R. Stephen Sears, dean of West Virginia University’s College of Business and Economics, will resign along with Provost Gerald Lang in the wake of a master’s degree scandal involving the governor’s daughter.
Lang announced his resignation Sunday. Sears, dean since 2005, then told Lang he also will step down. WVU announced Sears’ decision Monday. Both men will resign June 30.
Last week, an investigating panel issued a critical, 95-page report that concluded the two men were among several administrators who acted inappropriately and applied “severely flawed” judgment in awarding Mylan Inc. executive Heather Bresch a degree the panel said she did not earn.
Bresch, daughter of Gov. Joe Manchin, works for one of the university’s key donors, Milan Puskar, and is longtime friends with WVU President Mike Garrison.
The panel that studied her executive master’s of business administration degree, retroactively awarded last fall after records discrepancies were discovered, concluded there was no academic foundation for concluding she had earned the degree in 1998.
Administrators relied too heavily on verbal assertions and caved to political pressure, whether real or perceived, the panel said.
Before coming to WVU, Sears was senior executive associate dean of Rawls College of Business Administration at Texas Tech University, where he taught finance. He has also worked at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Sears did not immediately issue a personal statement about his decision or respond to an e-mail. His secretary referred questions to the administration, which did not immediately comment. However, Garrison was expected to address the Faculty Senate’s Executive Committee later Monday.
Lang did issue a statement over the weekend.
“I am very sorry that my one action in ratifying a dean’s decision in a single situation has had a negative impact on the institution,” Lang wrote. “I love this place and would never intentionally take an action that would reflect negatively upon it.”
Faculty Senate Chairman Steve Kite said Lang and Sears “did the right thing.” Many faculty members have been disturbed by their insistence that their action was “a judgment call” they would likely have made again.
“Their opinion disagrees with the MBA panel and it disagrees with every faculty member I’ve spoken to,” he said.
Kite praised Lang’s leadership and single-mindedness over the 32 years Lang has been with the university but said his strength ultimately became his flaw.
“His whole body of work may have had as much impact on West Virginia University as anyone in the history of the school,” Kite said, citing numerous construction projects, a strengthening of research programs and consistently climbing enrollment.
“But the downside of the single-mindedness is that sometimes he wasn’t open to faculty input.”
Whether the resignations go far enough may be up to the faculty and its 114-member senate. While some professors have said they’ll bring a motion May 12 for a vote of no confidence in Garrison, Kite said “some very pro-Garrison” motions also are circulating.
Kite said it’s important to note the panel’s report found no systemic flaws at WVU and the Bresch matter appears to be an isolated incident. Still, WVU will hire an outside consultant to help it design new systems that ensure a similar scandal will never occur again.
“We will be overly diligent to make sure there’s redundancy in the graduation records so it’s clear to anyone at a moment’s notice where a person’s degree stands,” he said.
Garrison, a politically connected attorney who worked for former Democratic Gov. Bob Wise, was appointed to his position in April 2007 over the objections of some faculty. The Faculty Senate endorsed the other finalist, former dean and current Kansas State University Provost M. Duane Nellis.
Pressure for Garrison to respond decisively to the panel’s report had mounted in recent days with newspaper editorials, letters to the editor and more.
“No matter how WVU officials try to spin it, they gave preferential treatment and awarded a degree to a well-connected person who provided no proof she had earned it,” wrote The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington. “That’s not what a major state university is supposed to be about, but WVU has succumbed to the same disease that has infected the rest of West Virginia and prevented real progress for generations.”
On Monday, Republican Party Chairman Doug McKinney and GOP gubernatorial candidate Russ Weeks echoed the call for all eight who attended the key Oct. 15 decision-making meeting to resign. They took particular aim at Garrison, though the report did not accuse him of any direct interference or wrongdoing.
“When you fill the presidency of the state’s major university with a purely political appointment, it is not surprising when political scandals are the result,” said McKinney, a WVU graduate. “The only way to put this behind us and begin to heal is for a clean sweep of everyone involved in this travesty.”
Kite, however, said similar scandals have occurred at other universities without the same level of media coverage or public outrage.
In 2005, Yale mistakenly confirmed that it had awarded an art history doctorate to Shin Jeong-ah, a professor at a South Korean university. Last winter, Yale expressed regrets for what it called an administrative error.
“I think this whole situation we’re in points up why there are problems with a nontraditional president,” Kite said. “The moment anything surfaces, it becomes easy to make it political, whereas that did not happen at Yale.
“This sort of thing happens at many universities,” he said. “The real issue to a large degree here is who the individual is.”
Lang, meanwhile, said he hopes his departure will be enough to end the furor.
For 13 years, he has been the university’s top academic officer, earning total compensation in 2007 of $243,448, according to the state auditor’s office. For 19 years before that, he was a dean, assistant dean and faculty member.
“In that time, I’ve tried to be a good steward of the university, always keeping the betterment of the institution as my primary goal,” he said.
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