MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- West Virginia University administrators made a "seriously flawed" decision fraught with favoritism in awarding Mylan Inc. executive Heather Bresch a graduate degree she didn't earn, investigators said in a scathing report released yesterday.
Provost Gerald Lang said he would follow the recommendation of the investigative panel and the university's Board of Governors and rescind the degree.
The report by the five-member panel concluded administrators acted hastily, using ambiguous and incomplete information to award an M.B.A. degree retroactively in October to Ms. Bresch, the daughter of West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin.
The decision was made following a telephone conversation between the governor's daughter and WVU President Michael Garrison, a family friend and former business associate of Ms. Bresch, the report said.
The report concluded administrators falsified Ms. Bresch's transcript by adding courses to her record that she did not take and by entering grades "simply pulled from thin air." The actions reflected "failures of process and failures of leadership" at the state's flagship university, it said.
Top administrators "should have been more deliberate, more discerning and more detached in assessing the evidence that they had in hand," investigators said. "They should have hesitated to rely so heavily on fragments of self-serving, hearsay conversations that they could not and did not even try to confirm or verify."
Ms. Bresch issued a statement to The Associated Press, saying that while she continues to believe she did what was required to earn her degree, she will accept the panel's conclusion out of respect for her alma mater.
"To put this issue behind us is the best course of action for everyone," she said in an e-mail to The AP. "Therefore, while I am not waiving my privacy rights, I will not challenge action by the university implementing the panel's recommendations."
The investigative panel was formed after a Dec. 21 story by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette raised questions about how officials went about granting the degree, nearly a decade after Ms. Bresch left the program, despite official university records showing she was missing 22 credits in the 48-credit-hour program.
While the report portrayed Mr. Lang and business school Dean R. Stephen Sears as the main decision makers, it noted that the president's office "reacted immediately" on the basis of telephone conversations Ms. Bresch had with Mr. Garrison and also with his chief of staff, Craig Walker.
The Post-Gazette has requested records of Mr. Garrison's phone calls during that time under the Freedom of Information Act, but WVU has not provided them. The newspaper is suing the university to obtain those and other records withheld by university officials.
Records of Mr. Walker's phone lines indicate he and Ms. Bresch exchanged nine phone calls between Oct. 11, when Ms. Bresch called Mr. Walker to dispute the registrar's statement that same day to the Post-Gazette that she did not earn the degree, and Oct. 15, when Mr. Lang approved Mr. Sears' decision to award the degree.
The decision was made at an Oct. 15 meeting, called by Mr. Walker, that lasted less than an hour. The sentiment among those attending "was that a way should be found to justify the granting of the degree, if at all possible," the report stated.
Investigators believe those at the meeting, including four business school officials, were under "actual or perceived pressure to go along with this decision, not to 'rock the boat,'" the report states.
The investigative panel was chaired by WVU professor Roy Nutter. Other members were WVU professor Michael Lastinger, University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff, Pace University economics professor Arthur Centonze and University of Missouri-Columbia management professor Lori Franz.
Their report was released publicly yesterday following a special meeting of WVU's Board of Governors. Board Chairman Steve Goodwin said members unanimously accepted the panel's findings "in principle."
The board said Mr. Garrison should accept responsibility for the university's actions but did not recommend any disciplinary action against him or others.
Mr. Garrison read a prepared statement, saying he accepted the panel's decision.
He said he regretted that WVU "had to endure the lengthy process that led to this day" and promised to develop standardized procedures for handling future "academic concerns" brought to the president's office.
When asked if any disciplinary actions would be taken, he said any personnel matters would be "handled privately."
Asked how the university allowed favoritism to guide awarding the degree, Mr. Garrison replied, "the report speaks for itself." He has denied any involvement in the decision to grant the degree.
Ms. Bresch's relationships with the governor, WVU and Mylan, whose chairman, Milan Puskar, is WVU's biggest benefactor, had no influence on the decision, Mr. Lang said.
WVU mathematics professor Sherman Riemenschneider, the faculty senate member who sponsored the Jan. 14 motion to appoint three outsiders to the panel to bolster its independence, said he will confer with other senate members "about an appropriate motion to bring forward concerning the provost and the president, if they do not resign prior to that."
Faculty senate chair Steve Kite said the report's findings will be on the agenda when the senate's executive committee meets on Monday.
WVU officials awarded Ms. Bresch her degree in October after the Post-Gazette called to confirm her credentials following her promotion to chief operating officer at Cecil-based Mylan. At first, the newspaper was told she did not finish her degree. Days later, officials reversed themselves, citing a record-keeping error.
The Post-Gazette found WVU added six classes, worth 16 credits, to Ms. Bresch's transcript without documents showing she had registered, paid or done the work for them. In addition, six credits that had been listed as "incomplete" were changed to letter grades.
A week after the Post-Gazette's Dec. 21 story, Mr. Goodwin said he believed Ms. Bresch's case involved a simple record-keeping error, just as WVU officials described it at the time. Mr. Goodwin, a Morgantown attorney, led the search committee that chose Mr. Garrison as president last year, a controversial appointment that the faculty senate opposed.
"Everyone on the board has [confidence] in Garrison and Lang that they have checked this out and have done it appropriately, and have indicated their willingness in wanting to get this all straightened out," Mr. Goodwin told a Charleston reporter in late December.
The panel said WVU officials did not put enough reliance on records maintained by the Office of Admissions and Records, the university's official records keeper. Those records, which showed Ms. Bresch did not earn the degree, were trustworthy, the panel concluded.
The panel found no evidence of widespread record-keeping problems the university cited after awarding the degree. "The records were accurate. Ms. Bresch had not earned an M.B.A. degree," the panel said.
Mr. Lang and Mr. Sears yesterday made no apologies for their actions. Both said they would make the same decision again.
"The situation still is the same as it was," Mr. Lang said.
Mr. Sears said the panel "weighed the evidence in a different way than I did" but that he fully supported the panel.
When asked whether he could recall another instance in his academic career when a student was given credit for classes without record of the student completing the work or paying for the courses, Mr. Sears said "no."
Ms. Bresch has insisted she earned the degree and graduated with her classmates in December 1998. She has repeatedly declined to provide a transcript or other documentation, and has not spoken with the Post-Gazette since October.
Mylan did not respond to calls or an e-mail yesterday seeking comment on the report and on whether the generic drug giant intends to file an amended report with the Securities and Exchange Commission indicating Ms. Bresch did not earn the M.B.A. degree. The degree was listed in an Oct. 2 news release filed with federal regulators and as a credential when she testified before a congressional committee in July 2006.
Earlier this month, Ms. Bresch broke months of silence, telling other news media she finished her degree by making arrangements with then-M.B.A. program director Paul Speaker to substitute work experience for actual course work. Mr. Speaker, a WVU finance professor, told the panel that was not true.
The panel concluded that Ms. Bresch's explanation of how she completed her degree was not credible.
"No student should have a reasonable basis to conclude that he or she could or would be excused from so many outstanding credits and course obligations simply upon the basis of experiential learning, in this case, engaging in one's regular job responsibilities," the report stated.
In addition, the panel said, Ms. Bresch did not take any steps to confirm the terms of the claimed agreement or take any steps to complete or verify a degree.
More important, the report said, administrators accepted Ms. Bresch's account and disregarded a contrary account given by Mr. Speaker.
Mr. Manchin issued a statement yesterday in support of his daughter, saying he and his wife, Gayle, were "very proud of the professional reputation she has built throughout her career."
While not commenting on the panel's finding that his daughter did not earn the degree, Mr. Manchin, who is seeking re-election, said he hoped "WVU's leaders will correct whatever problems that led to this situation so that no other student will have to go through this kind of ordeal in the future."