August 21, 2008

Trustee Praises CMU for Dumping Dean

By Bill Zlatos

A trustee at Carnegie Mellon University praised the administration's prompt handling of the revelation that a dean helped a student get a master's degree that wasn't earned.

"(CMU President) Jerry Cohon's handling of this was exemplary," said James Stalder, a member of CMU's executive committee, in an interview Tuesday. "It was timely and decisive, and dealt with the importance of the matter as it should have been handled."

Mark Wessel, dean of the Heinz School of Public Policy and Management, resigned Friday after admitting to giving excessive transfer and independent study credits to a student who received a master's degree in 2004. The board, which was briefed Friday, supported the administration's response, Stalder said.

The board was not told the identity of the student, Stalder said. Citing privacy rules, the university has not identified the person.

Wessel violated a university policy that generally limits the number of transfer and independent study credits to 12 each.

"Mark was a great guy," Stalder said. "He just made a dumb mistake."

Having served as dean of the business school at Duquesne University, Stalder said he appreciates how the mistake could have happened. Deans often receive information and need to make quick decisions, he said.

The degree scandal shocked Heinz School faculty and graduates.

"This is an issue that has legal ramifications that are not yet settled, and once those have been settled, I'm sure people will be more willing to talk," said Gordon Lewis, director of the Office of Mid-Career Programs and an associate professor of sociology at the Heinz School. He declined to elaborate.

University officials said a faculty member in the Heinz School brought the issue to the administration's attention, but declined to name that person.The Tribune-Review polled several faculty members about the whistle-blower's identity and four denied bringing the issue forward.

Asked whether he was the faculty member who uncovered the situation, Lewis said: "I'm not at liberty to say that, either way - - whether I am or not."

Steve Denson, a 1993 alum of the Heinz School, teaches at the business school of Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

In an e-mail to the Tribune-Review, he wrote: "First, it would appear that there is an even greater error in Carnegie Mellon's system of auditing academic credits, if it has taken four years to find this.

"Second, it seems like killing a mosquito with a hand grenade to eliminate Wessel based on one error in judgment."

University spokesman Ken Walters said a review by the offices of general counsel and student affairs found no evidence to support that the university or Wessel gained anything from the excessive credits.

"There's no smoking gun there," Stalder said. "This is not like West Virginia, where the student was a notable person and had some visibility."

Stalder was referring to West Virginia University's awarding a master degree in business administration to Heather M. Bresch although she lacked enough credits.

She is the daughter of the governor, friend of the university's president and chief operating officer at Mylan Inc., whose chairman is the university's biggest donor. The flap over her diploma led to the resignations of WVU President Mike Garrison, Provost Gerald Lang and R. Stephen Sears, dean of the business school.

"I'm sure the turmoil of what happened at West Virginia was on people's minds and the political and institutional ramifications of that," said Alfred Blumstein, a professor in the Heinz School. "There are no such ramifications that I know of (at CMU). It was, from all that I can gather, an isolated incident."

The administration appointed Ramayya Krishnan acting dean of the Heinz School. He will appoint a committee to review whether any other degrees were inappropriately awarded. Walters said the committee's inquiry would be restricted to the Heinz School because the university considers it an isolated incident.

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