Channel 11 has new information in the whistleblower investigation plaguing Pittsburgh Technical College.
We’ve been reporting on allegations of misuse of money and leadership challenges for the past month, including a unanimous vote of no confidence in the college’s president, Dr. Alicia Harvey-Smith, among 82% of staff. Now, 11 Investigates has obtained two copies of a confidential whistleblower report written by an independent law firm hired to investigate whistleblower allegations.
Channel 11 sat down with Harvey-Smith on Oct. 16. At that time, she had a copy of the independent report, but refused to share a copy of it with us. She said that report cleared her name, but after reading the 22-page investigation, the report is clear that Harvey-Smith committed misconduct.
When asked about the allegations of misconduct against her in our Oct. 16 interview, Harvey-Smith said, “What I am most proud of, is there was discovery of no wrongdoing and I want to emphasize that.”
We now know investigators actually did find wrongdoing. The investigation was launched back in July in response to a “litany of complaints” made by faculty and staff who reported her to the school’s board of trustees.
The report says she “made decisions without consulting necessary PTC stakeholders” and “without necessary consideration of costs or processes.”
The report also criticized her handling of a book deal that cost PTC $32,000, saying her “actions in this area constitutes misconduct.” The report adds, “the book matter raises concerns about using PTC funds for a project that, we have concluded, benefited Dr. Harvey-Smith over the institution.”
In our Oct. 16 interview, Harvey-Smith defended the book deal, saying she was unaware of the $32,000 spent.
“I never approved nor signed any of those invoices,” Harvey-Smith told Channel 11. “I need to be clear, this was an opportunity to elevate the college. The intent was this was a college project.”
The report says the book wasn’t a college project and the book wasn’t even in the school’s own library until the investigation began and it suddenly appeared.
The independent investigation also found the president was “inappropriately communicating with “a publisher” and “attempting to improperly influence our investigation.”
The law firm that conducted the investigation says this came after Harvey-Smith was directed not to talk to anyone about the topics being investigated.
The law firm that did the investigation also questioned how she awarded a contract based on the promise of a $100,000 donation to the college and a $100,000 scholarship she awarded to an anonymous student.
We reached out to the agency that accredits PTC. They tell 11 Investigates they’re aware of recent media reports related to PTC. The commission also has policies and procedures in place and can request additional information through various sources.
We reached back out to Harvey-Smith before this report. She stands by her actions, saying she did not do anything wrong or commit misconduct and that the Board of Trustees also supports her.
Four of six members of the board at the time the independent report was conducted are no longer on the board.
In exclusive meeting minutes, we obtained those four board members said they either would or likely would remove Dr. Harvey-Smith as president of PTC.
PTC’s full response to these allegations can be found below:
Dr. Harvey-Smith firmly believes the report to be unbalanced, speculative, uninformed and incomplete and reaffirms her belief, and that of the Board of Trustees, that there was no wrong-doing.
The report purports to find alleged incidents of potential misconduct based on speculation, not fact, and operates in a vacuum without any perspective. The lack of perspective and fairness is evidenced by the fact that complainants are invariably credited, and the facts provided by Dr. Harvey-Smith provided less weight.
Dr. Harvey-Smith believed in good faith that the book was a College project. She proposed the book to the College because she wanted to find a way to elevate PTC and its perception in the minds and vision of our community. It’s a blueprint for change for higher education and many who never heard of PTC, now view the work of transformation as a guide in thought-leadership.
Dr. Harvey-Smith did not obscure or hide the book (or any payments by the College) from others, engaging the College community both while the book was being drafted and after it was published. The book had important marketing potential for the College, and it is common for institutions of higher learning to use books authored by faculty and administration as a means of marketing. The financial arrangements were above board and known by others at the College.
“Rehashing an unbalanced report will not help our students or the Pittsburgh community. The Board of Trustees declared their unwavering support for us to move on and move forward. We are working to repair the damage that has been done to our great College, and we’re focusing on the future and filling the pipeline of talented workers for our region.” – Dr. Harvey-Smith
As a reminder, the Board of Trustees reviewed the report and concluded that there was no wrong-doing. On October 14, 2023, they wrote, “the third concern was the College’s payment of limited costs related to the publishing of a book authored by Dr. Harvey-Smith. Dr. Harvey-Smith did not break any law, regulation, rule, policy, or directive with respect to the College’s payments and upon publishing the book in 2022, had offered to donate proceeds from the book to the College’s scholarship fund. In the future, the Board of Trustees will establish concrete rules governing the use of college resources for scholarly publications. The Board of Trustees now considers the investigation closed.”
In response to the book:
The Investigator raised concerns about the College paying certain editing and publishing expenses related to the publication of Dr. Harvey-Smith’s 2022 book, Higher Education on the Brink: Reimagining Strategic Enrollment Management in Colleges and Universities.
Dr. Harvey-Smith proposed the book to the College in 2019, because she wanted to find a way to elevate PTC and its perception in the minds and vision of our community. With the support of the Board, she wanted to use the book project as a college project. It is a blueprint for change for higher education.
What is clear from the Investigator’s report is that Dr. Harvey-Smith, in exercising her inherent power as President, did not violate any laws, did not violate any regulations, did not violate any policies, did not contravene Board directives, and at all times acted with common sense and decency and, in the tradition of service, tried to do the right thing for the College.
It is common practice for colleges to promote the efforts of their faculty and staff. See, e.g., https://news.wm.edu/2022/12/08/books-published-by-william-mary-faculty-in-2022/ (William & Mary publications in 2022); https://liberalarts.vt.edu/news/articles/2023/01/liberalarts-books- published-by-faculty-and-staff.html (Virginia Tech publications in 2022) https://www.middlebury.edu/annuncements/news/2022/09/faculty-and-staff-authors-publish- notable-list-workers (Middlebury College publications in 2022). The College is similarly proud of the work of its faculty and staff and wants to promote it, as the PowerPoint which streamed at a College event on June 15, 2022.
Dr. Harvey-Smith believed in good faith that the book was a College project. The book bore at least some indicia of a College project. Dr. Harvey-Smith did not obscure or hide the book (or any payments by the College) from others, engaging the College community both while the book was being drafted and after it was published. The book had important marketing potential for the College, and it is common for institutions of higher learning to use books authored by faculty and administration as a means of marketing. The financial arrangements were above board and known by others at the College.
It is an important fact to note that Dr. Harvey-Smith did not approve the expenditures in question, nor did she sign any of the associated invoices.
The Report did not disclose proof of even potential misconduct and the matter is officially closed.
In the future, such a project could be more closely scrutinized from a cost standpoint. For example, a simple budget imposed from the beginning and monitored periodically would have alleviated the issues which are a matter of a difference of opinion, but no wrongdoing.
Dr. Harvey-Smith perceived that budget as being the retainer with the firm, but someone reviewing the invoices and armed with a budget could have stepped in when it became clear that the budget was going to be exceeded, thus providing the opportunity for a course correction. It was never Dr. Harvey-Smith’s intention to spend much money on the book, and timely reminders about meeting budget assuredly would have had a prophylactic effect.
Simply for background, here is a step-by-step response from Dr. Harvey-Smith (Marketing firm’s name omitted). Since you read the report, you’ll see much of this was not included in the report:
Dr. Harvey-Smith used the resources of a freelance public relations professional during the early stages of the book, but he found a new job and was unable to complete his work due to delays in receiving necessary resources for the book from third parties. He was formerly a principal at the marketing firm used by the College prior to Dr. Harvey-Smith’s arrival at the College. He did not bill Dr. Harvey-Smith for his work as he also believed it to be a College Project.
Dr. Harvey-Smith, upon the recommendation of the lead of the Marketing and Communications Department, enlisted the services of a local PR/marketing firm, the College’s contracted public relations firm. The firm charged the College a flat monthly fee (a “retainer”) for its services, and Dr. Harvey-Smith initially assumed that any services provided by the firm would be paid from that retainer, rather than constituting a separate expense. In other words, it would result in no extra cost to the College.
It was noted that the College sometimes exceeded the retainer; this information was not made known to the President and hence there was the possibility of overages. Dr. Harvey-Smith envisioned that the firm’s efforts would be minimal, so did not necessarily foresee a problem, supporting this belief, she readily agreed to a separate agreement and billing arrangement. There was no effort whatsoever to hide or obscure the work the firm would be doing. The Investigator, for example, acknowledges that the previous Marketing and Communications lead knew about the history of the billing arrangements. In fact, if Dr. Harvey-Smith was trying to obscure the payment arrangements, she did a pretty poor job by agreeing to a separate contract with the firm. It should further be noted that the Marketing and Communications lead was accountable for reviewing and handling the invoices.
The agreement for the book between the firm and Dr. Harvey-Smith indicated that the firm was to “conduct copy editing. Copy editing is defined as correcting the mechanics, grammar, spelling and punctuation errors.” In other words, the primary contracted task was basic proofreading. The agreement did envision that after proofreading, some assistance with “layout of the manuscript” might be provided.
The firm provided the contracted services. Dr. Harvey-Smith only saw and approved one invoice (the August 10, 2021 invoice), for slightly more than $2,000, and believed that the invoices totaled roughly $3,000. Even that one invoice was out of the ordinary, as it was approved via electronic signature. The President’s electronic signature is housed in the Marketing department for the purpose of affixing to reports, graduation and other institutional materials sent on behalf of the President. The electronic signature is also utilized by the Compliance, Institutional Advancement, and Grants Management offices for reports and submissions with written approval only. It is not a preferred practice of Dr. Harvey-Smith to utilize electronic signatures in the Finance department. Typically, if a request from Finance is received, the document is brought to the President’s office and the signature is affixed by her Executive Assistant upon approval.
The Investigator claims that the invoices from the firm totaled in excess of $32,000, although it is not clear how much the College actually paid. Notably, the Investigator “ambushed” Dr. Harvey- Smith with the firm’s invoices and related documentation during its second interview of her (the first was a non-substantive “meet and greet” wherein she was required to come downtown from her South Fayette home during Picklesburgh when a videoconference or even a phone call could have covered the same ground). While the Investigator had previously provided a copy of the complaints made against her, the invoices were redacted so Dr. Harvey-Smith did not know what or how much was invoiced. Thus, Dr. Harvey-Smith had no knowledge of the amount invoiced by the firm until the Investigator provided them to her during her second interview. The Investigator asked and seemed to believe that the invoices were to have been provided by the Board Chair at his meeting with Dr. Harvey-Smith on July 17, 2023. They were not. The invoices had not previously been seen, approved or signed by Dr. Harvey-Smith (except as noted herein).
Dr. Harvey-Smith believed that the book was, truly, a College “project” and that it was justifiable for the College to pay for ancillary costs related to the book. As the Investigator noted, that position has not varied since the start of this process.
Nevertheless, Dr. Harvey-Smith’s credibility is being questioned, because “no one at PTC . . . was aware of the Book until after it was complete.” That is not accurate, in the report it notes, that a “select few” were aware because they provided assistance in one way, shape, or form. That “select few,” per Dr. Harvey-Smith, includes people who volunteered to provide input for the book: Dr. John Scarpino, Nancy Feather, Rodney Clark, David Becker, Barry Shepard, Eileen Steffan and members of the Strategic Planning teams. Dr. Harvey-Smith involved these individuals, not to hide the fact of the book, but rather to celebrate and involve the College community in this College project.
The “select few” who knew about the book also included Dr. Peggy Betlyn and Mr. William Keifer, who were consulted and aware of the Book as a College project. It is not unreasonable to think she would have advised them, since one was the Chairperson of the Board and the other was General Counsel. What they in turn might have told (or not told) the Board is not within Dr. Harvey-Smith’s knowledge, purview or responsibility and cannot be held against her. Why anyone would select to disregard Dr. Harvey-Smith’s statements and credit unattributed and unexplained testimony that the book project was “hush hush” on campus, is unknown but suggestive of an inherent bias.
There was a Marketing and Communication plan provided by the Vice-President of Marketing for the College and The firm, dated September 24, 2021, remarking on the book and its synergies with the College: “The firm Group also developed a public relations plan to spotlight the book and its message, while positioning Pittsburgh Technical College and Dr. Harvey-Smith as thought leaders.”
Instead of real evidence to support its suppositions, Investigators appear to be relying on meaningless trivia, like the fact that there was no copy of the book in the library, as if Dr. Harvey-Smith’s job duties included curating the library collection. The book’s absence from the library at any point in time is down to the librarian, not Dr. Harvey-Smith, and is evidence of nothing. Certainly, the book was well publicized after it was finished, with an e-mail sent to the Board of Trustees and members of the Education Foundation announcing its release (that e-mail announced that copies of the book had been purchased for them, and clearly explains that project to the Board, as well as the national and internal engagement that went into the project), comprehensive mentions in “The Path Forward” for July 2021 to July 2022, and a promotional PowerPoint at a College event on June 15, 2022 which prominently featured the book. There were also plans for an official book launch and signing event, with a portion of the proceeds to be donated to support College scholarships. This latter point is worth re-emphasizing. Dr. Harvey-Smith’s intent was to donate book proceeds to support College scholarships, as a thank you for the support the College provided.
Additional to the trivia, investigators also appear to be relying on broad, unsupported conclusions, like a “book is an inefficient promotion tool” because someone has to read the book for it to be effective. But in academia, books are bona fide promotion tools, as it demonstrates to potential students that the colleges are or employ thought leaders, which in turn suggests that the institution provides a superior education. Even if no one reads the book, the fact that the author can nevertheless bill himself or herself as an expert on the subject matter based on his scholarship nevertheless promotes the school. One knows, for example, that Neil deGrasse Tyson is an expert in astrophysics, but many have never read any of the books he published which established his reputation.
In short, there is nothing to contradict Dr. Harvey-Smith’s well-supported belief that this was a College project and, as such, warranted some support from the College. Moreover, any skepticism about the value of the book evidences a meaningful knowledge gap with respect to the role of publishing in the world of academia. Thus, there is no question that the use of The firm to provide services in aid of publishing the book was an appropriate exercise of Presidential power.
The next question, is whether the costs were reasonable. While the Investigator spills ink assessing whether the costs to the College were reasonable, it need not have done so, as Dr. Harvey-Smith has acknowledged that had she been aware of the amount of the costs, she would have found other less costly or no cost ways to support the book project. Thus, the issue is not, as the Investigator frames it, whether the costs were reasonable, but whether Dr. Harvey-Smith knew the extent of the costs.
In that regard, it is important to consider the actual facts. Except for one invoice (August 10, 2021 for $2,000+) that may have been shared with Dr. Harvey-Smith and approved by her, she claims she did not see the other invoices. That none of the other invoices indicate that she approved them for payment (rather, they were approved by a “JD,” and in a couple instances, “BAS,”) bears witness to Dr. Harvey-Smith’s lack of knowledge. The Investigator seems to concede the same point by acknowledging that BAS, because he was worried about being terminated, did not raise any issues with Dr. Harvey-Smith, even though it was his job to do so. Moreover, the Investigator acknowledges that the firm “likely exceeded the scope of services initially envisioned,” which suggests that Dr. Harvey-Smith could not have reasonably expected such big invoices. Also, the gratis work of the initial assistant, while helpful to the project, may have inadvertently obscured from Dr. Harvey- Smith the actual amount and cost of the work being done. It very well could have been the case, from Dr. Harvey-Smith’s vantage point, that the work being done by the firm did no more than top off the College’s financial commitment to the level of the retainer, which means that it was not costing the College any more than what it was already paying to the firm for other services. All of these facts point inexorably to the conclusion that Dr. Harvey-Smith did not have a reasonable basis for knowing that the financial commitment by the College ended up being $32,000, although this amount is in dispute. You are encouraged to read the book to further confirm its focus as a college project, the Board has reviewed all reports and have rendered a decision of no wrong doing and this matter has been closed to focus all energy on repairing the damage that has been done to the college by an orchestrated attack with basis or merit.
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