What's wrong with higher ed: A WVU nutshell

by JS O’Brien

Administrators at West Virginia University have demonstrated, both by their actions and their words, exactly what’s wrong with higher education in the US.  In case you missed it, here’s the story

Heather Bresch is the chief operating officer (COO) of Pittsburgh-based Mylan, Inc.  She is also West Virginia governor Joe Manchin’s daughter.  The CEO of Mylan is a longtime contributor to Machin’s political war chest.  So far, it’s a pretty familiar story.  A child of a close friend and associate is promoted to a top executive job.

But wait!  There’s more!

Ms. Bresch published a biography claiming an MBA from West Virginia University.  As a routine check, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called WVU and, ding-ding-ding-ding-ding, there was no record of Ms. Bresch’s MBA award anywhere.  Ms.  Bresch protested that she had an agreement to substitute work experience for the final 22 (out of 48) hours she needed for an MBA, and that it was a records issue.  A WVU committee found that it was, indeed, a records issue, and gave MS Bresch her MBA 10-years after she walked away from Morgantown.

But not so fast.  It seems that WVU’s president is Michael Garrison, a friend of the governor’s family and Ms. Bresch’s former business associate.  A committee formed to probe the issue found that Garrison had pressured administrators to grant Bresch her bogus MBA.  It also found that Bresch had no agreement about work experience substituting for classroom time.Â

WVU boot-licker provost Gerald Long denies that there was any pressure to grant Ms. Bresch her degree, saying – and now get this – that:

We erred on the side of the student.  There was information that was incomplete and we decided to err on the side of the student as part of the university’s student-centeredness. (emphasis mine)

Ms. Bresch has issued a statement saying she will not appeal and wants “to put this issue behind us.”

I’ll bet she does.

It simply amazes me how many themes WVU managed to pack into such a small event.  I’m not even going to try dealing with the role of politics in academia, the danger of appointing a political operative to head a university, or the necessity of tenure for insulating faculty from political pressure.  Nope, I’m just going after what I think is the main issue:  The vast majority of colleges haven’t a freakin’ clue who their customers are, how to serve them best, what final outcomes those customers want, or how to produce those outcomes.

So I’m going to tell them.

Colleges have multiple customers:

  1. Students
  2. Society as a whole
  3. Employers
  4. Organizations funding research
  5. Donors, including some (but not all) alumni
  6. Academe, as a whole (when employers are other colleges)

I’ll admit that most people who work at colleges would probably identify students if you asked them about their customers.  Certainly, belly-crawler provost Long knows that.  What most probably couldn’t tell you is how to serve those customers best.  Long, the worm provost, thinks it’s about making the student happy.

It’s not.

Imagine a surgeon who prescribes blissful pain-killers for his patients instead of surgery, because she doesn’t want the patient to have to endure post-surgical pain.  What about a fat farm that feeds you nothing but deserts, lets you lie around getting massages all day, then gives you a certificate of completion and a pat on the back while ignoring the fact that you gained 30 pounds?  Think of the expedition tour company that lets you hike up a tilted cornfield in Nebraska, then photoshops your picture into a shot from the top of Mt. Everest for your scrapbook?  What do you suppose all these companies would have in common with most colleges these days?


Look, 18-something students don’t know what they want, OK?  Oh, they know they want a degree.  Some want to run up $200,000 on mommy-and-daddy’s bar tab.  Most want to get laid.  Many attain all three objectives.Â

What they really want (besides those things), though, because they really need it, is to arrive at the end of the higher ed conveyor belt more skilled, better thinkers, more mature, and even better people if that’s possible.  If you need surgery, you’ll deal with the pain.  If you want to lose weight, you’ll put in the work.  If you want a real adventure, a photo of what you never did and never accomplished is not likely to satisfy you.

No wonder receiving a college degree feels so empty these days.

Pleasing all of a university’s customers, not just the students, comes back to the same, basic issue:  the education it offers must have real value.  WVU has demonstrated that even its administrators don’t believe what they offer has value.  If work experience will suffice for almost half the upper-level class work it takes to “earn” an MBA, why get an MBA?  Clearly, it has no value if job experience is every bit as useful.  Why pay to get an MBA when you can be paid to learn the same stuff?

 I wish WVU were unusual.  I wish that most colleges clearly defined their customers, what those customers want, and how to get it to them, but they don’t.  Can you name a college that knows what skills they want their undergrads to leave with, what curriculum and pedagogical techniques will develop those skills, and how to measure to ensure that their customers are actually getting what they’re paying for?  I can think of fewer than a handful who do even one of those things.

Colleges must think they can survive without offering real value for the money.

I wish them luck with that.

3 replies »

  1. Just send a check made out to West Virginia University. Be sure to specify the degree you wish to acquire and your final GPA.