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Another Inappropriately Awarded Degree

August 19, 2008

When West Virginia University admitted this year that it had awarded a degree to a politically connected business executive -- even though she didn't earn it -- many educators were shocked. They thought (or at least hoped) that degrees were sufficiently sacred that rules wouldn't be bent to give them out.

Then a scandal broke at Virginia Commonwealth University, where rules were broken to award a bachelor's degree to Richmond's then-chief of police, even though he had earned only 6 credits at the university -- far short of the minimum of 30 for those transferring credit from elsewhere. Experts were stunned by two such scandals in such a short period of time.

And now another university has been hit with a degree scandal. Carnegie Mellon University informed its faculty late Friday that Mark Wessel had resigned last week as dean of its H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management, two days after the university was informed of possible problems with a degree awarded by the school. The university's e-mail to professors said that Wessel had quit "due to an error in judgment involving the approval of excessive transfer credits and excessive units for independent study in lieu of coursework" for a student who received a master's degree in 2004. Further, the e-mail message said that the degree was awarded "outside of the Heinz School standard academic practices."

While the university said that federal privacy laws would bar the release of information about the student involved, Carnegie Mellon announced that it was reviewing records for five years to see if the degree was "an isolated case."

Based on the university statement, Carnegie Mellon moved much more quickly and exacted more significant consequences than either Virginia Commonwealth or West Virginia, both of which played down initial revelations about their degrees. While some resignations at WVU -- including that of the president -- have been attributed to the scandal there, they didn't happen until after considerable protest. VCU has declined to identify the officials who were involved in its degree scandal -- although some departures have sparked speculation. At Carnegie Mellon, a dean was apparently out within days of when the university learned of the problem.

At VCU, the university has also insisted that the degree awarded will not be revoked. But a spokesman for Carnegie Mellon said that the status of the degree there would be determined by a committee currently studying the situation.

According to a Carnegie Mellon spokesman, most master's degrees at the Heinz School require 144 to nearly 200 credits, depending on the program. Normally, only 12 transfer credits and 12 independent study credits are permitted. Carnegie Mellon declined to say how many of such credits this student used.

Wessel remains an employee at Carnegie Mellon. A spokesman said that he is not tenured, and that his current job title is lecturer. Wessel did not respond to a message seeking comment.

 

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