When The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette  broke the story in December that West Virginia University had awarded an M.B.A. to a politically connected executive who hadn’t earned the degree, there was an interesting tidbit that was lost amid the controversy over how the degree was awarded. That fact was that the West Virginia University registrar answered an inquiry about the possible degree honestly: No degree had been earned.
The article said: “WVU Registrar Steve Taylor said university records showed Ms. Bresch had earned an undergraduate degree and had done some graduate work, but did not finish her graduate degree. Later that same day, when the newspaper called again to say Ms. Bresch disputed that finding, Mr. Taylor said he understood that the president’s office was checking into the matter and ‘would entertain a call.’ ” It was after the question left the registrar’s office and went higher up that university officials somehow convinced themselves that Heather Bresch, daughter of the state’s governor, had earned a degree and that paperwork errors had led to a records error. In fact, as an investigative panel found,  the only error was awarding the M.B.A. that Bresch never earned and was far short of earning.
As the fallout continues in West Virginia, where professors and others are demanding the president’s ouster, another scandal is breaking over a degree. Virginia Commonwealth University is investigating allegations that it awarded a bachelor’s degree to the local police chief although he reportedly earned only 6 credits at the university, despite university rules that require 30 credits for any bachelor’s degree.
In both cases, critics see universities breaking explicit rules about degree eligibility to benefit politically influential individuals.
Periodically, colleges face scandals when a clerk in a registrar’s office is paid to alter a transcript to award a higher grade  or credit and while those incidents infuriate educators, experts say that it is more rare — and in some ways more troubling — to have two universities under scrutiny the way WVU and VCU are right now. When someone pays to have a transcript altered, it is a “petty criminal act,” said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director for external relations of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. But what happened at West Virginia and is being alleged at Virginia Commonwealth is that degrees are being awarded inappropriately “by individuals acting with the imprimatur of the institution” and thus raises much larger issues about trust and credibility.
Nassirian said that he could not think of a recent time when two colleges faced allegations of this sort. He and others who are expert about the ways degrees are awarded said that the idea that rules about credit could be blatantly ignored was something that should concern people far beyond the universities involved. He also said that he hoped these incidents would make people think more about the role of the registrar — a position that he said may be evolving in the wrong way on some campuses, posing dangers of scandals like the one West Virginia is now experiencing.
“Historically these have not been issues because it never would occur to a registrar that you could have any sort of systematic interference with the basic arithmetic of what a degree consists of,” he said.
Mike Allen has worked in registrar offices for the last 33 years, 25 of them at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is associate registrar. What struck him about the West Virginia situation, he said, was how something that he called “very routine” — verifying that someone had earned or not earned a degree — had been taken away from the registrar’s office in that case. He said that registrar’s offices receive such requests constantly and that the principle always used is to just answer the question honestly — either a person has a degree or not.
Allen said that he knows hundreds of registrars and “I would be amazed if any of them would take into consideration” whether someone had a governor as a father or was politically important in deciding whether to award a degree. “A registrar is about recording facts, about the history of the students’ academic effort.”
Some facts, of course, have more consequences than others, and Allen said that “it’s not that we are ignorant of politics.” If, he gave as an example, a political candidate claimed a degree he or she didn’t earn, and he fielded an inquiry from a reporter, he’d probably let his superiors at the university know that a controversy was about to break. But he would answer the reporter’s question honestly and then tell his bosses. That’s different, he said, from turning the question over to those whose job isn’t to enforce the rules.
Allen said that the scandals show that “this is all about culture,” and whether a university “has the right culture in place” because “it’s not rocket science” to see whether someone has enough credits for a degree. “Registrars are in a difficult position,” he said, especially if there isn’t the right culture. “We are not at the top of the food chain.”
In the case of West Virginia University, many professors do point to culture as part of the problem. Mike Garrison, the university’s new president, came to the position without academic experience, but with a reputation for politically savvy. An administration with more of a commitment to academic values, faculty members say, would never have landed in this mess. If the registrar’s initial — completely accurate — answer had been allowed to stand, Bresch would have been embarrassed, but not the university.
The Virginia Commonwealth case is still developing and the facts are not entirely clear. Because an anonymous person — with the pseudonym Harry Potter — sent e-mail about the police chief’s degree to reporters, many of Richmond’s political leaders have rallied around Rodney Monroe,  the chief, who has said he did nothing wrong, and criticized the whistle blower. But there is some evidence to back the whistle blower’s claims. When Monroe received his degree last year, The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that Monroe took only two courses at Virginia Commonwealth, and earned his degree with those courses and credits he earned elsewhere. No one objected to that description of events.
But what Harry Potter knew was that Virginia Commonwealth — like most colleges and universities that accept transfer students — has a requirement that a minimum number of credits be earned at the institution awarding the degree. Virginia Commonwealth’s policy is 30 credits (or a quarter of a bachelor’s degree). The thinking behind such requirements is that without some critical mass of credit, the institution awarding the degree doesn’t really have a basis for certifying the graduate. While some colleges have been criticized for requiring too much credit at the degree-awarding college, Virginia Commonwealth’s requirement is very much within the norm of most institutions. (Virginia Commonwealth’s policy may be found at the bottom of this Web page. )
While Virginia Commonwealth has acknowledged that it is investigating a report of an inappropriately awarded degree, it has not confirmed who received the degree, citing federal confidentiality requirements. A spokeswoman for the university said that she could not comment at all on Monroe’s degree, but she noted that waivers may be granted to the 30-credit rule in some cases. Asked what types of cases, she said that if someone must leave the university for military service or because of illness or a family death. It is not clear how Monroe would have had such circumstances.
Nassirian of the registrars’ organization said that the nature of a degree is considered of such importance that he could think of only two circumstances in which they aren’t earned. One is the case of honorary degrees, which are not generally recognized as degrees in the same sense of earned degrees. The other is the case of posthumous degrees awarded by some colleges when a student dies short of credits. In the latter case obviously, there is no danger of someone using a degree unearned.
“In the United States, people have not dared to award degrees” in other cases where someone didn’t meet minimum credit requirements, he said.
Historically, he said, registrars were seen as serving the faculty, in some ways being their enforcers. “The registrar is viewed as a stakeholder in the credentialing process, not as a faculty member. Certainly registrars do not make render substantive judgment on who knows what — that is the faculty’s job — but in forming policy on degrees,” he said. Once a faculty decides that degrees require some number of credits and some combination of courses, the registrar is entrusted to make sure those things happen before anyone receives a degree.
“Regrettably, I certainly detect a trend in which the registrar is cut out of the loop and is being treated as a mechanical bean counter,” Nassirian said. At too many institutions, he said, registrars are judged solely by their speed in processing transcript requests, by how quickly they respond to the requests of students and alumni, not by the way they protect the integrity of degrees. “The public relies on this,” he said. “The registrar is not a particularly well loved position in some cases, but you really need somebody whose job it is to say No when the rules are not being followed.”