Scandal erupts over W.Va. gov’s daughter

W.Va. University granted Gov. Joe Manchin’s daughter an unearned degree.

>MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) – This is not how West Virginia University wanted to build its national reputation.

Six months after his inauguration, President Mike Garrison is struggling to hold his administration together – and keep his job – amid a scandal that erupted after the school granted Gov. Joe Manchin’s daughter a master’s degree she didn’t earn.

Two top university officials resigned last weekend over their part in the episode. Major donors have canceled plans to donate millions. Members of the Faculty Senate are planning a no-confidence vote on Garrison next week. And critics inside and outside the university have demanded the president resign over what appears to be an instance in which political pull influenced the awarding of a degree.

“If you have smart officials, they know this would be one of the quickest ways to ruin the reputation of the university,” said Thomas Morawetz, a professor and authority on ethics at the University of Connecticut law school. “It is a serious violation of norms.”

With more than 27,000 students, West Virginia is the pride of a state where people say they “bleed blue and gold.” Mountaineer alumni include the governor and NBA Hall of Famer Jerry West.

The university has helped generations of West Virginians – many of them the sons and daughters of coal miners and steelworkers – lift themselves up in a poor state. But it also perennially ranks among the nation’s top party schools.

Now some fear the scandal threatens the university’s effort to improve its academic reputation and turn itself into a national research powerhouse. Garrison himself has made high-tech research a priority, successfully lobbying the state Legislature for a multimillion-dollar “bucks for brains” program.

An editorial in the student newspaper, The Daily Athenaeum, said the administration has “trivialized all degrees this university has awarded and will award.”

“I suppose this is the price paid for attending a university with such an intimate connection to its state, a final reminder of how dirty West Virginia can be, and not just from the coal dust of economic fallout,” student columnist Chad Wilcox wrote separately.

The scandal cracked wide open last week after an investigative panel issued a report saying the university showed “seriously flawed” judgment last fall in retroactively awarding an executive master’s of business administration degree to Heather Bresch, who attended the school in 1998 but did not earn enough credits.

The panel said the business school gave Bresch credit for classes she didn’t take, and assigned grades “simply pulled from thin air,” giving her special treatment because of who she is. The degree has since been rescinded.

The governor, a Democrat, has denied exerting any pressure and said he first learned of the dispute only after it became a news story. Bresch told The Associated Press that she believes she did nothing wrong.

Bresch, 38, is not only the governor’s daughter. She is chief operating officer of generic drug maker Mylan Inc., a major West Virginia benefactor with a lab in Morgantown that employs about 2,000 people. Mylan was one of the companies that raised the money to create the Executive MBA program, which is for full-time executives.

Mylan’s chairman, Milan “Mike” Puskar, is a Manchin supporter and one of West Virginia’s biggest contributors. The business school deanship is endowed in Puskar’s name, and the football stadium was named for him after he donated $20 million in 2003.

Bresch is also a friend and former high school and West Virginia classmate of Garrison. He, in turn, worked for Democratic former Gov. Bob Wise and was once a Mylan lobbyist.

Now, Garrison – who was a 38-year-old lawyer with much stronger political credentials than academic ones when he was tapped for the presidency – finds himself the target of critics among the faculty, alumni and the state Republican Party.

Garrison should resign, and “he needs to take all his cronies with him,” said GOP chairman Dr. Doug McKinney. “They’ve shown there’s entirely too much connection between the statehouse and the president’s office.”

One philanthropic group, the McGee Foundation, has dropped plans to donate $1 million in cash and an additional $1 million worth of art, and other, smaller donors have threatened similar action, officials said.

Garrison said this week that he will not resign. “I was not involved in any way in the decision,” he said. And the university Board of Governors – which hired him and has the power to fire him – issued a statement affirming its “full support” of Garrison. The governor also said he believes Garrison should not step down.

The resignations of Provost Gerald Lang and R. Stephen Sears, dean of the business school, have not satisfied the most vocal of the critics, particularly since Lang and Sears will remain as tenured professors, with Lang earning nearly $200,000 a year and Sears almost $160,000. Lang presided over the meeting last October during which Sears made the final decision to grant the governor’s daughter a degree.

“It’s nice that the dean and provost were offered up as sacrificial lambs, but the cancer is still there,” said Peter Kalis, a lawyer and 1972 graduate. He said Garrison and the chairman of the Board of Governors must go, too, if the university is to “reclaim its independence and integrity.”

The scandal is not the first major crisis of Garrison’s young administration: Football coach Rich Rodriguez abruptly left in December for a job at Michigan, complaining that the university broke a promise to give him greater control over the football program.

Rodriguez and West Virginia are now locked in bitter public feud and a lawsuit over a penalty clause in his contract that says he owes the university $4 million for leaving early. Rodriguez claims Garrison had assured him privately that he would not enforce the clause; Garrison denies that.

On Thursday morning, protesters showed up for a speech on campus by former President Clinton. “Mountaineers always free; Mountaineers earn degrees; Garrison must go,” read one sign. Another sign bore a drawing of a diploma and the words: “Free while they last.”