,” said Board Chair Charlie Cole in a prepared statement Tuesday.

Martin earned his bachelor’s in mathematics teacher education from BSU, a master’s in educational leadership and administration from Radford University and his doctorate in educational leadership and policy studies from Virginia Tech. Martin was employed in Virginia at Bluefield University in multiple roles, including associate professor of education, a program dean and director of Graduate Education Studies.

In an email sent Tuesday evening to the Bluefield State community, Martin said he had read the HLC report and posted it publicly that same day for the campus to read and provide feedback.

“Bluefield State has much potential, but we can only reach that potential if we work together and share a trust with and toward one another,” Martin said. “I am confident that our best days are ahead of us and I will fully dedicate myself in service to this institution, its students, its employees, its alumni, and our community.”

“In that regard, I have reviewed a report which was received last month from the Higher Learning Commission.” Martin continued. “As an institution, we have much work to do. I am rolling up my sleeves for Bluefield State. I hope that you will join me.”

Officials at BSU hope that tapping Martin to run the state’s second historically black college and university that those actions will communicate to the HLC that they are serious about moving on from Capehart and creating a better atmosphere for faculty, staff and students.

ACADEMIC PROBATION

HLC officials visited BSU for a peer review focused visit between Sept. 25 and 26. The purpose of the visit was to review concerns that the university was out of compliance with HLC requirements that higher education institutions must establish and follow “…policies and processes to ensure fair and ethical behavior on the part of its governing board, administration, faculty and staff.”

However, according to the report, the peer review team discovered additional issues during their visit to BSU. The review team encountered individuals following them and recording conversations during visits with faculty and staff, interviewers talked with employees who were “often near tears” recounting experiences at the university, and the team was witness to at least one conflict between individuals during a meeting.

The peer review team determined that enough evidence collected during their visit to BSU warrants sanctions from the Higher Learning Commission.

“The evidence indicates that (Capehart) and the Board of Governors of Bluefield State University do not operate with integrity in several academic and human resources functions,” the report stated.

According to the report, the BSU Board of Governors approved a new hiring policy offered by Capehart in 2022 that allowed him to hire anyone into positions without a formal search process, giving him “unlimited control in the recruitment, appointment, and evaluation of faculty.”

“Those interviewed gave numerous examples of individuals hired without a formal search process, including faculty hires made by the President with no input from the faculty,” the review team said. “The President recently deemed as failed a search for a faculty member in Political Science because he felt the top two candidates (both minority candidates) did not have American political science credentials, even though that was not included in the position description.”

Staff and administrators reported to the review team that staff were moved into different positions and staff titles changed without notice. Some reported feeling unqualified for their positions and that their jobs do not match the descriptions for the positions.

In 2022, Capehart oversaw the end of the faculty senate by the Board of Governors and the creation of post-tenure review for professors, resulting in a vote of no confidence in Capehart’s leadership last November. BSU’s staff council has also not met in more than two years.

“(Capehart) indicated…that the Faculty Senate would not cooperate with him,” the report team said. “He also said that he did not attend Faculty Senate meetings…because he did not like some of the questions he was asked.”

The faculty senate was replaced in January 2023 with a faculty assembly with new bylaws written by Brent Benjamin, a former state Supreme Court justice, BSU’s executive vice president and general counsel. While the body could amend its bylaws, those changes had to be approved by Capehart, who also decided what items were placed on agendas. Benjamin declined to comment for this story.

The end of the faculty senate also eliminated several standing committees for curriculum, program review and promotion and tenure. According to the review, the faculty senate was eliminated even after the body approved of changes requested by Capehart to make the body more inclusive. The faculty assembly has been unable to meet due to lack of quorum.

“Given a lack of quorum at the majority of Assembly meetings, officers have been unable to form or populate committees,” the review team stated. “Therefore, for over 10 months the University has been without peer-based program review, curriculum, and promotion and tenure review at the University-level.”

WILL AND PLEASURE

According to the report, peer review team members heard concerns from employees that Capehart used the new post-tenure review process to “penalize or eliminate those who did not agree with the President.” The post-tenure review process, which involves the academic dean, provost and president, includes no faculty input.

The HLC peer review team accused Capehart of retroactively not renewing the contract of an unnamed staff member who had raised concerns with the review team about being moved into a new position for which the person felt they were not qualified.

“In a follow up email, the staff member indicated that s/he had received a back-dated letter (to a date two weeks before the visit),” the review team said. “This individual was then given a letter of termination. The staff member was provided no reason for the termination and was simply told that ‘we all serve at the will and pleasure of the president.'”

“The visit team is concerned that this individual’s employment was terminated for raising these issues with the visit team and that others may also be terminated for speaking out during the site visit,” the report continued.

The review team also determined that sanctions were warranted against the BSU Board of Governors for “not making decisions in the best interest of the university.” The report said the board is not trained on HLC policies and best practices, is unduly influenced by Capehart and does not provide faculty with the opportunity to oversee the development of curriculum. The review team found further monitoring warranted over recent academic changes.

Capehart was selected by the board as the 16th president of then-named Bluefield State College on Sept. 11, 2019. He served as interim president beginning in January 2019 and was formally installed as president on Oct. 17, 2020.

Originally founded as the Bluefield Colored Institute in 1895, the school specializes in teaching, engineering and nursing. Bluefield State and West Virginia State University at Institute are the last historically Black colleges and universities in the state after Storer College in Harpers Ferry closed in the 1950s.

This is the second time Capehart resigned from leading a state university. Capehart resigned as president of West Liberty University in 2015 following a vote of no confidence by faculty and a 13-count order from the state Ethics Commission. Capehart was accused of using university resources for a private film company he founded. Capehart later settled the ethics complaint, agreeing to one charge and agreeing to pay a $5,000 fine and $5,000 in costs associated with the investigation.

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com.

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