By ALEC BERRY
The Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register
WHEELING, W.Va. — Weeks after the Rev. James Fleming announced his resignation as Wheeling Jesuit University’s president, the school has hired Debra Townsley as its interim leader.
The university made the announcement late Tuesday morning. Townsley will be the second woman to serve as interim president at Wheeling Jesuit, after Sister Francis Marie Thrailkill held the post for about 11 months in 2010 prior to the tenure of Richard Beyer.
Townsley’s background includes the presidency at William Peace University in Raleigh, N.C., from which she retired in June 2015.
She has also served as president of Nichols College in Dudley, Mass.
According to a news release from WJU, Townsley will be assisted by Michael Miller, the former president of Northland College in Ashland, Wisc., who will accept the role of special advisor.
Kelly Klubert, executive director of alumni and communications at WJU, said Townsley and members of the school’s board of trustees were unavailable for comment Tuesday.
Klubert had not responded to an email with questions on the hire as of press time.
During Townsley’s five-year tenure at William Peace University, undergraduate enrollment increased by 40 percent and student retention improved by 9 percent, according to the release from Wheeling Jesuit.
She also presided over that school’s fall 2012 transition from an all-women’s school — which it had been for the first 150 years of its existence — to a coeducational institution.
William Peace University is a private school affiliated with the Presbyterian Church.
Its enrollment of just over 1,000 is slightly less than that of Wheeling Jesuit — 1,385 students, according to the university’s website.
Townsley began her career in higher education at Marymount University of Virginia, where she served as assistant professor of business, in 1980. In addition to her jobs in higher education, she also has worked as a marketing representative at IBM and as a senior consultant and project manager with the technology consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton.
Fleming served at WJU for seven years, including as president since 2013.
“It has been an honor for me to serve the university, the Jesuit community here and the people of the greater Wheeling area,” Fleming said upon his resignation in early January.
“I believe the hard work and sacrifice of our trustees, faculty, staff, alumni and particularly Bishop (Michael) Bransfield and the diocese, have brought the institution to a point where a change in leadership seems natural and wise.”
In a statement after Fleming’s resignation, Klubert said it’s not unusual for the Jesuit order to move leaders around, adding seven years is “a long time for a member to serve in a leadership role at an organization.”
She said Fleming accomplished his goal as president, which was to advance the partnership between the university, the Jesuits and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.
The transition comes during a period of financial difficulty for Wheeling Jesuit.
The diocese is providing support to the school, allowing it to meet its financial obligations — which it has been unable to do independently during the current or previous fiscal year, according to a release from the university.
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