Mike Garrison’s struggle to hold onto his position as West Virginia University’s president is shaping into something of a cautionary tale for politically-appointed university chiefs.
Selected largely for his political experience, and lacking the basic academic pedigree of most presidents, Garrison relied on his connections as a scandal broke about allegations that a degree had been inappropriately awarded to a politically connected executive. As the charges and evidence multiplied, and as professors became more and more angry, many political leaders had his back, and his board seemed firmly in his corner. But in recent days, as some of his political backing has weakened, the flip side of his situation has become apparent. Many at the university say that Garrison’s non-traditional background as a political figure – not an academic – could make him all the more vulnerable to losing his job.
“As soon as those that are propping him up decide not to prop him up, he has nothing to stand up on,” said Boyd Edwards, a WVU physics professor who heads a grassroots group, Mountaineers for Integrity and Responsibility, calling for Garrison’s ouster. “He never did have the support of faculty from day one.”
Faculty condemned Garrison’s selection from the start. In 2007, the Faculty Senate declared “no confidence” in the search process that led to his appointment. More recently, Garrison himself received a no-confidence vote, following a university panel’s April report that criticized WVU “leadership” for granting an unearned degree to the governor’s daughter.
Garrison denies playing a direct role in awarding the degree to Heather Bresch, a pharmaceutical company executive and daughter of Gov. Joe Manchin. The issue first came to light in December, when the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette raised questions about Bresch’s degree.
Now connected to the controversy himself, Manchin didn’t exactly come out swinging for Garrison in a statement Monday. On the same day, the university’s Board of Governors held an emergency meeting, widely believed to focus on Garrison. Manchin gave board members carte blanche to “make their own individual and collective decisions” regarding the embattled president.
“While many members are appointed by a governor, they do not serve at the will and pleasure of a governor,” wrote Manchin, who declined to give a specific recommendation about Garrison’s future. “They may act as they wish during their four-year terms as long as it is within legal and ethical reason.”
And there were signs board members may be ready to reassess their strong support for Garrison. Steve Goodwin, the board chair and in the past a vocal backer of the president, pointedly said nothing specific when asked by the Pittsburgh paper if he still backed Garrison.
While state university governance structures vary across the country, one thing is constant: The governor’s backing is essential for flagship presidents, who frequently thrive or fall based upon that seal of approval, according to Dennis Barden, who assists universities’ in presidential searches.
Garrison’s gubernatorial connections are well known. A lawyer and lobbyist, he was former chief of staff to Democratic Gov. Bob Wise, Manchin’s predecessor.
“Does this (necessity for political approval) mean that a perfectly sound president could lose his or her job because he or she doesn’t have the appropriate political base? The answer is yes,” said Barden, managing partner of higher education for Witt/Kieffer executive search firm. “The flip side is also true, that a president who is not doing a good job can keep his or her job because he or she does have the appropriate political base.”
Politically savvy of a sort has long been part of the pre-requisite presidential DNA for university chiefs, Barden said. Diplomacy, lobbying, and even a bit of hardball are hardly new tools of the trade. But the purely political president is an emerging fashion in higher education that is still being tested with mixed results, Barden said. If Garrison doesn't survive, it won't be a first for a politically connected university president. Robert L. King became chancellor of the State University of New York in large part because of his close ties to then-Gov. George Pataki, and he left in 2005 when Pataki signaled that he was no longer backing him
Conventional wisdom suggests politically-connected presidents can bring home the bacon for their home institutions. Whether Garrison can still deliver on those hopes, however, remains to be seen, Barden said.
“I don’t think you could say President Garrison is off to a very good start,” said Barden, whose firm did not handle the search that netted Garrison. “Is that going to do him well in the state House in terms of allocation of state funds? I rather doubt it.”
Garrison did not have time for an interview Tuesday, according to WVU officials.
While the granting of the degree has caused fervor among WVU faculty and alumni, such an action might not be altogether frowned upon in the modern world of academia, according to Marc Bousquet, an associate professor of English at Santa Clara University. Bousquet, who has criticized the corporatization of higher education in his writings, said acts of political favoritism – real or perceived – are customary in the corporate world that now has such a foothold in universities.
The degree granting at WVU is “kind of a corporate accommodation that you would see in all kinds of industries,” said Bousquet, author of How the University Works.
“Absolutely, the [political leaders] of your state are your biggest customers,” he added. “They are responsible for your funding. Keeping those people happy is an accepted value within the corporate mindset.”
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