WHEELING, W.Va., Feb. 26 - New Wheeling Jesuit University Interim President Debra M. Townsley says more online classes aimed toward attracting a higher number of advanced degree students is probable as the school seeks to increase enrollment and generate more revenue toward operations.
Townsley two weeks ago took over as interim president at WJU, a school that has been unable independently to meet its financial needs over the past two years. It has been receiving support from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.
“For small private schools today, the biggest challenge is enrollment,” she said. “That's across the nation, even for state schools today. Nationally, even state college enrollment has declined in recent years.
“It's a challenge we all face, and it requires having a distinctive mission and strong outcomes. Certainly, being the only Catholic Jesuit institution in the region makes it a very distinctive mission.”
Townsley sees technology offerings as among WJU's strengths, and something that can be marketed toward adults seeking higher degrees.
“Our undergraduate students… come for the campus experience,” she said. “Online classes don't really suit them, unless they're involved in an internship. They may pick up an online class here and there.
“Certainly, for the working adult who is coming back to finish a degree, online is very convenient.”
WJU already has a strong masters in nursing degree program online, Townsley said, and nurse practitioner degrees also are available through the web. Additional programs are being considered.
Townsley has more than 30 years experience working in higher education. She last spent five years as president of William Peace University in Raleigh, N.C., a job from which she retired in June 2015. She has also served as president of Nichols College in Dudley, Mass.
Townsley has held faculty positions at Marymount University of Virginia, Northern Virginia Community College and St. Michael's College in Vermont.
She has a doctorate in industrial/organizational psychology from the University of Vermont, where she also received a master's degree in psychology. She earned a second master's from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and bachelor's degrees from American University.
Townsley said during her first two weeks on the job she hasn't been able to venture much away from the WJU campus to explore the Wheeling area. She has been to The Highlands to pick up home supplies, and she has traveled downtown for dinner at Later Alligator.
But Townsley did live for a time as a youth in Pittsburgh, and she is familiar with the region. She knew of the reputation of WJU, calling it “a wonderful gem” among educational offerings.
“I enjoy working a very small schools that have a very strong mission,” she said. “I told myself I would take at least a year off - which I did, then I would start reflecting on what I would do next. I decided that interim positions at the right schools would be a match for me.”
Townsley then signed up with a registry that matches educators with interim positions at places of higher education, and she was tapped by Wheeling Jesuit.
With her husband and three dogs staying behind in North Carolina, she said she isn't interested in having a another full-time administrative position at a university.
“I've done two presidencies, which in itself is unusual,” she said. “I think I have a strong background in higher education, particularly in smaller, faith-based schools.
“I thought this could be fun to see different parts of the country, and meet new people. “
And Townsley said WJU isn't just “for students who are Catholic.”
“Students today don't necessarily equate themselves to a particular religion, but they are highly spiritual,” she said. “A Catholic education is about mind, body and spirit, so they come the academic part, and the athletic part and fitness and being well-rounded.
“Then you have the spirit, and we're very strong in the spirit reflecting learning and addressing the whole person. That's what we do very well.”