House Speaker Thom Tillis forced to correct college credentials

jfrank@newsobserver.com kreilly@newsobserver.comMarch 20, 2014 

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Speaker of the N.C. House Thom Tillis talks to the media after he filed the paperwork to run for the U.S. Senate at the N.C. State Board of Elections in Raleigh, NC on Feb. 26, 2014.

CHRIS SEWARD — cseward@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

House Speaker Thom Tillis is facing questions in his U.S. Senate bid about whether he has exaggerated his college credentials.

The Republican gave a radio interview in 2012 in which he said he graduated from the “University of Maryland.” A resume posted in 2011 to his campaign website listed the same thing.

More recently, his LinkedIn page and legislative website identified his alma mater as the University of Maryland-College Park.

But according to the state’s flagship university, Tillis is not a graduate. Instead, he received a bachelor’s degree in 1997 from University of Maryland University College, an accredited, distance-learning institution affiliated with the state’s university system.

Campaign spokesman Jordan Shaw said that other aides put together the two websites and “made just a simple, common mistake.”

“The speaker has never tried to mislead anybody about where he went to college,” he said.

Shaw didn’t respond directly to questions about Tillis’ radio interview.

The scrutiny comes as the Tillis campaign emphasizes the 53-year-old’s rise from his hardscrabble start.

It also adds to the negative attention on the perceived front-runner in the eight-way Republican primary. Tillis is leading the money race and getting endorsements from top Republicans in Washington even as he comes under increasing fire from his opponents for “character” issues stemming from recent controversies.

GOP rival Mark Harris, a Charlotte pastor, said Tillis needs to address the college issue himself.

“I’m sure there is an explanation here, and I think the voters should hear it directly from Mr. Tillis, not one of his hired political guns,” Harris said in a statement. “This appears to be another example of why voters don’t trust politicians.”

Discrepancies widespread

The discrepancies about Tillis’ biography on his websites first arose Thursday in a report from Talking Points Memo, an online publication that focuses on politics. Tillis’ campaign said the descriptions were quickly corrected.

But the instances in which Tillis is listed as a graduate of the University of Maryland, instead of UMUC, are widespread. Since his first run for the state legislature in 2006, media reports included the description and Tillis’ campaign did not clarify the misconceptions.

His alma matter also is listed incorrectly in the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research legislative guidebooks, a well-respected source published every two years, dating back to his first term in 2007.

Ran Coble, who helps assemble the book, said the information is gathered from the lawmakers’ websites and local media reports. A draft profile is sent to each lawmaker for review ahead of publication. “We ask them to make any corrections and that’s the fail-safe in the end,” he said.

Tillis’ biography on the Republican State Leadership Committee website still included the wrong information late Thursday.

But an April 2012 radio interview, first reported by The News & Observer, is one of the few instances that came from Tillis’ own words. In a conversation about community colleges, Tillis told “Carolina Newsmakers” host Don Curtis about his background.

“I was a partner at Pricewaterhouse before I got my four year degree. I graduated from University of Maryland, 1996, or ’97 actually,” Tillis said.

‘Proud’ of his personal story

The story of Tillis’ rise is the central theme in his latest campaign commercial and Tillis highlights how he went to work after high school. His official campaign website says he took community college and extension courses as he worked, earning his diploma at age 36. (Tillis told an audience in February he was 37 at the time.) The campaign did not immediately return a message seeking clarification.

Tillis told Roll Call in a September interview that he went to UMUC. And his campaign said his Facebook page properly identifies his educational background.

“He’s never been shy ... that he earned his college degree as an adult,” Shaw said. “It’s a story he’s proud to tell.”

UMUC serves working adults pursuing a higher education, and the majority of its coursework is now offered online. Nearly 80 percent of the school’s enrollment was online in fiscal year 2013.

In 1997, when Tillis graduated, Bob Ludwig, assistant vice president of media relations at the University of Maryland University College, said his institution offered online courses, though they were relatively new. Other courses were taught in education centers across Maryland.

UMUC served a total of 76,842 undergraduate students – including 13,627 in Asia and 19,611 in Europe – and awarded a total of 5,065 bachelor’s degrees in 2013. By comparison, University of Maryland-College Park has a total of 26,538 undergraduate students enrolled during the current academic year.

For the UMUC degree, students can earn a total 30 hours of credit for prior professional work and another 15 for current work experience while enrolled. A degree in management studies requires 120 credits of coursework. University of Maryland-College Park does not award credit for nontraditional or extracurricular learning not supervised by its own faculty.

Administrators at both institutions said the two universities are often mistaken for one another.

Frank: 919-829-4698

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