MADISON – Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes told the public months ago he finished college and received a degree but now says he didn’t graduate.
Barnes told the Madison weekly newspaper Isthmus recently he left college about 10 years ago before completing his degree at Alabama A&M University.
“I had a class. I got an incomplete. I completed the coursework to get that incomplete resolved. It never got turned in,” Barnes told the newspaper. “It’s a small technical thing.”
But in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in November, Barnes said twice he “finished” college in 2008, prompting the Journal Sentinel to report that he graduated from the university.
Barnes also said during a September episode of the Capital Times’ podcast “Wedge Issues” that he “finished college” in 2008.
And in a candidate questionnaire published in 2018 by the Wisconsin State Journal, Barnes was reported answering that he received a “BA in Broadcast Journalism” from Alabama A&M University, which would mean he had earned and graduated with the bachelors of arts degree.
The State Journal published what Barnes supplied the newspaper for the Q&A feature, according to the newspaper. Barnes’ Facebook page also says he graduated in 2008.
But Barnes’ Assembly entry in the Wisconsin Blue Book, which lists background information about lawmakers and government officials, shows him as attending the university — not graduating.
Earl Arms, spokesman for Barnes, said Barnes has been up front about his time at the Alabama university.
“Lt. Gov. Barnes has always been transparent when asked about his graduation status. From his time as a state representative through now, Lt. Gov. Barnes has stated that he attended Alabama A&M, not graduated,” Arms said, though Barnes told the Journal Sentinel he “finished.”
Arms said a former staff member of Barnes’ campaign supplied the State Journal with inaccurate information.
“The lieutenant governor regrets that oversight and is working to address any misconceptions that have come from it,” he said.
Barnes told the Isthmus he is working now to finish a degree in telecommunications and expects to do so soon.
“I didn’t leave on a bad note. It’s not like there was some deficiency where I dropped out … I was senior class president,” Barnes told the Isthmus. “This is something that (the university) wants to see resolved as much as I want to see resolved.”
Several other media outlets also have reported Barnes’ 2008 graduation from the Alabama university, and he has been described as a graduate at public events.
His campaign Twitter account also retweeted a story published in November by the Huntsville Times in Alabama with the headline “Alabama A&M graduate becomes first black lieutenant governor of Wisconsin.” In May 2018, Barnes also tweeted photos of him in a cap and gown at the university’s graduation ceremony.
Arms did not answer questions about whether Barnes or his staff sought to correct reports of Barnes graduating.
Jerome Saintjones, a spokesman for Alabama A&M, said Barnes is an alum “who matriculated here as an active and involved student from Fall 2003 to Spring 2008.”
Saintjones said although Barnes did not fully complete his degree, university officials are still working with him to “resolve the matter which resulted in the incomplete grade.”
“There are a number of reasons for such situations, including the retiring or moving on of a professor, the death of a professor, curricular changes or deletions, etc,” he said.
University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism professor Michael Wagner, who specializes in political communication, said it’s unclear whether the episode will matter to voters should he seek another political office.
“It’s pretty cut and dry that he lied and that usually doesn’t sit well with the voters,” said Wagner. But the impact in a polarized electorate is unknown, he added.
“We’ve seen lots of scandals at statehouses that were electrifying at a time that seem to fade away,” Wagner said. “In the Trump era, politicians can choose to try to ride it out and hope the news cycle changes.”