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WVU Urged to Strengthen Graduate Programs Across the Board

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Problems with record deficiencies, grading practices and inconsistent policies in West Virginia University’s master’s programs are not limited to the College of Business & Economics, said the man charged with strengthening those programs in the wake of a degree scandal involving Gov. Joe Manchin’s daughter.

The university must push for uniformity and give graduate programs the same priority as undergraduate programs if it wants to compete for the nation’s best students, said Dr. Jonathan Cumming, vice president for graduate education.

Cumming told The Associated Press he ordered a master’s degree rescinded several weeks ago after the College of Arts & Sciences discovered a student was improperly claiming it on his employer’s Web site.

While federal privacy laws prevent him from sharing details, Cumming said the student had never defended his thesis, resulting in a grade of “incomplete.” Though the student initially refused to return the diploma, his degree was ultimately rescinded.

“The point is, these things happen,” said Cumming, who’s chairing a task force on WVU’s record-keeping practices. “There are problems like this that we encounter frequently enough that we need a system of checks and balances.”

Two reviews are under way in the aftermath of the scandal involving Manchin’s daughter, Heather Bresch. Cumming’s team is focused on practices at the admissions and records level, while the business college has been conducting a separate internal audit.

It was the latter that determined 70 out of 700 executive master’s of business administration degrees have potential problems, a figure Cumming relayed to the Board of Governor’s last week.

WVU administrators awarded Bresch an EMBA last October. But an independent panel later concluded she had not earned it. The panel said it found no pervasive problems with record-keeping or the granting of academic credits in the business college, so many faculty now question the claim of 70 compromised degrees.

Last week, Cumming laid out ways to tighten up graduate programs, but his report was overshadowed by the Board of Governors’ declaration that President Mike Garrison had done nothing wrong in the Bresch matter and by personnel changes Garrison then announced.

Dr. Judith Sedgeman, who teaches graduate students in the medical school’s public health program, said she supports consistency and improvement but is frustrated that Garrison’s administration has begun publicly casting doubt on the validity of EMBA degrees.

“Discussing irregularities, especially when they may not come to anything, just simply continues to erode public confidence in the university,” she said.

Cumming said he doesn’t know the details of those irregularities.

However, “If we believe the 10 percent, then the question is, what does that mean?” he said. “If you’re buying a Ford vehicle or a Toyota vehicle, are you willing to take a 10 percent chance the wheels are going to fall off?”

The goal, Cumming said, should be 100 percent accuracy.

In his own review of 13 master’s degrees, Cumming said he found one minor credit-hour discrepancy. It’s possible, though, that other discrepancies exist and other degrees have been wrongly awarded.

“If one or two degrees get out every year that we don’t check, they accumulate,” he said. “And while that’s not a high percent, how many is acceptable?”

Sedgeman, who earned her doctorate in educational psychology this year, said the graduate programs she’s familiar with are “very well controlled,” but the paperwork for changing an incomplete grade is “arduous.”

“I’m quite certain that it happens at times that a student will get the work in, the professor will say, ‘Great, I’ll change your grade,’ and then the professor doesn’t get around to changing it,” she said.

Many of the EMBA students may be able to prove just such a scenario, she said. Sedgeman said she is concerned about students who earned their degrees but are now the butt of jokes.

“These people are hurt when their own university displays to the public that there’s something amiss with WVU’s degrees,” she said. “Whatever is amiss we should fix it, I agree. But I don’t think we should make a public spectacle of it. And I don’t think that much is amiss.”

A consultant will review graduate programs in September, and Cumming’s task force will deliver recommendations in October.

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