Thom Tillis says where he went to college shouldn’t matter

jfrank@newsobserver.comMarch 21, 2014 

A day after questions surfaced about his alma mater, U.S. Senate candidate Thom Tillis said where he went to college shouldn’t matter and dismissed suggestions he misled voters.

In an interview Friday, the House speaker acknowledged his college diploma says “University of Maryland University System,” not the University of Maryland – which he repeatedly cited as his alma mater in interviews, a resume and his campaign websites, dating to 2003.

Even as he makes his background a central part of his campaign, the Republican downplayed the discrepancy, saying he has never campaigned on the source of his college diploma.

“I’ve never listed my education degree as why people should vote for me,” he said. “I think the average person is thinking more about what I’ve accomplished in my professional career and what I’ve accomplished in my career as a legislator.”

The campaign corrected two websites that said he attended University of Maryland at College Park, his LinkedIn profile and a legislative page Thursday, in response to questions raised in the Talking Points Memo political blog. A spokesman said they were written by campaign aides, not Tillis.

But others demanded more explanation, particularly about the instances in which Tillis made the same mistake. His GOP rival Mark Harris said the controversy is “another example of why voters don’t trust politicians.”

In a 2012 radio interview, Tillis cited his degree from the University of Maryland, and a 2011 resume he authored and posted on his campaign website listed the same.

Tillis said he is open about his educational background and often talks about the five schools in three states he attended before earning a degree at University of Maryland University College in 1997 at age 36. His indirect path – the result of working his way through college – is even highlighted in his current campaign commercial, though it doesn’t name the school.

But even during his Friday phone interview, Tillis said numerous times he attended the “University of Maryland.” Tillis explained that “when someone asked a general question ... I may say that,” especially when trying to be brief.

“It’s not a matter of a conscious omission,” he continued. “It’s just a matter of moving on to what they are really asking about.”

When asked for more details, Tillis said, he tells people he attended UMUC. Tillis said “a preponderance of the evidence” shows he correctly cites his alma mater, including a September 2013 interview with a Washington publication and his Facebook page.

“It defies rational thought ... that somehow I’m masking the fact I graduated from University Maryland University College. It’s part of the University of Maryland university system,” he said.

The two schools, however, are different. University of Maryland University College is an accredited distance-learning institution that offers most of its classes online. Unranked in the premier college surveys, the school accepts 100 percent of its applicants and grants credit hours for previous work experience. A significant portion of its students are military and located overseas.

The University of Maryland’s flagship campus is College Park, a school that ranks No. 62 among national universities, according to U.S. News and World Report’s survey. It accepts 47 percent of its applicants and it does not grant credit for prior work experience.

To finish his degree, Tillis said he attended UMUC for one year, while working at PricewaterhouseCoopers, a major consulting firm, and taking online classes and attending others on campus. He earned course credit for his work experience. His bachelor of science degree is in technology management.

Tillis said the suggestion that he exaggerated his credentials implies that UMUC is “a lesser school,” an insinuation that he said “is denigrating or insulting.”

He said the information is designed “to put a blow in my campaign.” But he dismissed his critics, saying, “Most people would say this is petty politics and we need to move on to the bigger issues.”

Frank: 919-829-4698

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