Monday, June 16, 2008

Almost purgatory

Michael GarrisonEnding a tenure as brief as it was tumultuous, West Virginia University president Michael Garrison will resign, effective September 1. After six weeks of shielding Garrison from outraged faculty, students, and alumni, WVU's Board of Governors swiftly accepted Garrison's resignation on June 6.

The full story in brief: Garrison was appointed WVU's president in April 2007 over the strenuous objections of that university's faculty, which cast a vote of no confidence even before he had been chosen. To his office, Garrison brought an impressive arsenal of political connections, but no academic experience. He has spent roughly half his tenure battling a scandal that arose because neither he nor his subordinates could answer a straightforward question: Did Heather Bresch, chief operating officer of the pharmaceutical firm Mylan, Inc., earn an executive MBA from WVU? The answer, as an investigation by WVU ultimately concluded, was no .pdf icon. But WVU initially answered "yes" and granted an MBA it later rescinded. Bresch is the daughter of West Virginia's governor, Joe Manchin III, and Mylan was one of Garrison's most prominent lobbying clients. And though Garrison did not attend the fateful meeting at which WVU decided to award the contested eMBA degree to Heather Bresch, his chief of staff appeared to have presided.

The body count so far: West Virginia University has lost its president, its provost, and the dean of its business school. Adhering to the instinct that the most straightforward version of a story probably lies closest to the truth, I regard the whole episode as a painful but ultimately triumphant vindication of academic virtue over the politics of corruption and the culture of complacency.

That said, given this forum's explicit embrace of youth in academic administration — Michael Garrison will have been appointed to and ousted from the presidency of his alma mater before the age of 40 — and this forum's willingness to contemplate university administrators whose greatest accomplishments lie outside the academic realm, the Garrison fiasco warrants a brief moment of contemplation.

Duane NellisYes, I have extolled the "challenging but exhilarating" adventure that "infuse[s] managerial and (most of all) entrepreneurial responsibilities into the strictly academic calling of a [university] professor," going so far as to laud the "portmanteau expression for this blend of management, law, and the intellectual life: MoneyLaw." But it behooves the academy, at the end of the grim season that West Virginia University has endured, to remember that there truly are candidates for university administration who combine business acumen with academic accomplishment. Perhaps M. Duane Nellis, provost at Kansas State and an accomplished academic geographer, was such a candidate. Provost Nellis undoubtedly has been the subject of much thought and discussion in Morgantown, where he once served as dean of WVU's college of arts and sciences and was passed over in favor of Michael Garrison as president of WVU. Those of us who love the state of West Virginia can only hope that its flagship university will right its course soon and regroup in the aftermath of the Bresch-Garrison scandal.

The larger lesson is this: The list of qualities needed in academic administration includes not only talent — whether that talent is defined in academic or in entrepreneurial terms — but also character. Now abide these three: academic achievement, business acumen, and character. And the greatest of these is character.

West Virginia, so the balladeer tells us, is almost heaven. West Virginia University, in recent memory, has felt at best as though it were almost purgatory. A reading from W.S. Merwin's translation of Dante's Purgatorio seems in order:

Dante and the Divine Comedy

W.S. Merwin reads the first two stanzas of Purgatorio



Merwin's entire 25-minute reading from his translation of Purgatorio


  • Per correr miglior acque alza le vele
  • omai la navicella del mio ingegno,
  • che lascia dietro a sé mar sì crudele;

  • e canterò di quel secondo regno
  • dove l'umano spirito si purga
  • e di salire al ciel diventa degno.
  • To course on better waters the little
  • boat of my wit, that leaves behind her
  • so cruel a sea, now raises her sails,

  • and I will sing of that second kingdom
  • in which the human spirit is made clean
  • and becomes worthy to ascend to Heaven.

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