If there’s one thing Mylan CEO Heather Bresch does not like to talk about, it’s the saga of her erstwhile MBA degree.
But the scandal over Bresch’s business degree has resurfaced in the news this week as the chief executive of the generic drug company has become the center of yet another controversy over Mylan’s 500% price increase for its emergency allergy treatment EpiPen.
Yet when I spoke with Bresch almost exactly a year ago, the revocation of her MBA from West Virginia University—her home state school—was the least of her problems, and she addressed it more fully than she ever had publicly in the past. (She did not, however, want to talk about it when I asked again Friday.)
At the time, I was wrapping up a profile of Bresch for Fortune’s annual Most Powerful Women issue, which ran under the title “Why Wall Street Loves to Hate Mylan’s CEO” alongside the list on which she ranked No. 22. She was in the midst of an increasingly hostile and difficult takeover attempt of Ireland-based drugmaker Perrigo (PRGO), an attempt that failed a couple of months later. Earlier that summer, she had successfully defended her company from another hostile takeover bid from Teva Pharmaceutical Industries (TEVA). The takeover battles had gotten political, and Bresch suspected that Teva was cooking up a smear campaign that had resulted in a front-page Wall Street Journal story alleging a sweetheart deal between Mylan (MYL) and its lead independent director’s real estate company. (Bresch maintained that the land deal had been done above board, with the director foregoing any profit from the transaction.)
Still, the MBA scandal, which dated back to 2008, had remained buried amid the chaos. In our conversations, it was Bresch herself who brought it up first, referring to it—with a less-than-subtle roll of her eyes—just as the “Heather Bresch situation,” as she has come to call it. That “situation” was like a tail she couldn’t shake, something of an elephant in the room: At the time, before the EpiPen hubbub put her back in the spotlight, the MBA controversy was still a top hit on her Google results, above her Mylan bio.
Here’s how we described it in the magazine profile:
It was during this odyssey that the Heather Bresch situation surfaced. The October 2007 news release announcing Bresch’s promotion [to COO] declared that she had received an MBA from West Virginia University; by December, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that WVU had altered her transcripts and awarded her degree retroactively. Joe Manchin by then was West Virginia’s governor, and the implication of cronyism tainted Bresch just as she was emerging as a corporate leader….A subsequent investigation by the school stripped Bresch of her degree. Its 95-page report concluded that administrators had given Bresch grades “pulled from thin air” because of her “high profile”—but it didn’t directly fault either father or daughter.
Not only had it cost her the degree, but at least three school officials, including the president, lost their jobs—even though the courses Bresch was supposed to have attended had taken place a decade earlier. At the time of the scandal, Bresch had just been promoted to COO of Mylan; she became CEO in 2012. The university’s investigation had cleared Bresch of intentionally lying about fulfilling her coursework a decade earlier, saying in its report: “Taking the most charitable view of this claim, the Panel believes there may well have been a misunderstanding.”
Bresch, however, disputed that assertion when we spoke last summer. “I don’t subscribe to it was a misunderstanding on my part,” she said. “But I certainly to this day believe I did everything I needed to do to get my degree.
“So I have not backed down from that. What I backed down from was continuing to fight because I thought enough damage had already been done,” she continued. “Obviously it was a hurtful situation for everybody involved and I would hate that that happened. But I don’t subscribe that it was a misunderstanding. I think it wasn’t handled, and a lot of things compromised it not being handled the right way.”
Bresch’s Senator father Manchin also stood by her, and she credits him with teaching her at an early age the harshness of politics, a lesson she says has helped her stay strong through other public scandals—and perhaps she has in mind this week while under fire of accusations of EpiPen price-gouging. “My father said to me from the very beginning, ‘Being a Manchin, there’s going to be good things that get you and there’s going to be bad things that get you, so Heather if you want just all the good, it’s not going to happen. So you better be willing and your skin better be thick,'” she told me last year.
“You know I can sit back all day and say things aren’t fair, and I’ve just learned over my years and experiences that you know what, the world’s not fair,” she continued. “I just think all that’s built a lot of character, that I’m fortunate. Things may not always have been pleasant or pretty to go through.”
Bresch is one of very few corporate executives, let alone CEOs, who have kept their job after a scandal involving a misrepresentation of their resume. But in the scheme of things, that has not bothered investors, who have focused more on Mylan’s performance, which has been strong under Bresch. “Having an MBA has been a much bigger issue for other CEOs in the past, but Mylan’s board decided it wasn’t a requirement for the job and Wall Street moved on,” David Buck, managing director and pharmaceutical analyst for Northland Capital Markets, told me when we spoke last summer. “At this point it’s old news.”