Utah congressional candidate who claims he earned a college degree really completed a certificate program

(Photo courtesy of the State of Utah) Kerry Gibson, a congressional candidate, says he earned a "dairy herdsman degree" from Utah State University. It is a certificate of completion for a short-term program, and he is under fire for his claim. He is a former Weber County commissioner, legislator and commissioner of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food.

Utah congressional candidate Kerry Gibson — a former Weber County commissioner, legislator and state agricultural commissioner — says on his campaign website and literature that he “attended Utah State University where he earned his Dairy Herdsman Degree.”

This claim of having earned a college degree also appeared on his official Weber County Commission biography archived online, and in some online biographies last year for conferences where he was a speaker.

But during a background check by The Salt Lake Tribune, the USU Registrar’s Office said Gibson never received a degree of any type from the university. It confirmed he was a student there for three semesters in the early 1990s.

Gibson says he did not intend to mislead anyone, and that he has a certificate of completion from the short-term dairy herdsman program (which no longer is offered). “I never said I have a four-year degree,” he said. “I specifically said that it’s a ‘dairy herdsman degree’ and that’s exactly what it is.”

A dean at USU says Gibson calling his certificate a “degree” is a “nothingburger.” But many of Gibson’s opponents disagree. And David Magleby, emeritus political science professor at Brigham Young University, offered some harsh criticism.

“From an academic perspective, to represent a certificate like this as a degree is a gross misrepresentation of what universities do when they award degrees,” he said. “It is commonly understood what a degree means. And public officials should not misrepresent themselves as having a degree when they do not.”

Magleby adds that truthfulness in resumes has become especially scrutinized in recent years, and exaggerations have cost the jobs of such people as university sports coaches.

(Photo courtesy of BYU) David Magleby, emeritus professor of political science at Brigham Young University.

“The same standard I think is expected of public officials,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with being a dairy farmer…. But there’s a big difference between a certificate and a degree. I think this speaks to credibility in the public square. And the fact that he continues to defend such a gross misrepresentation I think will be problematic for voters.”

Gibson explained and defended his actions in a telephone interview.

He said he attended USU in the early 1990s and enrolled in the dairy herdsman program, a short-term program designed for those who wanted to become dairy farmers.

“There were classes like genetics, and finances,” he said. “There was a lot of classwork, but also labs.”

He read over the phone the certificate that he received in 1994. It said he “is hereby awarded this certificate of completion in the dairy herdsman program.” It did not say it was a degree.

Gibson provided a written statement later that said, “Fact is, I graduated from Utah State University’s dairy herdsman program, and that has been confirmed multiple times over. Academics and political reporters can try to parse the definition of it, but this program set me up for success in life, and I am grateful to USU for it."

At Gibson’s request, Ken White, dean of USU’s College of Agriculture and Applied Science, said the controversy over calling the certificate a “degree” is a “nothingburger to be honest with you.”

He wrote in a prepared statement, “Kerry graduated from USU’s Dairy Herdsman Certificate Program. We regularly refer to those who have graduated as receiving a Dairy Herdsman Program Degree.”

The dairy herdsman program was a two-year certificate program during the 1990s, White said. “If you talk to most of the students who took that, many would easily have referred to it as the dairy herdsman degree program.” He said clearer distinctions between certificate programs, associate degrees and bachelor degrees came later — and today that old program might have been called an associate’s degree.

“The important point from my perspective that prevents it from being misleading is the fact that he qualified it as the dairy herdsman program,” White said, adding that “everybody who was ever affiliated with animal science [at USU] knows immediately what that program is.”

But some rival candidates say to most people outside of USU agriculture programs, Gibson’s wording makes it sound like he claims he earned a traditional, true degree — and he did not.

“It took me 15 years to get the last two years of my degree finished. And it’s insulting to have somebody else claim that they have something they do not have,” said Kaysville Mayor Katie Witt, another of the 14 candidates vying for the open 1st Congressional District seat left by the planned retirement of Rep. Rob Bishop, who is running for lieutenant governor.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Kaysville Mayor Katie Witt on Sept. 10, 2019.

“I worked so hard as a mom of three little kids” to earn a degree, Witt said. So she said about Gibson’s assertion, “No. 1, it’s insulting. No. 2, it’s a pattern of dishonesty. We already have politicians in D.C. that are always playing fast and loose with the truth, and that is not what we need.”

Davis County Commissioner Bob Stevenson, another GOP congressional candidate, said, “I believe that for anyone to take credit for graduating from a university who did not, is very deceptive. I worked my tail end off between working nights and weekends to get my degree.”

He adds he worked hard on a master’s degree that he never finished — and would never claim he had done so, he said.

Blake Moore, another GOP candidate who is a former foreign service officer and now a principal with the Cicero Group business consultants, said, When we’re going for public office, it’s definitely a big deal to be forthright. So I think what degree we say we have is a big deal.”

But at least one opponent doesn’t see it as a major issue. “Kerry’s been around and done a lot of things in his career, so I wouldn’t be making a deal out of it,” said Clearfield Mayor Mark Shepherd.

Gibson also said in a written statement that he put his “education to work, having spent the last two decades building businesses and serving our community. Petty conversations like this are meant to distract from vital issues like the economy and our national debt.”

This isn’t the first time that Gibson ran into controversy.

His 2017 nomination as a deputy director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources came under fire and was delayed for a five-month investigation by Ogden Police that failed to produce sufficient evidence to prosecute him on allegations he misused public funds and resources in a flood-mitigation project on the Weber River near the Gibson farm.

After the investigation concluded, Gibson’s appointment moved forward.