The story of a cover-up
Beginning in upper left corner: 1. Mylan COO Heather Bresch -- Insisted that she had finished her degree in 1998. 2. WVU president Mike Garrison -- Contended situation was handled as it would have been for any other WVU student. 3. WVU provost Gerald Lang -- "Errors" on Ms. Bresch's transcript had been "appropriately corrected." 4. Business dean Stephen Sears -- Felt pressured to make a decision but said he "didn't want to make the decision." 5. Chief of staff Craig Walker -- Ordered and attended pivotal meetings at which officials decided to grant the degree.
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The conclusion of the investigative panel was stunningly straightforward: Mylan Inc. executive Heather Bresch did not earn a master's degree in business administration from West Virginia University and officials had no basis for awarding it.
But the panel's blistering report, released two weeks ago, also offers a detailed, inside look at how far officials were willing to go for the governor's daughter, inventing explanations, falsifying her records and repeatedly misleading the public.
Investigators unanimously concluded the decision to award the degree last fall, nearly a decade after Ms. Bresch left the program, was rife with favoritism.
The findings triggered the resignations of Provost Gerald Lang and business school dean R. Stephen Sears from their administrative posts, and launched widespread calls for the ouster of President Michael Garrison, a long-time family friend and former business associate of Ms. Bresch, whose boss, Mylan Chairman Milan Puskar, is WVU's biggest benefactor. Mr. Lang and Mr. Sears have said they will remain at WVU to teach.
WVU's scramble to justify the acceptance of Ms. Bresch's claim that she earned the degree in December 1998 began Oct. 11, when the Post-Gazette made a routine call to the registrar to confirm a master's degree listed among the newly appointed chief operating officer's credentials. Initially, the paper was told she did not finish her degree.
Days later, ignoring official records showing she did not earn the degree, top officials began a series of changing explanations.
They told the newspaper the registrar was wrong, dismissing the apparent discrepancy as a clerical error. They said Ms. Bresch had earned her degree in 1998 but was not officially recorded as a graduate because she had not paid the $50 graduation fee.
"She completed all the course work necessary to graduate, but we discovered that wasn't put on the record because the fee wasn't paid," spokeswoman Amy Neil said at the time.
When pressed, Ms. Neil added that because of a mix-up, the business school had failed to "transfer" some of Ms. Bresch's grades to the admissions and records office. She declined to say how many credits were involved but added that other students in the M.B.A. program had reported similar problems.
As the five-member panel would find, university administrators knew at the time both statements were untrue.
At the same time, the Post-Gazette had learned Ms. Bresch's transcript was missing 22 credits, or nearly half the 48 required, indicating that if there had been a mix-up, it was a massive one.
While Ms. Neil insisted that the business school had located records to verify the degree, behind the scenes, officials could find no such records and were piecing together a plan.
In a hasty decision reflecting "failures of process and failures of leadership," administrators added courses to Ms. Bresch's transcript that she neither took nor paid for, awarding her grades "simply pulled from thin air," investigators found.
Meanwhile, Ms. Bresch insisted to the newspaper that she had finished her degree in 1998. She declined to release a transcript or other documentation, saying her word and the university's word "were better than a transcript." She has declined to speak with the Post-Gazette since that time.
Mylan, too, sought to quash the issue.
In an Oct. 20 letter to Post-Gazette Executive Editor David M. Shribman signed by a Mylan attorney, the Cecil generic drug maker insisted Ms. Bresch had "completed all the credits" but that the necessary paperwork documenting the degree had not been processed due to an "oversight."
The letter warned the newspaper not to publish a story "which is not based upon these facts." Mylan has since removed the reference to the degree from Ms. Bresch's biography published on the company's Web site.
In mid-December, as the Post-Gazette prepared a story questioning how the university went about granting the degree, officials at WVU stonewalled.
Mr. Garrison, Mr. Lang and Mr. Sears declined interviews. Mr. Lang issued a brief statement saying "errors" on Ms. Bresch's transcript had been "appropriately corrected."
"This is the last we will have to say regarding this matter," Ms. Neil added in a note attached to Mr. Lang's statement.
But the panel would conclude the registrar had been right: "In fact, the system did not fail in this respect. The records were accurate. Ms. Bresch had not earned an M.B.A. degree."
After the Dec. 21 story appeared, officials continued to insist nothing was amiss.
"We have all the records" confirming the degree, Ms. Neil told the Daily Mail in Charleston the same day the Post-Gazette's story ran. "We have all the transcripts," she said, repeating that Ms. Bresch's grades, like other students', never made it to the registrar's office.
In the weeks that followed, Mr. Lang and Mr. Sears offered various, often conflicting accounts of how the decision was made to grant the degree retroactively, including acknowledging records were lacking.
Mr. Garrison, whose appointment as president last year Ms. Bresch worked to help him win, denied any hand in the decision. Still, he said he "supported" the decision.
In an interview with a local television station in late December, Mr. Garrison contended the situation was handled as it would have been for any other WVU student, "whether it was Heather Smith or Heather Bresch."
Investigators, however, concluded the opposite, saying Ms. Bresch was treated "in an unusual and unique manner," owing to her high profile and to concerns about a public relations backlash.
Panel members said Mr. Garrison's office "reacted immediately" after Ms. Bresch called him and Craig Walker, Mr. Garrison's chief of staff, to dispute the registrar's statement. Mr. Walker also ordered and attended pivotal meetings at which officials decided to grant the degree "whether she had actually earned it or not," according to the panel's report.
Besides Mr. Walker, Mr. Lang and Mr. Sears, participants in key meetings included other representatives from the president's office -- general counsel Alex Macia and vice president of communications Bill Case -- plus assistant business school dean Cyril Logar, director of graduate programs Gerald Blakely and finance professor Paul Speaker.
Mr. Lang's charge to the panel, formed amid public concerns following the Post-Gazette's Dec. 21 story, did not include a request to determine who was responsible for the decision.
But business school officials indicated to the panel that they felt pressure from senior administrators.
"The actual or perceived pressure to go along with this decision, not to 'rock the boat,' was palpable," investigators said.
Mr. Sears told the panel he felt pressured to make a decision but he "didn't want to make the decision."
The panel, consisting of two WVU professors and three educators from outside the state, found the primary basis for granting the degree was Mr. Walker's account of his conversation with Ms. Bresch in which she disputed her records.
"Astonishingly," the report noted, there was no effort by anyone else involved in the decision, including Mr. Sears, to speak directly with Ms. Bresch.
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."
According to Mr. Walker's account, Ms. Bresch acknowledged dropping out of the program but claimed to have made arrangements with then-program director Mr. Speaker to substitute work experience for all of her outstanding course work, a claim strongly refuted by Mr. Speaker and unanimously rejected by the panel.
"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 said.
It noted that while there was some flexibility for students to do a limited amount of "independent study," in such cases they would have been expected to work with faculty members to complete a defined plan of work and would have been required to register and pay tuition for the classes.
"None of this occurred in Ms. Bresch's case," the report said.
The report chastised administrators for "cherry-picking" supporting information, such as deciding to award Ms. Bresch a few credits based solely on Mr. Speaker's recollection that she finished the work, but ignoring his assertion that she had not completed two semesters worth of classes.
Panel members added that they were "particularly disconcerted" by Mr. Lang's, Mr. Sears' and Mr. Logar's repeated assertion that Ms. Bresch must have been the victim of a records snafu because other WVU students also had major problems with their records.
That contention was untrue, the panel found, saying it only turned up a handful of "relatively minor" administrative problems involving the records of other students.
"Continued repetition of this untrue allegation about [the] records inappropriately tars the degrees of many other [M.B.A.] program graduates at WVU," the report said.
Because portions of the report and accompanying notes from panel interviews released to the public were blacked out by WVU, citing privacy rules, it is not clear exactly how many credits ultimately were in question on Ms. Bresch's record. Interview notes indicate at least 16 credits, likely more, remained unsubstantiated. Ms. Bresch has said she will not waive her student privacy rights and will not give WVU permission to release the full report or unedited interview notes.
In an interview given to other news media in April, two weeks before the panel issued its report, Ms. Bresch broke months of public silence, claiming she had been 10 credits shy of a degree and received a waiver for those from Mr. Speaker. Earlier, she had acknowledged failing to attend 16 credits worth of classes, according to the report.
Interview notes indicate administrators added grades to her record chosen at random, keeping in mind that graduates must earn a grade point average of at least 3.0. Ms. Bresch "was an OK student," Mr. Speaker offered to the panel. "Probably on the bubble to graduate" at the point she dropped out.
It is not clear who physically altered the transcript, but it was Mr. Sears who signed the grade modification forms given to the registrar's office.
"That's the part where we are in trouble," Mr. Speaker told the panel. "Until that point in time, all we had was a bad decision. But then someone submitted grades that were not true, grades we know not to be true."
Then, he said, "the bad decision steps into another realm."
First Published May 4, 2008 12:00 am