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Showdown at West Virginia University

When the national press focuses on academic questions at universities these days, the spotlight often shines on plagiarism.  But there is a genuine academic scandal brewing in Morgantown, at West Virginia University, and the national media has only barely noticed.  What’s worse, from what I can tell, outside of West Virginia itself the blogosphere has taken a pass.

But it shouldn’t.

Taking most recent matters first, the Faculty Senate at WVU voted overwhemingly yesterday to ask that the university’s Board ask President Mike Garrison to resign if he does not resign voluntarily.

Why?  President Garrison is being asked to take responsibility for the university’s awarding an MBA retrospectively to a politically-connected former student who apparently dropped out of the business school’s program a decade ago, after completing substantially less than all of the program.

The President himself was appointed at least in part due to his political connections, and many in Morgantown apparently smell his complicity, if not his direct participation, in this subversion of the process by which degrees are awarded.  Before his appointment, President Garrison was a practicing lawyer in West Virginia.  (Garrison’s law degree and undergraduate degree were both earned at WVU.)

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s own Woodward and Bernstein, Patricia Sabatini and Len Boselovic, have been pursuing this story relentlessly since last Fall.  The former student was appointed to a high-level corporate position in the Pittsburgh suburbs.  A pro forma call to the university’s Registrar to confirm her academic records turned up some puzzling discrepancies.

The paper’s initial account of the mystery was published in December 2007.  After denials and stonewalling by the university, an independent committee appointed by the Provost and the Faculty Senate issued a blistering report on the matter roughly two weeks ago.  The degree was rescinded, and both the Dean of the business school and the Provost of the University have resigned.  (My Pitt colleague John Burkoff was a member of the committee.)

What will happen in the wake of the Senate vote?  There is clearly more drama to come.  According to this morning’s Post-Gazette:

Law professor and faculty senate member Patrick McGinley said his colleagues at WVU’s law school expressed to him two “defining moments” that fed their determination to seek Mr. Garrison’s resignation.

The first was board chairman Steve Goodwin’s comments to the student newspaper Friday, which Mr. McGinley said displayed contempt for the faculty.

State law puts the board, not the faculty senate, in charge of the university, and “if they don’t like that, the only way to change that is to change the law,” the paper quoted Mr. Goodwin as saying.

The second was Mr. Garrison’s response to questions during a television interview over the weekend in which he appeared to reject the findings of the investigative panel.

Western Pennsylvanians like to hype the athletic rivalry between Pitt and WVU, and they often like to look down on West Virginians.  But there is no schadenfreude in Pittsburgh today.  Every Pittsburgher I’ve talked with about the episode is saddened by it.  These are dark and tragic days for a university that deserves much better.