A panel charged with investigating West Virginia University's decision to award a master of business administration degree retroactively to the governor’s daughter last fall found that senior administrators showed poor judgment and a failure of academic leadership in hastily opting to grant the degree -- without clear or sufficient evidence that Heather Bresch had fairly earned it.
In fact, the panel found, she had not.
“This is a sad set of circumstances,” the panel concludes in a report publicly released Wednesday. “Mistake was compounded by mistake. An unnecessary rush to judgment, spurred in some measure by an understandable desire to protect a valued alumna and to respond to media pressure, produced a flawed and erroneous result.”
In a list of recommendations, however, the five-person panel of professors focuses primarily on record-keeping and procedural matters, steering clear of recommending that any specific action be taken against the President Mike Garrison -- a nontraditional university leader with strong political connections -- or his staff. Yet, as the report makes clear, the “failures of leadership” were happening at the highest administrative levels.
Bresch’s academic record first came under scrutiny Thursday, October 11 when the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette came calling. In subsequent telephone calls with the president and his chief of staff, Bresch, a pharmaceutical company executive, disputed university records showing that she had not completed her M.B.A. degree back in 1998. The president's office, the panel finds, immediately began addressing the issue as a "records discrepancy."
Administrators were asked to gather records on the nearly decade-old disputed degree over the weekend -- an insufficient period of time, the panel notes -- with little or no effort made to contact faculty members or former students to confirm Bresch’s account. On that following Monday, in a meeting chaired by the provost, the attendees found themselves with what they believed to be inconclusive information, the report says. “As Provost [Gerald E.] Lang explained to the panel, given the conflicting information considered and his and other participants’ belief that no additional information was available, the decision was made based on the discussion at the meeting to award Ms. Bresch an M.B.A. degree, whether she had actually earned it or not."
The provost delegated the decision to retroactively award the degree to the College of Business and Economics dean, R. Stephen Sears, the report states.
“The panel believes that the prevailing sentiment of the meeting … was that a way should be found to justify the granting of the degree, if at all possible. Either no dissenting or contrary views were expressed or they were discounted.”
Furthermore, the report states that senior administrators at that meeting -- including Provost Lang, Dean Sears and the president’s chief of staff, Craig Walker -- “cherry picked” evidence without sufficient regard for contrary information. “Inexplicably, the participants at the meeting did not discuss the specifics of Ms. Bresch’s actual courses or course work during the meeting,” the panel notes.
And “astonishingly,” the report says, the administrators made no effort to confirm Bresch’s account that she had been excused from her remaining M.B.A. requirements -- amounting to about half of her total coursework, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has reported -- in favor of credits for work experience.
“This reported accommodation was directly contradicted by the person who allegedly made it, Professor [Paul] Speaker [then the director of the program]. Moreover, the panel believes that no student should have a reasonable basis to conclude that he or she could or would be excused from so many outstanding credit and course obligations simply upon the basis of experiential learning, in this case, engaging in one’s regular job responsibilities.”
Administrators then modified Bresch's transcript, which now, the panel finds, "reflects her completion of some courses that she did not in fact complete, and reflects a number of grades that she did not in fact earn."
Yet, problems of record-keeping or awarding of credit were not pervasive, the report found, but limited to this one high-profile, political case. "In the face of these circumstances, what should the appropriate WVU administrators have done?" the report's authors ask in the conclusion. "Frankly, they should have done just what they said they were doing: they should have treated Ms. Bresch like they would or should have treated any other student who was raising such a complaint about the accuracy of his or her attendance and/or graduation records."
In a statement Wednesday, the chairman of the Board of Governors, Stephen P. Goodwin, called on Garrison to inform Bresch of the panel's recommendation that the panel take action relative to her (unearned) degree. And, more generally, he called on Garrison to “accept responsibility for errors in judgment and procedures relative to this matter made by members of, and personnel affiliated with, the administration.”
No decisions have been made about discipline and no one has resigned, a university spokeswoman confirmed Wednesday afternoon. Sears, the dean, and Garrison described plans to personally carry out the panel’s recommendations, including a strengthening of various processes and procedures.
"I deeply regret that the West Virginia University community, here on campus and around the state and the world, has had to endure the lengthy process that led to this day. But we will be stronger for it, and our honest response to it as a university will define us as an institution whose governance is open and shared," Garrison said in a statement.
Students and faculty alike worried Wednesday about the implications for the academic integrity of the institution -- a degree, after all, is the foremost currency of a university, and it must be backed by value.
“We’re just sort of worried because we’re actually earning our degrees and if these things are happening, power and coercion are happening, what does that mean for the credibility of our grades and our degrees?” said David Ryan, opinion editor for West Virginia's student newspaper, The Daily Athenaeum.
“We’re all working hard for our degrees, all our students are going to classes, they’re doing the right thing, they’re talking to their advisers, they’re getting their degrees, and if things like this are happening that undermines everyone,” Ryan said.
“I will say that the whole series of events has been very sad for our university, which is a university of integrity, and our faculty take our jobs very seriously," said Virginia Kleist, an associate professor of management and chair-elect of the Faculty Senate. "And anything that undermines our integrity and teaching and mission is sad.”