By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 8, 2008
When he became president of West Virginia University last year, Michael Garrison seemed poised to use his political experience to help build the institution's national reputation.
Less than a year after taking office, Garrison is struggling to hold on to his job and contain a scandal, after the university granted an unearned degree to a longtime friend, the daughter of the West Virginia governor. On Monday, the Faculty Senate voted 77 to 19 in favor of a resolution of no-confidence in Garrison and demanded his resignation.
"A lot of the sentiment had more to do with the absolute importance of academic integrity and the fact that the president is responsible for whatever goes on in his administration, rather than anything that he did specifically or did not do," said Steve Kite, a geology and geography professor and chairman of the Faculty Senate.
The move is largely symbolic, because the senate has a mostly advisory role to the Board of Governors, which has expressed support for Garrison. And he has said he will not step down.
"We've got a lot of work left to do at the university," he told the Associated Press after the vote. "I intend to keep moving forward."
But a major donor has revoked an offer of gifts worth $2 million. The provost of the university and the dean of the business school have resigned their administrative posts. The university -- with more then 27,000 students, in a state where people are proud to "bleed blue and gold" -- has been deeply divided.
A panel of independent investigators released a report last month saying university officials showed "seriously flawed judgment" in retroactively granting the master's degree to Heather Bresch, the daughter of Gov. Joe Manchin III (D), because she had not earned it.
It's the kind of debacle that strikes at the core of a university's mission, said Thomas Morawetz, a professor of ethics at the University of Connecticut Law School.
"It goes to the whole purpose for which a university exists, to certify that a person has gone through a certain process to merit a degree," he said.
Garrison's critics note that he is a former classmate of Bresch's. He once worked as a lobbyist for Mylan Inc., where Bresch is an executive and whose chairman is one of WVU's biggest donors. They also note that Garrison was chief of staff for former West Virginia governor Bob Wise (D).
But Bill Case, Garrison's spokesman, dismisses suggestions of impropriety.
"This is all smoke and mirrors that people are drawing conclusions from," Case said. "Because Mike personally knew this person, he withdrew himself from any contact or knowledge about the case."
The scandal began last October, when Bresch contacted Garrison to complain that the university had no record of a 1998 degree she claimed she had earned.
"She explained to me that she didn't know what the issue was, she believed she had a degree, she didn't understand why the university couldn't verify," Garrison said in an interview aired recently on WBOY-TV in Clarksburg, W.Va. "She was angry. She was upset."
The governor, Garrison continued, "never asked me to do anything."
Garrison added that at the time, he told his chief of staff: "I have no way of knowing whether she has a degree or does not have a degree. Get people involved who can figure it out."
The report, released April 23, did not cite evidence that Garrison directly interfered with decision-making but said the presence of some of his top staff members at the meeting where administrators decided to issue the degree created "palpable" pressure.
It concluded that the business school gave Bresch credit for classes she didn't take and assigned grades "simply pulled from thin air." The degree, an executive master's of business administration, was rescinded.
Garrison accepted responsibility for the debacle in a statement, but added: "I did not ask any person, either directly or indirectly, to award any credit, grades, or degree in this case or any other case. I will never do so and would not accept interference from others in the evaluation of the students that I teach."
"It saddens me," said J. Thomas Jones, a member of the state's Higher Education Policy Commission. He said that under Garrison's leadership, faculty salaries have increased, a child-care center is being developed and problems at the health science center are being addressed. "Up to this point, he's been excellent."
"We think it would be irresponsible to make a leadership change based on speculation," said Stephen Goodwin, chairman of the Board of Governors, asserting that no facts have been presented that Garrison "did anything wrong."
But others said a resignation is necessary.
"Whether he was an accomplice or whether he was just a negligent administrator hasn't really been clarified," said L. Zane Shuck, a retired WVU mechanical engineering professor and onetime university administrator. "Alumni across the country want to have the house clean."