February 11, 2012
Was Charles Polk a Machiavelli at Mountain State U.?
Fired president a tyrant, some say; others praise his success at elevating school
File photo
Charles Polk, ousted last month as president of Mountain State University, modeled his leadership style at MSU after a book he published five years ago that endorses Machiavellian power games, manipulation of subordinates and cutthroat competition, according to faculty members and university staff.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Charles Polk, ousted last month as president of Mountain State University, modeled his leadership style at MSU after a book he published five years ago that endorses Machiavellian power games, manipulation of subordinates and cutthroat competition, according to faculty members and university staff.

"It's really a story on his leadership style," said William White, dean of MSU's school of leadership and co-author of the book, titled "Apex Thinking."

"[Polk] did use tenets of the book to run the school," said White, who also is a state Board of Education member. "It pretty much tells you what his philosophy is."

Polk, who was fired by MSU's board of trustees last month in the midst of the school's serious accreditation problems, wrote "Apex Thinking" in 2007. The book is now a required text for students in MSU's School of Leadership.

"A . . . misconception about life at the top is that those who make it do so because they exemplify positive human behavior - honesty, integrity, and morality," Polk wrote in the opening chapter. "Unfortunately there is another side of the success story which, sometimes, involves negative characteristics which we generally ... consider inappropriate within our leaders."

Those people, Polk wrote, who "have the ability to employ politics, instill fear in subordinates, and make power plays that often require hurting others also make it to the top."

Former MSU employees, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, said the book's idea that mind games and power plays are integral to effective leadership wasn't just a thought experiment. They say "Apex Thinking" became the playbook for how administrators ran the university.

"Some great people were let go in the most underhanded, manipulative, disgusting ways, because they did a great job," said a former staffer at MSU's Martinsburg campus. "Polk thinks that anyone who does a good job could be a threat, so he fires them. That's what they did with all the qualified people. It's a trickle-down effect throughout the university."

Theory of power

"In issues of survival or non-survival, sometimes the deliberate misuse of power becomes the only way to survive, even though such misuse may involve unintentionally harming others. This tactic again requires the chief executive to answer that very important question. How far am I willing to go in the use of my power in order to survive?" -- "Apex Thinking"

Former MSU employees said Polk and other administrators were willing to go to great lengths to maintain power. People who did not toe the university line were fired in what Polk called "boxing parties," they said.

"Whatever he said went, that's how they did things at the school," said a former faculty member at the Martinsburg campus. "Everyone lived in fear of him."

Based on what he wrote in "Apex Thinking," Polk adhered to the Machiavellian idea that it is better for a leader to be feared than loved.

"Traditional ideology maintains that when fear can be instilled in subordinates, one can effectively control their behavior," states the book.

MSU had incredible faculty turnover in recent years -- from employees voluntarily leaving the school or being fired. At the Martinsburg campus, from 2006-2008, there was a nearly 120 percent faculty turnover rate, according to one source.

One former MSU employee said he had a job one day and then was abruptly fired the next. There was no warning, no explanation, he said.

"They gave me no notice, no severance pay," said the source, who is an MSU graduate. "Just showed up and fired me."

Three years before the Higher Learning Commission, MSU's primary national accrediting body, placed the university on show-cause status in June 2011, the HLC said the administration's relationship with employees posed a major problem.

"Many faculty and staff expressed concerns about their ability to provide input into university decision-making," said the HLC's 2008 report obtained by the Gazette-Mail. "In addition, existing processes for communication have created an environment of uncertainty, and rumors in some instances have contributed to low employee morale."

In MSU's response to the HLC report, Polk said administrators were making strides to increase collaboration with faculty.

"I took the organizational leadership and the masters in strategic leadership," said one former student, who also requested anonymity. "So after taking all these leadership studies and then seeing no leadership at the school . . . it was concerning."

Leadership at MSU

"The belief that one may, once at the top, eliminate the use of force, deceit, or power which may have been employed to get there in the first place is not correct." -- "Apex Thinking"

MSU faculty members said Polk misused his position as president, using the university he rebuilt in the 1990s as his personal playground. He placed family members in prominent university positions and jetted around the country on MSU's two private airplanes for what appeared to be personal business.

Polk appointed his son, Anthony, as business manager and assistant CFO of the Martinsburg campus one month after Anthony graduated from MSU with a business degree in 2010.

No one else was interviewed for the job, Polk told the Gazette-Mail in an earlier interview.

He said he didn't view his son's hiring as a conflict of interest.

"Conflict of interest says you're benefiting from that relationship, but there's no benefit accruing to anyone aside from the university," said Polk. "We put someone who is qualified to do the job."

As the Gazette-Mail previously has reported, Polk also made frequent use of the university's two airplanes. He made more than 100 flights to and from the Statesville Regional Airport in North Carolina, near his home in Mooresville, since 2007, according to Federal Aviation Administration records. He also used an MSU plane to fly to his hometown of Luftkin, Texas, where his mother still lives.

The flights to North Carolina cost MSU at least $170,000 and the Texas flights more than $62,000. All of MSU's flights come out of the university's operational budget, which is about $55 million this year.

In a previous interview with the Gazette-Mail, Polk said all the flights were made for university business, but he could not specifically identify the business purposes of particular flights.

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