How crisis management meeting went awry

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On the morning of Monday, Oct. 15, eight West Virginia University officials and faculty members gathered to find a way out of a growing crisis.

Hanging in the balance were the university's reputation and that of a prominent alumna, Heather Bresch, the daughter of West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin.

Ms. Bresch insisted she had completed the requirements for a master's of business administration degree in 1998. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had questioned her claim.

Now, on a fall Monday, some of the university's leaders assembled to make a decision that they hoped would put the matter to rest.

What followed was no object lesson in educational administration. It was, instead, a case study in flawed decision-making and crisis management, the sort of episode that itself might be studied by future M.B.A. students.

After less than an hour of stilted discussion, in a room thick with tension, the group decided to validate Ms. Bresch's claim to an M.B.A.

In reaching that decision, participants resorted to "cherry-picking" evidence supporting Ms. Bresch's claim and ignored evidence to the contrary.

Basic questions weren't asked. Logical lines of inquiry weren't pursued. Pressure to resolve the controversy in Ms. Bresch's favor was, according to the independent report released yesterday, "palpable," with some participants deciding, as the investigators concluded, not to "rock the boat" with tough questions.

Details of the meeting were included yesterday in a report by an investigative panel, which concluded that Ms. Bresch had not earned the degree and that the university had badly mishandled its review of the case.

The panel said the university constituencies "expect and deserve no less than that the administrators at WVU do precisely the right thing, no matter the circumstances. That did not happen here."

Many of the mistakes occurred at what the panel called the "decisional meeting" on Oct. 15. The panel used the words "astonishingly" and "inexplicably" to describe the course of that meeting.

R. Stephen Sears, dean of the business and economics school, ultimately was the one with the authority to validate Ms. Bresch's degree, the panel said. But the investigators had harsh words for others at the meeting, suggesting that groupthink hijacked common sense that day.

The meeting wasn't designated beforehand as the time for deciding whether Ms. Bresch had earned the degree. But that became the agenda.

University Provost Gerald Lang presided over the session. Also present, besides Dr. Sears, were university Chief of Staff Craig Walker; General Counsel Alex Macia; Bill Case, executive officer for communications; Cyril Logar, associate dean of business and economics; MBA programs director Gerald Blakely; and Paul Speaker, associate professor of finance.

The group didn't discuss "the specifics of Ms. Bresch's actual courses or course work during the meeting," the investigative panel said.

Yet the participants concluded that the information available to them was inconclusive. Dr. Sears described the case for and against the degree as a "tie"-- and he proposed giving Ms. Bresch the benefit of the doubt.

"The panel believes that the prevailing sentiment at the meeting ... was that a way should be found to justify the granting of the degree, if at all possible," the investigative panel said. "Either no dissenting or contrary views were expressed, or they were discounted."

There wasn't much evidence to support Ms. Bresch's claim, according to investigators. It included:

• Mr. Walker's account of a telephone conversation he had with Ms. Bresch, in which she told him Dr. Speaker had excused her from certain program requirements, including all classes in the summer and fall of 1998, because of her responsibilities at work.

"Astonishingly," the panel later said, no university official bothered to confirm Mr. Walker's account with Ms. Bresch. For his part, Dr. Speaker "directly contradicted" the account.

• An unofficial list of graduates that included Ms. Bresch's name. The list had her graduating in 1999, however, a year later than she claimed. It also contained the names of several other individuals who had neither actually graduated nor claimed to have graduated, the panel found.

The investigative panel said "over-reliance upon the unofficial list of graduates was unjustified." The business school officials "should have been aware that additional lists of graduates existed that did not include Ms. Bresch."

• Reports from the business school that at least one other student had experienced a grade snafu, lending credibility to the theory that the Bresch controversy stemmed from a paperwork problem. But the panel discovered only a handful of relatively minor administrative problems.

"In fact, the system did not fail in this respect. The records were accurate. Ms. Bresch had not earned an M.B.A. degree," the panel said.

While giving too much weight to information supporting Ms. Bresch, the meeting participants gave scant attention to red flags.

These included official records indicating Ms. Bresch hadn't completed program requirements. The exact number of uncompleted credits was redacted from the panel's report.

The panel also found there was no record of Ms. Bresch registering or paying tuition for the classes in dispute.

There also was a professor's statement that he had no recollection or record of Ms. Bresch completing a course for which she somehow had been given a grade. The professor's name was redacted.

Dr. Speaker said he had helped Ms. Bresch develop a "workout plan" for completing some of her remaining credits. But there was little interest in finding out whether she had completed it.

By the time they went their separate ways, the participants had succeeded only in raising more questions and lengthening the shadow over WVU. The group's conduct was so unusual that the panel questioned whether it "reflected an unvoiced determination by some meeting participants to support the awarding of a degree."

"In the face of these circumstances, what should the appropriate WVU administrators have done?" the panel said. "Frankly, they should have done just what they said they were doing: they should have treated Ms. Bresch like they would or should have treated any other student who was raising such a complaint about the accuracy of his or her attendance and/or graduation records."


Joe Smydo can be reached at jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.


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