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VCU Allows Improperly Awarded Degree

June 30, 2008

Virginia Commonwealth University on Friday announced that an investigation had found that a bachelor's degree had been awarded to the former police chief of Richmond even though he was not close to meeting a key degree requirement. However, the university announced at the same time that because the former police chief did not seek special treatment, he wasn't responsible for the degree being awarded -- and the degree will stand as legitimate.

The incident at Virginia Commonwealth marks the second case this year -- the other being a scandal at West Virginia University in which the institution announced that the governor's daughter had earned a degree that she hadn't -- in which politically connected individuals have been credited with degrees they did not earn.

The West Virginia scandal eventually led to the resignations of the president and provost and there may be sanctions at VCU as well, although the university's board announced that Eugene P. Trani, the president, had not engaged in "undue influence" in the case. However, the university's board chair said that others at the university erred.

"We have concluded that none of this could have happened without individuals in positions of trust making serious errors in judgment in the degree granting process," said the board chair's statement. "Further, we were disappointed in the lack of cooperation we received in the investigation. Consequently, the board has directed the university administration to suggest appropriate personnel actions in accordance with university and state policies."

The VCU degree was awarded to Rodney Monroe, who recently left his position as police chief in Richmond to take a similar job in Charlotte, N.C. An anonymous tipster -- who identified himself as Harry Potter -- wrote this spring to Richmond and Charlotte journalists, and to the VCU board, saying that Monroe hadn't fulfilled degree requirements. The tip noted that Monroe had earned only 6 credits at VCU, far short of the requirement that at least 30 credits of a bachelor's degree (which totals 120 credits) be earned at the university, and that all of the rest of his credit was transferred in. Such requirements are common, and arise out of the belief that if students haven't earned some critical mass of credit from an institution, it can't reasonably assure much about the person's education.

While Monroe was not required to have a bachelor's degree for the Richmond position, he was required to have one to apply for the Charlotte job. The Charlotte Observer reported that the bulk of Monroe's credits came from the University of Phoenix and the FBI Academy.

When news of the investigation leaked, VCU officials told local reporters (and Inside Higher Ed) that exceptions are sometimes made to the 30 credit rule so violating it shouldn't be seen as exceptional. Actually, as the VCU announcement on Friday made clear, it was exceptional.

"The investigation reviewed all degrees granted since 2003, and this is the only instance, other than posthumously awarded degrees, in which a student did not have 30 credit hours at VCU," Friday's statement said.

In an interview Sunday, Trani said that in analyzing the situation, one of the "most difficult" issues for the board was a university policy to revoke degrees only if the recipient committed academic misconduct. Trani said the university would study whether that policy was "too narrowly focused" but that board members felt bound by it in this case. Trani said that prior to this controversy, he wasn't even aware of the policy.

Citing the need for confidentiality in personnel matters, Trani declined to discuss details of who had authorized the degree for Monroe. Trani did say that the decision to award the degree was "recommended" to the registrar's office, and that the registrar's office was "told" that Monroe "was in compliance" with degree requirements. He declined to say who did the telling or recommending.

"I am saddened that there have been two recent incidents in which the operations of Virginia Commonwealth University have been questioned," he said.

For Virginia Commonwealth, the degree controversy is the second case in two months in which the university has found itself explaining why rules designed to promote academic integrity of various types were broken by university officials. In May, The New York Times reported that senior VCU officials admitted that terms of research agreements the institution signed with Philip Morris violated university rules in the extent of control they gave the tobacco giant over release of information about the research. (The university responded to the article's publication by accusing the Times of taking information out of context.)

Dan Ream, president of the Faculty Senate at VCU, said he was "puzzled as to what happened" with the degree, and that he had many questions. But Ream, who serves as faculty member on the university's board, said that he holds the trustees in high regard and wanted to hold off on making judgments without more facts.

In the case of the tobacco research, Ream said that President Trani has responded by appointing a committee to examine VCU's research ties. Ream said that the panel, on which he serves, has been given wide leeway to identify any problems, and that he is "optimistic" that the end result will be positive.

At West Virginia, where professors organized protests, no confidence votes and publicity campaigns against their administration after the degree scandal broke, faculty distrust of the administration was high before the scandal broke. At VCU, Ream said, "I can't say that there is a wide concern or distrust on the faculty."

Maike Philipsen, professor of education at Virginia Commonwealth and president of the university's chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said that she was reluctant to evaluate the university's response before all the facts are out. But she said that "it certainly is disconcerting from the vantage point that somebody seems to have received special consideration. Certainly Monroe was not treated like any other students, and from an AAUP point of view that's a problem. One of the ethical commitments we have as faculty is to treat all students equally, and it seems that did not happen."

Looking at the degree and tobacco research debates together, Philipsen said she has very mixed feelings. "It's easy to pass judgment, and part of me is appalled by these things and part of me understands. State support is dwindling and we can't raise tuition," she said. "I benefit from what VCU is trying to do, and at times that means playing to the powers that be," she said.

Registrars nationally have been watching the probes at West Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth with special interest, since they are charged with enforcing degree rules -- and tend to do so quite effectively when political interests don't lead higher-ups to break rules.

Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director for external relations of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said via e-mail that the university's statement "raises more questions than it answers. The strangeness of the university’s decision not to rescind an improperly awarded (and technically unearned) degree is only outdone by the meekness of the rationale offered in its support."

 

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