Garrison's youth, political ties marked his appointment as WVU chief
June 6, 2008 6:45 PM
Mike Garrison speaking at a news conference after he was introduced as the 22nd president of West Virginia University on April 13, 2007, in Morgantown.
By Bill Schackner Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Michael S. Garrison, who announced his resignation today as president of West Virginia University, is a first-generation college graduate and native of Fairmont, W.Va. He received a bachelor's degree in political science and English from WVU in 1992. Four years later, he graduated from its law school.
He was a managing member with the Morgantown law office of Spilman Thomas & Battle when, in April 2007, he was tapped to become WVU's 22nd president. He took the helm of the university with nearly 30,000 students in September.
At 39, he is 20 years younger than the national average for a sitting college or university president. He was 10 years younger than his predecessor, David C. Hardesty Jr., was when Mr. Hardesty became WVU's 21st president in 1995.
Yet what bothered some on and off campus the most about Mr. Garrison -- even before his selection -- wasn't his youth or his inexperience in campus management. Rather, it was his ties to statehouse politics in Charleston, W.Va., and a resulting perception that his candidacy for the job amounted to a political coronation.
A former lobbyist and chief of staff to then Gov. Bob Wise, Mr. Garrison also had served as chairman of the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, a panel largely appointed by Gov. Joe Manchin. Mr. Garrison's role in the Wise administration would have involved him in the appointment process of five of the 17 WVU board of governors' members, including chairman Stephen P. Goodwin, head of the presidential search committee.
Among those suggesting the search was tainted were individuals within the state's news media and Charleston-based U.S. Circuit Judge Robert B. King, a director of the WVU Alumni Association whose sister was a university dean and a search committee member.
"We are mildly amused at the charade of a process going on at West Virginia University in their latest presidential 'search,' stated an editorial at the time on HuntingtonNews.net, an independent on-line newspaper.
"The real dilemma for WVU and for the state is that state politics is trumping genuinely distinguished higher education experience as embodied by the other two candidates."
Those candidates, both career academics, were Daniel O. Bernstine, then 59, president of Portland State University in Oregon, and M. Duane Nellis, then 52, provost at Kansas State University and a former WVU dean.
Mr. Goodwin and a number of other search committee members defended the process, even as WVU's faculty senate voted overwhelmingly against Mr. Garrison's candidacy.
Acrimony is hardly new to presidential searches at WVU, Mr. Goodwin said at the time. He noted that even Mr. Hardesty -- whose tenure saw significant gains in enrollment, fundraising and research -- faced opposition of his own in the beginning. There were campus protests over Mr. Hardesty's inauguration and a lawsuit alleging the search panel was improperly constituted.
Mr. Garrison, too, dismissed the criticisms in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on April 13, 2007, the day the board of governors awarded him a three-year contract and a salary of $255,000.
"West Virginia is a small place," he said. "It's not saying much to say you might know someone or have worked with someone."
The vote that day was 16-1, with the lone dissenting voice coming from the board's faculty representative, Michael Lastinger. Mr. Garrison said he planned to reach out to those who had called him unqualified.
By the time he took office, WVU's enrollment already had surpassed 29,700 students, putting it within striking range of its 2010 goal of becoming a university of 30,000 students. Officials cited rising SAT scores and higher grades among its first-year students as indicators of the WVU's academic ascent.
Presidents are judged to a significant degree on fund raising, and in October, the new president got some welcome news in that area when Ben Statler, an alum and former coal executive, confirmed that he and his wife, Jo, were giving WVU $25 million. It was the largest individual gift in the university's 140-year history.
But things soon got rocky for the new president and his administration. In mid-December, the departure of football coach Rich Rodriguez for the University of Michigan drew the ire of many alumni and sports boosters.
Days later, questions surfaced publicly about a matter that would more deeply shake the administration -- the decision by WVU to retroactively grant Mylan Inc. executive Heather Bresch an M.B.A.
Current and previous members of WVU's Board of Governors have close business ties to Mylan and to Milan Puskar, the Cecil-based company's chairman and WVU's biggest benefactor, as does Mr. Garrison. Mr. Garrison was a high school classmate of Ms. Bresch. He also had served as a lobbyist for Mylan, putting him in the position of having Ms. Bresch as his supervisor.
While an undergraduate at WVU, Mr. Garrison was captain of the rowing team and student body president. He studied for a year at Oxford on a Rotary International scholarship.
His wife, Heather Malone Garrison, is also an attorney. They have two daughters, Julia Grace and Gabriella Malone.
Mr. Garrison will stay at WVU until Sept. 1 to ease the transition between his administration and that of his successor.