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After the Fall at WVU

June 9, 2008

The Friday resignation of West Virginia University President Mike Garrison had the appearance of the final act of an academic scandal that had plagued the university community for months. But Garrison, a longtime lobbyist who became president a year ago despite faculty objections, could stick around campus beyond his declared September resignation date, according to the chairman of the university’s governing board.

“There are some ways he might be given an assignment within the university,” Stephen Goodwin, the board's chairman, said of Garrison. “It depends on what his interests are.… He could be an advisor or consultant in some way in the university.”

Garrison, who had resisted stepping down until Friday, was ultimately undone by an ongoing controversy that shook faculty and community faith in the integrity of the institution and its leadership. In December, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette revealed that an M.B.A. degree had been improperly awarded to Heather Bresch, the daughter of Gov. Joe Manchin. Bresch, who retains her position as chief operating officer of the pharmaceutical company Mylan, Inc., is a friend and former business associate of Garrison.

It is common for presidential appointments to include tenured professor positions, which presidents may fall into after a resignation. But Garrison did not receive a faculty position when he was hired. Furthermore, the venomous emotions surrounding the West Virginia controversy have created heightened sensitivity to the often accepted practice of administrators returning to the faculty. Indeed, some are still bitter that others involved in the scandal — Provost Gerald Lang and Stephen Sears, dean of the College of Business — have retained six-figure salaries in teaching posts that awaited them after their resignations.

Asked if he thought there would be backlash if Garrison stayed at West Virginia, Goodwin said “there will be backlash if we don’t shoot him,” only to quickly ask if he could retract the statement.

“We’ll have backlash,” he added. “I’m convinced.”

Garrison has an annual salary of $255,000, and his contract stipulates that if he is “terminated without cause by the board” he can continue to draw that salary for 6 or 12 months, depending on when he resigns. The general counsel’s office at West Virginia said Friday that the clause would not apply because Garrison wasn’t fired, but Goodwin seemed to leave the door open to a deal that would keep paying Garrison.

“It’s hardly a golden parachute,” Goodwin said. “He only has two years left on his contract.”

Goodwin, a lawyer in Morgantown, said he hadn’t spoken with Garrison about his future plans. In his speech before the Board Friday, Garrison merely said he would “continue to serve as president of WVU until September” and did not elaborate further.

Garrison is a graduate of West Virginia's law school, but facutly did not vote to grant him a position in the college. In contrast, David Hardesty, a Rhodes Scholar and Harvard Law School graduate who preceded Garrison as president, was given a faculty position that he still holds.

“I know of nothing which would provide (Garrison) with a faculty position at the law school,” said Robert Bastress, a law professor who, along with 10 others in his college, signed a letter calling Garrison’s ouster. “He has not taught here and we certainly never voted to confer a faculty position on him.”

Hopes for a Better Search Process

What happens in the wake of Garrison’s resignation will prove a test for West Virginia University, an institution that has had a shaky history when it comes to hiring presidents. Faculty gave a vote of no confidence in the search that netted Garrison, and there were even objections to the search that led to the hiring of predecessor.

Boyd Edwards, who headed a group called Mountaineers for Integrity and Responsibility, which pressured Garrison to resign, said he’s concerned the university’s recent history will deter strong candidates. That said, Edwards said he thinks members of the Board of Governors may have been sufficiently shamed into providing a fair process that will garner faculty support.

“If I were applying at West Virginia University, I would need assurances of some kind that the search would be open and transparent, but I believe that there is hope even in that,” he said. “I think the Board of Governors has learned some lessons, and I trust them not to try any tricks on this next presidential search.”

The board has an opportunity to send a message, starting with the selection of an interim president that could have a calming affect on campus, according to James Ferrare, president of Academic Search, a firm that specializes in hiring university presidents. Governing boards also have to take steps to assure candidates that the process will be fair, he added.

“In general, certainly if the process appears to be that the board is going to make the selection in the back room, then yeah it has a profound impact on the pool,” said Ferrare, whose firm does not represent West Virginia University.

The circumstances at West Virginia, as difficult as they are, also create an opening for a heroic figure to come in and turn things around, Ferrare said.

“Let’s face it, everyone has their chin on the ground right now there,” he said. “And I think the faculty, and staff and students are looking for someone to carry the flag and say ‘hey, let’s show everyone who we really are.’“

Some faculty, however, say there are systemic problems with West Virginia’s higher education governance structure that need to be reformed. The Board of Governors, which oversees West Virginia, is largely appointed by the governor — as is the case in many states. But since the degree scandal that brought down Garrison directly implicated the Democratic governor’s daughter, some raised questions about whether board members appointed by the governor could truly act in an objective and independent fashion.

Rep. Barbara Fleischauer recently met with members of the Mountaineers for Integrity and Responsibility to discuss their concerns about the state’s governance system. In a brief interview Friday, she said she would “look into” possibilities for reform.

“My main view is when people ask me to do something I look into it,” she said. “And I intend to look into this.”

 

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