WVU under scrutiny after scandal
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With the resignation of its president, West Virginia University now must work to regain credibility lost in what arguably is the core of any academic institution -- the integrity of its degrees.
University leaders and others stress that what WVU does next will determine how lasting the damage is from revelations that administrators falsified records to retroactively grant an executive master's of business administration degree to Gov. Joe Manchin's daughter, Mylan Inc. executive Heather Bresch.
Some called Friday's announcement by President Mike Garrison that he would depart on Sept. 1 an important early step. But they said it must be followed up with candor and unrelenting transparency as WVU tries to assure students, faculty, donors and other stakeholders that such a transgression will never be repeated.
Even the interim choice to lead West Virginia's flagship university will speak volumes about what the school has learned, those experts say. Just about everyone with an interest -- from prospective students and state legislators to accrediting agencies -- will be watching.
"You're not looking, as you would in normal times, for someone with a 16-page portfolio of skills, as much as you are looking for someone who can address the failing of credibility and ethics in the institution -- someone who can be trusted," said Sister Margaret Carney, a Pittsburgh native and president of St. Bonaventure University.
She and others say the permanent successor, whether from inside or outside West Virginia, must be gleaned from a search conducted in a manner that is above any possible suggestion of bias or outside influence.
There were signs Friday that officials already are leaning in that direction, hoping to avoid a repeat of the charges of cronyism that accompanied the appointment of Mr. Garrison last year, a political insider and former Mylan Inc. lobbyist with close ties to Gov. Manchin.
"I think there will be a fully vetted, vigorous process to get the absolute top candidate, and we'll move on from there," said Republican state Sen. Vic Sprouse, whose district includes Charleston.
"Once we get a new president and a new administration, things will be positive," he said. "The person who is going to be chosen will not have to overcome the obstacle that he got the job because of political connections and is not qualified."
Those connected to WVU can take heart knowing that embarrassment and loss of donor support from such scandals usually are short-lived. The transparency that marked the formal investigation at WVU "may make the institution stronger over the long haul," said Molly Corbett Broad, president of the Washington, D.C.-based American Council of Education and former president of the University of North Carolina.
Those who have spent decades working in and observing universities say recovery is not just possible, but likely.
"They will rebound," said Dale Nitzschke, consultant and president emeritus of Southeast Missouri State University and a former president of another West Virginia institution, Marshall University.
"Institutions survive long after people have come and gone, because they are so solid. This, too, shall pass. People years from now will reflect on when WVU went through that tough time."
WVU is hardly the only campus to incur a black eye in recent years.
Revelations that Eastern Michigan University employees covered up a student's slaying led to the ouster of officials including school President John Fallon last year. In 1999, the campus of Hillsdale College was rocked by accusations of an affair between then President George Roche III and his daughter-in-law, who later committed suicide, prompting school trustees to seek his departure.
Benjamin Ladner was forced out as American University president in 2005 after complaints of lavish spending, and at Harvard University, President Lawrence H. Summers stepped down in 2006 amid criticisms of his tenure that included his controversial remarks about women and science.
St. Bonaventure, near Olean, N.Y., was rattled five years ago by the resignation of its president, Robert J. Wickenheiser, after the school concluded that he approved the transfer of a junior college basketball player even though the player did not have a required associate's degree and instead had a certificate in welding.
The board appointed not only an interim president but elevated Sister Carney, then a faculty member, to vice president so the pair could work full time reacting to the crisis and managing the school's daily affairs.
She said the athletic department leadership was rebuilt, top-to-bottom investigations were launched and the university immediately offered a series of apologies, including a very public one delivered by the board of trustees chairman to an open campus assembly.
"The university took ownership of the problem," Sister Carney said. "Everyone who needed to hear we were sorry heard it within 24 hours."
At WVU, the credibility of the reforms "is going to determine what legs a crisis like this has," said Jim Haggerty, president of The PR Consulting Group, a New York City firm specializing in crisis communication.
"I think people will accept errors in judgment and mistakes from institutions so long as there is a real effort -- and not just a spin effort -- to effect change," Mr. Haggerty said.
The resignation of Mr. Garrison is a significant step in starting to restore confidence in WVU, said C. Peter Magrath, senior adviser to the president of the College Board and a former president of the universities of Minnesota and Missouri.
"It's good news for West Virginia, absolutely," he said. "Some of the people who were thinking of leaving I'm sure won't leave now."
The next and most significant step in WVU's recovery process will be the selection of an interim and permanent president -- both of whom will be looked upon as saviors.
"When anyone sets out on a search, the joke is that you want someone who walks on water," said Dr. Nitzschke. "This person will have to come pretty close."
The selection that delivers the individual to campus must be "absolutely pure and stain free," said Duquesne University Chancellor John Murray Jr.
Paramount among the qualifications for a new president will be someone with a solid academic background and substantial administrative experience, said Robert O'Neil, former president of the universities of Virginia and Wisconsin.
In this case, the university and its board also must have "complete confidence in the integrity and the reputation of the person chosen," he said, recommending a national search that considers but does not require a tie to West Virginia.
The permanent leader, like the interim, should be a person of considerable national reputation in higher education, a person with a track record that is clear and undisputed, and a person of high integrity, Dr. Magrath said.
It is unlikely, said Mr. O'Neil, that a permanent president could be found before the start of the academic year in September. In fact, he said that he wouldn't expect to have a permanent president in place before the 2009-2010 academic year.
The lack of a permanent president would also set up a "delicate question" of whether to wait for a new president to choose a provost, Mr. O'Neil said. That's because Gerald Lang announced his resignation as WVU provost amid the scandal, effective June 30.
Kevin Patrick Jr., a West Virginia student who will start his senior year in the fall, believes that a new Board of Governors is also an essential component in restoring the university's reputation.
"The main point is to get our house in order, to show that we're a university with integrity," he said. "There are protocols to keep things like this from happening, and one is to change the board of governors, probably to people with fewer political connections who will actually represent the people they're supposed to."
Along with Mr. Patrick, senior Timothy Cooper founded the student group, Mountaineers for a New Administration. The resignation of Mr. Garrison, he said, is just the beginning.
"There's still much work to be done," he said. "I really don't know where that begins."
Hoppy Kercheval, a WVU alumnus and radio talk show host for statewide Metronews, said he sees a need for a "top-flight interim president, somebody who doesn't have political connections, someone with experience to come into a troubled situation and right the ship."
He said a brand-new committee should conduct the search for the next president and he or she would be paid "more than the associate head coach of the football team. If [it's] going to be the kind of university people feel it is and should be, we need to find an outstanding list of candidates and pay the person accordingly.
Mr. Garrison was given a three-year contract when he was hired last year and a salary of $255,000.
"I know it's been hard for a lot of people to watch and go through. I hope we can now begin the process of restoring credibility and reestablishing WVU as what I think it is, a great institution.
"Damage has been done but the reputation needs to be restored and I hope and expect we'll be able to do so."
First Published June 8, 2008 12:00 am