Friday, May 30, 2008

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.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Were Our 'Good Old Days' Really That Good?

George Kovach died last week. He was 90. For most of my boyhood, "Mister" Kovach ran the Cities Service filling station a block away from my house.

As I read his obituary, I began having those unavoidable flashbacks of life as it was lived nearly 50 years ago. Whenever we remember the days of our youth, we invariably think of that stage of our lives as the good old days. Maybe you call them the salad days. For most of us, that time of life seemed just about right because we were far too young and untraveled to have had any perspective.

The old filling stations were lessons in merchandising. Everything the station sold was a branded product. The Cities Service logo--the outline of a green clover leaf on white background--appeared on everything.

The men who worked at the station wore neat uniforms with a Cities Service emblem. The oil cans, antifreeze jugs and just about every other container carried the store brand. And as for the gasoline, Cities Service promoted their brand as the best for your car because it had Power Prover.

In Clarksburg, Cities Service had to compete with Esso, Pure, Gulf, Amoco, Mobil, Texaco, Sunoco, Sinclair, Spur, Red Head, Ashland, Quaker State and Pennzoil. Each brand claimed that its own secret ingredient made your car engine run better. However, these claims were just so much gimmickry. (Perhaps you'll recall: "Put a tiger in your tank!")

Filling stations were big on handing out promotional items. You could take your pick from a nice selection of road maps. Ice scrapers were common giveaways in the wintertime. Sometimes, the giveaways were merchandise, such as drinking glasses. All in all, these stations competed for your business and your trust by developing brand loyalty.

Filling stations usually had two service bays. One side had a lift for lube jobs and oil changes. The other side was used for car washes and tire changes.

Fifty years ago, a car needed a lot more maintenance. On average, cars had about seven grease fittings that needed a shot of grease at every oil change. Drum brake pads, unlike today's disc brakes, wore out pretty quickly. Batteries were anything but maintenance-free. And radiators all too often overheated.

In some respects, filling stations were like the blacksmith shops in the horse-and-wagon era. Cars of the 1950s were about as temperamental as horses and, like the wagons of old, needed frequent maintenance.

Tires prove this out. Fifty years ago, a set of four tires cost about $100. Radial tires were still a new concept in Europe. We bought tube-type, bias-ply tires that did well if they lasted 10,000 miles. With their uncanny ability to pick up nails off the roadway, you could expect a tire to go flat once before it wore out.

To fix a flat tire required removing the tube and patching it with a hot patch. Then you had to remount the tire and, most likely, rebalance it. Fixing a flat tire was a real chore.

A set of radial tires today will cost four times what Mister Kovach charged. But your new radials are likely warranted for 50,000 miles or more. As for flat tires, you may never have one. All-season radial tires handle much better, are much safer and are far less likely to hydroplane than the rubber ducks of the good old days.

Last week, gasoline hit $3.89.9 per gallon in Clarksburg, the highest price yet. Today's price seems so distant from the 25 cents that a gallon cost in my youth.

If I looked only at the price of gasoline, then I'd say the good old days were indeed good. But when I look at the total cost of operating a vehicle, I must conclude that modern times are the better era of the two.

Gasoline has become a generic commodity sold mostly at convenience stores. These stores offer no service because there really isn't much of a need to check under the hood anymore. As for building customer loyalty, why hand out free road maps when cars are increasingly equipped with GPS locators? Is it any wonder then why the neighborhood filling station is all but extinct?

In 10 or so years, we won't complain about the price of gasoline because we'll plug our vehicles into an electric outlet every night. And when that time comes, we'll remember the good old days. You know -- the days when every neighborhood had a convenience store.