Andy Ogles and the Market of Expertise
Phil Williams’ fabricated scandal concerning Ogles’ resume reminds us again why journalists are so hard to trust
The moment NewsChannel 5’s Phil Williams turned his muckraker’s eye toward newly minted congressman Andy Ogles, all I could think about was a marketing video I made for my former university’s English department in the fall of 2013. “We want to show the endless job possibilities our majors can achieve thanks to the critical thinking an English education provides,” my department head said. “Sure,” I told the man holding my tenured future in his hands.
At some point during the time Ogles spent earning his bachelor’s degree, I’m sure he heard a similar line about how the life of the mind would arm him for a multitude of careers. But, he likely wasn’t prepared for a local news reporter who has been kicking around Nashville for four decades to exploit the general public’s lack of knowledge about academia’s inner workings to make him look like a fraud. As convincing as Williams’ frame job detailing the congressman’s alleged academic transgressions may seem at first glance, anyone who has spent time employed in higher education knows that Ogles’ transcript looks like that of any nontraditional student who spent seventeen years earning a degree at a public institution.
As a graduate who cobbled together a bachelor’s degree from Columbia State Community College, Western Kentucky University, and Middle Tennessee State University, Ogles’ journey to graduation was typically atypical. When advisers encounter such students, their primary goal is to help them graduate as soon as possible. In the case of a student who has repeatedly withdrawn and returned over a period of years, an adviser who knows what they are doing would suggest a generalist degree like liberal studies—even if the student planned to concentrate on a particular program such as English or international relations. For students who take out loans, such efficiency is a requirement so that financial aid does not cover classes unrelated to the degree obtainable in the least amount of time.
In my decade of academic advising experience, I’ve routinely told adult students lacking a few classes to fulfill the requirements of a general studies degree to take that option rather than spend additional semesters in school just to complete their intended major–especially if they are incurring debt. As Ogles’ transcript indicates, most of the classes he took once he settled on finishing his degree at MTSU were focused on political science and international relations. The difference between his liberal studies degree and a full-blown degree in international relations with minors in English and psychology is negligible.
In truth, bachelor’s degrees are fairly interchangeable: a biology major can later earn a terminal graduate degree in comparative literature. Likewise, a theology major with a strong application and a complete undergraduate transcript can become a successful law school applicant. Consequently, a congressman who just wanted to graduate from college to be a good example for his children and who hasn’t paid attention to his transcript after he walked off the commencement stage is more than understandable.
Riding the wave of disgraced Rep. George Santos’ serial fabrications, Williams first broke the news that Ogles is not who he says in a February 16th investigation, which concluded in clunky prose: “Ogles’ personal life story is filled with exaggerations, a story that's often too good to be true.” Initially, says Williams, Ogles’ greatest sin was claiming to be an economist though he did not major in the field. Further examples of the congressman’s wanton disregard for the truth emerged when Williams discovered Ogles took executive education courses at both Vanderbilt and Dartmouth–and had the audacity to put them on his resume.
However, Williams’ real bombshell dropped Monday morning, when he dubiously acquired a copy of Ogles’ MTSU transcript. The document, in Williams’ customarily subtle parlance, REVEALED that Ogles took one introductory economics course at community college and failed his classes during the two semesters he withdrew from school in 1995 and 1998. Worse, his official degree was in liberal studies, not international relations as he initially said. Also, Ogles claimed he had minored in English and psychology despite his diploma listing neither minor (though he had completed related coursework).
Williams’ reporting on the matter has received significant coverage from outlets like MSNBC and Newsweek, most of which features images of Santos instead of Ogles for obvious reasons. Williams finally, after all these years chasing rabbits, got a scoop to put him in the national limelight for a few weeks. The only issue is that his journalism has more holes in it than a second-string Santos fib and none of the entertainment value.
As he researched this BREAKING story, Williams could have sought out the expertise of anyone with advising experience at the near dozen higher learning institutions around the Metro area. Instead, he brought in his own breed of experts: 1) Heidi Campbell, the embittered state senator Ogles handily beat in the race to represent the 5th District, and 2) Randy Stamps, a former Republican state representative from Hendersonville who boasts both a post-congressional career transitioning into cushy lobbying positions and a beef with Ogles so strong he endorsed Campbell last election cycle. Why neither brought up such alleged improprieties during the months-long campaign is either a testament to their lack of political acumen or the benign nature of the story Williams has latched onto in another cringe bid for notoriety.
Williams’s coverage of the Ogles scandal has never gone beyond culling together out-of-context gotcha moments that one would expect in a story with a headline as classy as “Tennessee Congressman Andy Ogles didn't want you to see his college transcript! We got it anyway!” In yet another display of Williams’s journalistic integrity, he has blocked The Pamphleteer and most of our staff on Twitter after we questioned his penchant for distortion and sensationalism.
Ogles earned Williams’ ire largely through references to himself as an economist, both on the campaign trail and in interviews during his first few weeks in Congress. However, in his portrayal of such a gross misdeed, Williams again relies on his viewers’ lack of familiarity with the academy. For the past three decades, universities have rebranded their curricula away from the territoriality of individual majors. The result is a host of interdisciplinary degrees from African-American Studies and Women and Gender Studies to cutting-edge science certificates such as UMass Amherst's Integrated Concentration in STEM (iCons), which bridges biomedicine with renewable energy.
Meanwhile, remaining heritage majors like philosophy and history have undergone an identity crisis of utility–as evidenced by my former department head’s insistence on the “hip and trendy” recruitment video that would lure students to our program and ease their parents’ fears about English degrees. The downward spiral of humanities majors that has caused such programs to suffer 30 to 80 percent declines since 2012 connotes a disinterest in the increasingly politicized and tribal climate of such fields in their current form. As a survival mechanism, universities have promised students that degrees in interdisciplinary programs and the traditional liberal arts will train them for an unfathomable range of career options–especially in the Big Tech hub of Silicon Valley.
To be clear, Ogles never represented himself as an economics Ph.D., nor did he boast that he had a CV full of peer-reviewed academic papers (he also never claimed to have graduate degrees from Vanderbilt or Dartmouth as Williams insinuates); he characterized himself as a policy jockey who worked in the economic arena for Art Laffer and Americans for Prosperity. By all accounts, his claims about his role in developing and promoting economic policies are accurate.
Academic institutions such as Western Governors University list a range of options for entry-level jobs as economists, which require little more training than a bachelor’s degree. Despite Williams’ implication, an economist does not need to go to graduate school to get a public or private sector job in the field. The bulletin boards in the lobbies of every university economics department office touting endless career possibilities and the success of their alumni have said otherwise for decades. Even if Ogles only took one dedicated economics class, the political science and policy courses on his transcript rely heavily on economic theory and cannot be insulated from that field’s principles. A trained journalist with access to a university course catalog and departmental web pages would know that.
The impetus behind Williams’ manufactured controversy is not REVEALING the truth as his reporting on the matter has never risen above a series of embellishments and misrepresentations that come quite close to journalistic malfeasance. It’s that a guy like Ogles who took almost two decades to finish an undergrad degree has achieved the same level of access as those primed for greatness since their first steps on the quad—a group of whom Williams thinks himself a part.
Like any adult learner with family obligations and financial constraints, Ogles withdrew and earned automatic failures before returning with varying, yet often excellent, grades. He parlayed his stint with Laffer and the nonprofit work that Williams considers insubstantial experience into a wildly successful tenure as mayor of Maury County before fending off better-credentialed candidates in the fifth district Republican primary on the way to a resounding defeat of Campbell.
While Williams and his conspirators were reveling in COVID alarmism, Ogles built a state and national profile on common sense pandemic policy that legacy media have only now begun to validate. His success is due primarily to his natural gift for public speaking and a populist ethos that makes the duPont-Columbia award chasing Williams sound more like William Shatner gargling Jelly Bellies while impersonating Charlton Heston than an honors graduate of a reputable media school. Of course, Phil Williams and his entourage of almosts need to paint Andy Ogles as the second coming of George Santos. He’s upended their entitlement. And now, neither the life of the mind nor the latest interdisciplinary academic certificate can stop their expedited descent into irrelevancy.