MBA mystery in Morgantown
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MORGANTOWN, W. Va. -- West Virginia University has awarded an MBA degree to Heather Bresch, a politically well-connected top executive at drug giant Mylan Inc., rewriting university records that originally showed she had completed only about half the credits needed to earn the degree.
Top officials took the action nearly a decade after she was a student. The revision was sparked by a routine call from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to confirm the academic credentials of Ms. Bresch, daughter of West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, following her Oct. 2 promotion to chief operating officer at Mylan. The Cecil-based company is chaired by Milan Puskar, WVU's largest benefactor.
WVU initially told the Post-Gazette that the 38-year-old Ms. Bresch did not have an MBA, but reversed itself days later after she insisted she earned the degree in December 1998. Officials blamed the discrepancy on the business school's failure to transfer records for nearly half her course work to the Office of Admissions and Records, the university's official records keeper.
But information collected by the Post-Gazette over the last two months -- culled from university records, sources inside the school and interviews with Ms. Bresch's former classmates and associates -- raises questions about how the university decided to grant Ms. Bresch her degree. The university has not answered these questions, citing privacy concerns.
The newspaper's research -- which included school records indicating Ms. Bresch stopped taking classes with 22 credits to go in the 48-credit-hour program -- suggests high-ranking officials revised her university records despite a lack of solid evidence to support the reconstruction. Moreover, it suggests officials did so in a way that violated WVU's internal procedures and those used by other accredited universities.
An Oct. 22 letter advising the admissions and records office to award Ms. Bresch the degree retroactively was signed by R. Stephen Sears, the Milan Puskar Dean of WVU's business school. As a result, six classes were added to her record and grades were awarded for two other classes for which she had received "incompletes," according to sources inside the university. The university has declined to say how many credits were missing from her record, citing federal privacy laws.
WVU professors familiar with the university's record-keeping, as well as experts on how universities maintain their records, said the business school's explanation of a records mix-up of such magnitude was not plausible because it involved the same student being subject to the same record-keeping errors over an extended period. They also emphasized that a business school would have to meet a high standard of proof to convince a university that its official records were wrong and should be corrected.
Questions about records
Ms. Bresch, who has repeatedly declined to provide a copy of her transcript, maintains she earned the degree and graduated with her classmates in December 1998.
Her contention is contradicted by three of those classmates, who say she left the school before finishing. As graduation approached, Ms. Bresch confided in one of those students that she would not be graduating with the rest of her class.
"She definitely had a lot to do" to finish the program, according to this classmate, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "She was hardly in class. I think she traveled a lot for work."
"She's a friend of mine," this person added. "I'm not doing this to hurt her. It's just the truth."
The reluctance of university insiders and Ms. Bresch's former classmates to talk publicly centers on the individuals involved and their influence on the university, the region's economy and West Virginia politics. Many said they feared repercussions, including loss of their jobs, for speaking out against the university or Mylan, two of the state's largest employers.
Past and current members of WVU's Board of Governors have close business ties to Mr. Puskar and Mylan as well as to University President Mike Garrison, a high school classmate of Ms. Bresch and longtime friend of the Manchin family. Mr. Garrison served as chief of staff to former Gov. Bob Wise and was a consultant and lobbyist for Mylan and other companies represented on the board of governors.
Mr. Puskar's generosity, including a $20 million commitment in 2003, has put his or Mylan's name on many WVU programs and structures -- from the facilities used by the part-time Executive MBA program that Ms. Bresch participated in, to the deanship of the business school, to the football stadium that is home to the No. 9-ranked Mountaineers.
The rewriting of Ms. Bresch's academic record began to unfold on Oct. 11 when the Post-Gazette called the university to confirm her MBA after Mylan appointed her COO. The $5 billion company was founded in West Virginia 46 years ago and employs about 2,000 in Morgantown, where Ms. Bresch worked for Mylan in the mid-1990s while taking graduate courses at night and on weekends.
WVU Registrar Steve Taylor said university records showed Ms. Bresch had earned an undergraduate degree and had done some graduate work, but did not finish her graduate degree.
Later that same day, when the newspaper called again to say Ms. Bresch disputed that finding, Mr. Taylor said he understood that the president's office was checking into the matter and "would entertain a call."
Calls to Mr. Garrison's office were returned by university spokeswoman Amy Neil, who said officials were working to reconcile Ms. Bresch's records. On the following Monday afternoon, Ms. Neil announced officials had verified that Ms. Bresch had "completed all the requirements for a masters of business administration degree," except for paying a $50 graduation fee, making it clear Ms. Bresch did not receive a diploma in 1998.
"We confirmed she completed all the course work necessary to graduate but discovered that wasn't put on the record because the fee wasn't paid," Ms. Neil said.
West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, father of Heather Bresch, whose graduate school record was rewritten by West Virginia University officials.
She was unable to explain how not paying a $50 fee at the end of the program would affect transfer of grades and course work over multiple semesters. Ms. Neil also gave no explanation of why there had been no apparent problem with admissions and records receiving the first 26 credits worth of course work. She noted that records mix-ups had happened to "a few" other students in the program but that "it wasn't as serious a problem." She declined to elaborate.
A week later, on Oct. 23, Ms. Neil faxed the newspaper a copy of the Oct. 22 letter written to the admissions and records department by Mr. Sears. Mr. Sears notified the school's official record-keeper that Ms. Bresch had met all the requirements of the school's Executive MBA program in December 1998 and had attended the convocation ceremony.
Mr. Sears declined to be interviewed for this story. So did Mr. Garrison, who officially took over Sept. 1 as president, a controversial appointment that Ms. Bresch worked to help him win.
Through a spokesperson, Mr. Garrison said he had no involvement in the matter, contradicting Mr. Taylor's earlier statement that the president's office was researching the issue.
Provost Gerald Lang, who was responsible for accepting Mr. Sears' explanation of why the university's official records were incorrect, also declined an interview. He issued a brief e-mail statement last Friday saying errors had been "appropriately corrected" and that there was "no reason to pursue this matter further."
"This will be the last we have to say regarding this matter," Ms. Neil said in a note attached to Mr. Lang's statement.
Hard evidence missing
Mr. Lang's statement that Mr. Sears exercised due diligence in researching the discrepancy notwithstanding, sources inside the university stated the business school made its decision to award the governor's daughter the degree without hard evidence that she had completed the required work.
Ms. Bresch's paper-based student file within the business school was gone, according to a source close to the situation. The file, along with an undetermined number of other students' files, was shredded recently when an old storage area was converted to an office.
Officials also could find no record of Ms. Bresch paying for the classes that were missing from her record, this source said. Tuition payments are maintained separately at the university level, at the office of student accounts.
In addition, Ms. Bresch's name does not appear on the class rosters for five of the six classes that were added to her records, according to sources who viewed the documents. There is no class list for the sixth class because it was an independent study course.
Her absence from the rosters indicates she was not registered for any courses after the spring of 1998, the point at which university records had shown she had stopped taking classes.
Among the classes and grades that were added to Ms. Bresch's record, one was listed as being completed in the first summer term of 1998, two were added for the second summer term and three more were added for the fall of 1998. In addition, two classes that had been marked incomplete were changed to show letter grades.
Professors listed as the instructors for five of the six classes added to Ms. Bresch's record said they were not consulted on the changes, an apparent violation of university procedures. The sixth professor did not return several phone calls.
One of those instructors was Paul Speaker, a finance professor who headed the Executive MBA program through the end of 1998. Mr. Speaker said he was not consulted about Ms. Bresch's records mix-up, although he acknowledged getting a call from her about it recently. He declined to say exactly what they talked about, citing privacy concerns.
Mr. Speaker said that any time grade records are changed, the admissions and records office requires that the professors involved sign a grade modification form, which must also be signed by the head of the department and a representative of the dean's office.
According to interviews with WVU professors and outside experts, problems with reporting grades are usually discovered and resolved quickly.
As a matter of course, grades are recorded with the central admissions and records office at the end of each term or semester, according to Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers in Washington, D.C.
"Grades have to be recorded before the next semester," Mr. Nassirian said, noting that certain classes require the completion of prerequisites.
"One glitch, OK. But over [multiple] semesters? One would have to wonder what is going on," Mr. Nassirian said.
Moreover, because professors submit grades each semester using a single form for an entire roster of students, any reporting breakdown as described by the business school likely would have affected the entire class, not just one student, according to several WVU professors familiar with the grade reporting system.
If a grade for an individual student were accidentally left blank, a highly unlikely event, such an omission would quickly prompt a call from the registrar's office, these professors said.
"The registrar would demand grades if they weren't turned in, certainly before the start of the following semester," one of the professors said.
The probability of repeatedly failing to report grades for the same student over multiple semesters involving 22 credits worth of classroom work would be "infinitesimal," this professor said.
In addition, the scenario of the business school or any other college instructing the university to fix its records goes against normal protocol, Mr. Nassirian said.
"The official records are those maintained by the registrar," he said. "That is the official record of what happened in the classroom."
If an individual college such as the business school were to attempt any changes, particularly nearly 10 years after the student left the program, the college would "carry a very heavy burden of proof," Mr. Nassirian said.
"It would be an extraordinary event," he said, and would require "a lot of compelling explanation of why this happened and why the official record doesn't reflect reality."
Both the university and Ms. Bresch have declined requests by the Post-Gazette to release a copy of her transcript. The university has said it needs Ms. Bresch's permission, which she has refused to give.
In the only interview granted by Ms. Bresch on the matter, six days after the newspaper's initial inquiry, she explained that her word and the university's word were "better than a transcript," and added that for anyone to accuse her of not earning an MBA degree was "offensive."
Ms. Bresch stated emphatically in the interview that she had "graduated and took the courses needed" to earn her degree in December of 1998. She emphasized that she remembered attending the December graduation ceremony, offering it as evidence that she finished her degree.
Mr. Sears, who joined WVU in 2005, also noted her attendance in his letter to admissions and records.
But attending the ceremony does not mean a student has fulfilled the requirements for graduation. Degrees are not conferred at the ceremony, according to university literature. Diplomas are awarded later, only after grades are confirmed with the admissions and records office, which, in Ms. Bresch's case, showed she was deficient by 22 credits.
Moreover, Ms. Bresch's contention that she attended the ceremony is contradicted by interviews with former classmates.
What classmates remember
Among the more than two dozen members of the December 1998 Executive MBA graduating class reached by the Post-Gazette, including many who would have been in Ms. Bresch's "cohort" of classes, no one could vouch for her being at the ceremony.
It is understandable that recollections from nearly a decade ago could be hazy. In addition, many of Ms. Bresch's classmates took classes at sites other than the Morgantown campus where she studied, listening to interactive television broadcasts made possible by WVU's Mylan Distance Learning Center.
Still, two former classmates were unequivocal in their memories.
One of those students, whose name appears on the class rosters for five of the six classes added to Ms. Bresch's record, was certain Ms. Bresch did not complete the MBA program. He said he followed her progress because her father was well known -- at the time Mr. Manchin was a state senator who had just lost his initial bid for governor.
This classmate, who spoke on condition his name not be used, said he recently read about Ms. Bresch's promotion at Mylan, which mentioned her holding an MBA, and thought to himself that she must have gone back to earn the degree.
Another former classmate, who was in the same five classes, said Ms. Bresch quit coming to classes after roughly the first year of the program. He remembers her being the subject of discussion at the December ceremony because her name appeared among the 71 students listed in the four-page program.
"The whole class was wondering" how her name got in there, this person said. The conclusion was "she's getting her degree because she works for Mylan," he said.
Although Ms. Bresch's name appeared in the Dec. 19, 1998 program, her name and the names of four other classmates listed in that document do not appear in a more comprehensive roster of graduates on file with the university as the official record for the 1998-99 academic year.
Those other four students explained the reason: They had not completed the required credits needed to graduate with the December 1998 class. The four said they eventually earned a degree, months, or years, later.
Two of those students said they went to the convocation ceremony despite not having the credits to graduate.
The names of all four of those students appear in official graduation lists on file for subsequent years. Ms. Bresch's name could not be found on any of those lists.
Mr. Speaker, who in October told the Post-Gazette that Ms. Bresch had attended the December graduation ceremony, later denied making that statement. He said he could specifically recall a number of students who were there, but couldn't say whether or not Ms. Bresch attended.
"She would have been invited," he said, because she was participating in the program.
"Regardless if she was there, it doesn't say she graduated," he said.
Mr. Speaker, who also initially named Ms. Bresch as one of the students who graduated in 1998, later denied making that statement, too.
"I couldn't confirm that anyone graduated," he said, explaining that degrees were officially awarded sometime after the ceremony, at which time he left as director.
Mylan's big move
While WVU officials were revising Ms. Bresch's academic records, she and Mylan were beginning the job of integrating the generic drug arm of Germany-based Merck KGaA into Mylan. The $6.8 billion acquisition, completed Oct. 2, transformed Mylan into the world's third-largest generic drug company but also raised some concerns on Wall Street about whether the company has the management talent needed to make the acquisition successful.
Ms. Bresch, whom Chief Executive Officer Robert J. Coury made responsible for bringing Merck's generic drug operations into the Mylan fold, joined Mylan nearly 16 years ago as a data entry clerk. But she soon took on more responsibilities that, it appears, took time away from her MBA studies.
Court documents indicate she was assisting Mylan with a lawsuit in 1998 that required extensive travel from Morgantown to California, where the drug maker was involved with litigation against the principals of a medical research company. One of those documents mentions Ms. Bresch -- Ms. Kirby at the time because of her earlier marriage to Douglas Kirby -- by name.
Several sources said Ms. Bresch left the MBA program because of the extensive travel required by the lawsuit.
Whether or not she had earned the degree wasn't an issue until her promotion to COO this fall. The MBA was listed in an Oct. 2 press release announcing her promotion to the $500,000 a year post, a document filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Her MBA also was mentioned in materials Mylan presented at an investors' conference in New York City the next day.
The only earlier reference to the degree that the Post-Gazette found was in testimony Ms. Bresch gave before Congress in July 2006.
During her sole interview with the newspaper, Ms. Bresch said she didn't know that university records had indicated she had failed to earn her degree.
"I owe you a thank you" for pointing out the "administrative nightmare around my MBA," she said to a Post-Gazette reporter. "I had no clue."
Before hanging up, Ms. Bresch explained the reason for deciding to return the newspaper's call.
"I wanted you to hear it from the horse's mouth," she said.
"I'm certainly not trying to hide anything."