For well over a decade now, the leaders of Wesley College’s Board of Trustees have turned to James L. Fisher whenever they needed help. The longtime college president turned higher education consultant led Wesley’s search for a new president in 1997 and has provided it with “assistance, advice and counsel with some regularity,” as one college official describes it.
So when Wesley’s president, Scott D. Miller, faced plagiarism charges this spring,  for the second time in his career, the trustees -- after rallying to Miller’s defense -- agreed to conduct an independent review of the accusations and of the college’s overall status. They asked Fisher, their trusted adviser, to put together a review panel, and he recruited three current or former college presidents, all of whom have worked with or for Fisher on other university consulting jobs. In its report last month,  the review panel concluded that plagiarism had occurred, but said it could not figure out whether Miller or someone else had committed it. Over all, the report praised Miller for essentially saving the college, saying he was "in the midst of one of the most successful college presidencies in the nation.”
Fisher's involvement, even at some distance, in the review of Miller troubles some observers on the campus and elsewhere, given what they say are the very close ties between Fisher and the president.
In 1991, Fisher, then a professor of leadership studies at the Union Institute, was the second reader for Miller's doctoral dissertation, and he encouraged Miller to apply for Wesley's presidency when he worked as a consultant to the trustees on that search. In addition, Fisher's 2004 book, The Entrepreneurial College President (ACE/Praeger), profiled Miller as one of 17 "highly successful" college chief executives who "demonstrate the transforming possibilities of effective, entrepreneurial presidencies." (Fisher's co-author on the book was James V. Koch, the president emeritus of Old Dominion University, whom Fisher recruited to lead the team that reviewed the plagiarism charges against Miller.)
Raymond D. Cotton,  a lawyer who is an expert on higher education governance, said he did not know enough about the Wesley situation to assess whether Fisher's involvement in the review created a conflict of interest, as some faculty critics on the campus have charged.
But in an era of heightened governmental and other scrutiny  of college governance and oversight by nonprofit boards, "when you have an issue with any president, you've got two levels of inquiry," Cotton said. "You've got the substantive level -- did this person actually do what was charged, in this case commit plagiarism? And the other issue that is always present in any investigation of a president is the appearance, and a board has to deal with both. You want the appearance of the process to be above reproach."
Fisher's secretary said he was traveling and could not be reached for comment, and Wesley's president and trustees referred all questions to a lawyer for the college, David Wilks, who strongly rejected the notion that Fisher's involvement in the review tainted its outcome in any way. "The board recognized the importance of having people who are not members of the Wesley community conduct the investigation, and that's what happened," Wilks said.
Fisher played "zero" role in the investigation itself, Wilks said, and it is unfair to consider the inquiry's outcome as suspect just because it was conducted by people with a professional association to the board consultant. "If you have three individuals who are beyond reproach, have complete integrity, then I have confidence in the quality of their work, and the board is confident that the substance of their report is sound."
Added Kenneth (Buzz) Shaw, chancellor emeritus of Syracuse University and another member of the review committee, in an e-mail message: "The panel was independent because the three of us are independent.... I wouldn't consider jeopardizing my reputation by doing a shoddy job for a consulting assignment nor would they. Why would we do other than give this thing our best shot?... I think people should look at the substance of the study rather than who knows whom. It represents the situation as we saw it."
Wilks, the lawyer for the college, notes that the report does not spare Miller from criticism. Indeed, the report implicitly questions the president's explanation (or lack thereof) for how a set of speeches and articles that were directly borrowed from works by other college administrators or commentators ended up on Wesley's Web site in the late 1990s. It also criticizes certain administrative policies that the college has undertaken during Miller's decade-long reign.
But the review panel's assessment of Miller, on balance, is overwhelmingly positive, despite the plagiarism findings, and its criticism of the president's campus critics is harsh, accusing them of "repeatedly and unprofessionally" abusing the president and acting in a manner "quite unworthy of a Christian, church-centered institution." That perceived lack of balance has undoubtedly led some faculty members to question the impartiality of the review.
The relationship between Fisher and Miller -- which was first raised in an article  by the Associated Press -- is at the core of those questions. Fisher, whose work as a consultant followed decades as an administrator, including the presidencies of Towson University and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, has frequently been described as Miller's mentor. Miller's 1991 Ph.D. dissertation -- "The Relationship of Selected Factors With Success in Private Sector Resource Acquistion at Appalachian Higher Education Institutions" -- credits Fisher as "my second reader."
Fisher also led the search that resulted in the selection of Miller, then president of Lincoln Memorial University, in Tennessee, as Wesley's chief executive in 1997. Wilks, the Wesley lawyer, said that Fisher had alerted Miller to the opening at Wesley and suggested that he apply, but "in terms of Scott Miller's evaluation as a candidate, Jim Fisher backed off from that," Wilks said. "Fisher recused himself from the selection process as it related to Scott Miller."
Over the intervening years, Fisher did various projects for Wesley's trustees and president, Wilks said, although he could not confirm reports that Fisher was on an annual retainer for the college. "I don’t know how he’s paid. I just know that the board turns to him with some regularity. He isn't Yoda, and he doesn't have a vote and he isn't a tie breaker. He's just a trusted adviser to the board."
When the latest plagiarism charges against Miller surfaced this spring, raised by E. Jeffrey Mask, a professor of religion and philosophy, board leaders and Miller "felt it was important to conduct an outside review," Wilks said. Fisher "was present for some of these discussions, and the board asked him, 'How do you go about constructing one of these panels?' " Fisher provided a "roster of people" who were possible candidates, and "the board got in touch with those people," Wilks said. "Fisher did not hand-pick these individuals. He did not tell [the board's chairman, Charles R. Dashiell, Jr.], 'This is your panel.' "
But Koch, the former Old Dominion president who headed the panel, said that it was not board members but Fisher himself, "on behalf of the board," who approached him about heading the review team. And Koch said he and Fisher together filled out the other members of the panel, based on Koch's insistence that he would take the "very delicate" job only if "I had other people on my team that I had confidence in," as Koch put it. Besides Shaw, the third member of the team was George A. Pruitt, president of Thomas Edison State College. All three men have worked on university jobs with Fisher's consulting firm, and Koch said that he had worked on at least one such consulting team with Miller. "He is not an individual who is one of my intimates," Koch said of Miller. Shaw said he did not know Miller before participating on the Wesley review panel.
Once the review began, Miller played no role in the inquiry, Wilks and Koch both said. "Until the end, when I sent the final draft, I sent it to Fisher as well as to Miller and the board," said Koch. "But they had no input, and I received no pressure from anybody relative to what it is that we wrote."
Phyllis Palmiero, director of the Institute for Effective Governance,  said she was not surprised that the "appearance of a possible conflict of interest may cast a shadow" over the Wesley report, given the current climate in which nonprofit board governance is being reviewed in the U.S. Senate and elsewhere. "But appearance and perception don't necessarily mean that the assessment is tainted in any way," she said. "As long as board members have done due diligence and have confidence in it, you have to stand by it."