essays and articles by david g allen

It Was A Dark And Stormy EMBA Degree


I read the Report of the Special Investigative Panel For Review Of Executive MBA Program Records (at West Virginia University) issued on April 21, 2008. At the outset, I did not believe that five college professors could write with such clarity and brevity. And yet, these five academics did an admirable job in explaining their findings in crystal-clear fashion using as few words as possible.

Therefore, I have been at a loss to understand how there could be any debate about what transpired in awarding Ms. Heather Bresch an Executive MBA degree. The panel concluded that the academic and financial records of West Virginia University were reasonably accurate, that Ms. Bresch received special treatment not afforded any other degree candidate and that her degree was manufactured in the shabbiest way possible -- by overt fraud committed at the highest levels of the university.

The panel could not have made these charges clearer. However, in West Virginia, not all people are fluent in translating the English language into our local dialect.

"The Elements of Style" by Strunk and White is (and has been for decades) the most popular writing primer. The authors are famous for their advocacy of using the active voice when writing. They further recommend that writers avoid using the passive voice.

Unlike Mssrs. Strunk and White, West Virginians tend to speak and write in the passive voice, which derives from their fondness for passivity. The term "miner's mentality" describes the passive attitude of most West Virginians. For my purposes, let's skip the reference to miners and call this behavior the passivity-passive voice complex.

Innumerable people have either said or written, "Mistakes were made" when describing the manner in which university officials manufactured Ms. Bresch's degree. I wondered how they could have read the panel's report and then resort to the passive voice to describe people pulling grades out of thin air.

So I went back to the report and re-read it. On page 12, the panel states, "But again, the grade (--) that was entered in that course (--) was simply pulled from thin air." Well, there you have it -- the passive voice.

In matters relating to science and scholarship, it is customary to use the passive voice in certain situations. For example, it is better to write, "Experiments were conducted" than to write a lengthy preface explaining who conducted the experiments. If it is necessary to name each scientist conducting the experiment, then that information is consigned to a footnote.

The investigative panel's charge did not require the panel to return an indictment against the person or persons who altered Ms. Bresch's transcript. Thus, when the panel wrote, "But again, the grade ... that was entered ... was simply pulled from thin air" they purposely used the passive voice to avoid naming names and going beyond their charge.

Though the circumstance demanded that the panel speak to the alteration of grades in the passive voice, that does not mean that certain people weren't actively doing the pulling. If we allow ourselves to slough this dreadful affair off with words like "Mistakes were made" then we should just assume that the university's computer system is a deus ex machina over which there is no control. And that assumption would be consistent with the passivity-passive voice complex.

West Virginians need to realize that the rest of the world speaks with the active voice and, further, that the rest of the world does not translate the passive voice as necessitating passivity. The rest of the world is dumbstruck that a university would manufacture a degree. But West Virginians have allowed their special interpretation of a few words to cloud their own judgment.

The investigative panel members should be commended for their report. Had the provost appointed five typical West Virginians to the panel, then be assured that their report would consist of three tried-and-true words that you'll hear spoken only in the Mountain State: "You'll have that."

The university's faculty has every right to be incensed about the manufacture of a degree. That said, every single faculty member should have demanded a forum to cast his or her vote in the matters addressed on May 14. As it turned out, less than half bothered to vote.

No amount of protest can ever restore the faculty's virginity. But in this case, Shakespeare might say, "Methinks the Lady doth not protest enough!"

WVU would quickly expel a student caught cheating. The same punishment must apply to everyone involved in this pathetic scandal.



"It Was A Dark And Stormy EMBA Degree" originally appeared in the May 30, 2008 issue of the West Virginia State Journal and was reprinted in the June 1, 2008 issue of the Clarksburg (WV) Exponent-Telegram.



Copyright 1990-2008  David G. Allen