CHARLESTON, W.Va. West Virginia University President Mike Garrison could have taken the heat. He says the school he loves could not.
Snared by a master's degree scandal involving Gov. Joe Manchin's daughter and key members of his administration, the 39-year-old president resigned Friday after only nine months at the helm. Though an investigation found he did nothing wrong, skeptical faculty had repeatedly demanded his resignation, and 124 donors had threatened to withhold gifts.
"Personally, I could withstand this for as long as folks cared to dish it out," Garrison told The Associated Press Friday after a public speech to the Board of Governors. "But it seemed to me that the continued drumbeat of negativity regarding the university, whether it was founded or unfounded ... was allowed to continue because it was focused on me.
"It really became very clear to me that I was able by a single action, by a single statement, to stop this discussion," he said. "It needed to stop, so I made the decision."
Garrison, a politically connected lawyer with few academic credentials, had been dogged from the start of his administration by the degree scandal involving Heather Bresch and the sudden departure of football coach Rich Rodriguez, which triggered a $4 million lawsuit over a buyout clause in his contract.
Garrison's achievements, including approval of a day-care program that had been studied for 30 years, were always overshadowed. He also championed a $26.4 million pay-hike plan to raise staff and faculty salaries and make it easier to recruit professors and researchers. The board has not yet acted on that plan.
Though an independent panel found no evidence Garrison interfered, it was on his watch last fall that WVU administrators added courses and grades to Bresch's incomplete transcript, retroactively awarding her a 1998 executive master's business of administration degree she'd been claiming on her resume.
More than a dozen employees were visibly distressed as he resigned, reaching out to touch or hug Garrison as he left the room. Though in the minority, Garrison's defenders at the meeting included Terry Nebel, a representative of the classified staff who was saddened that faculty members had tried to convict Garrison in the court of public opinion.
"Once upon a time," Nebel said, "West Virginia was ruled by law, not the mob."
Faculty who listened to Garrison's resignation speech were subdued in their reactions, praising him for putting the greater good ahead of personal ambitions and for the work he had done.
"I don't think anyone is celebrating this," said English professor Lisa Weihman. "It's a very sad occasion."
Manchin has been largely unscathed by the scandal, and nothing in the panel's report suggested he played a role.
"This will not affect Gov. Manchin whatsoever," said Marybeth Beller, a political science professor at Marshall University. "The matter appears resolved."
Michael Perone, chairman of the department of psychology and a member of the faculty-led Mountaineers for Integrity and Responsibility, urged the board to consider what further consequences will follow for those who participated in the Bresch matter.
That includes Provost Gerald Lang and business school dean R. Stephen Sears, who have resigned their administrative posts and returned to teaching jobs with minimal salary cuts.
"Each one of those people has to be held accountable for his actions, whatever they may be," he said.
Chairman Stephen P. Goodwin said the board will not rush to any decisions over the naming of an interim president, the timing of a presidential search or what role Garrison might play in the future. Nor would he comment on the fate of key Garrison aides, such as attorney Alex Macia and former communications director Bill Case.
The governor, meanwhile, said he understood how difficult it was for Garrison to resign. He also urged WVU supporters to put aside bitterness.
"Today's actions were obviously taken with great care, and it is my sincere hope that all who truly love WVU will appreciate the president's and the board's efforts and will work with them in the coming months to continue to move the university forward," Manchin said in a statement.
Judith Sedgeman, a medical school professor and outspoken critic of Garrison, said his departure came with "the utmost grace and dignity."
"The university will come together, he'll be supported in his transition, and I feel this was a really positive moment," she said. "The next step is for all of us to start working together for more transparency and more inclusiveness."