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Published March 02 2012

Lawmakers ask how DSU fraud slid by

BISMARCK – State lawmakers had sharp questions Friday about why it took so long to discover problems with a Dickinson State University program that resulted in hundreds of Chinese students receiving degrees they didn’t earn.

Legislators on the interim Higher Education Committee were officially briefed on the audit report that found serious issues with the files of 743 students who participated in the special international programs, which began in 2003.

The audit’s findings included Chinese student transcripts that weren’t official, students who couldn’t speak English and students who did not have the required number of credits to earn a degree at DSU.

Under the programs, foreign students would attend DSU for a prescribed period of time, typically a semester to a year, and then return to their initial institution.

Rep. David Monson, R-Osnabrock, said DSU shouldn’t have been issuing degrees to these students if they were going back to China to finish their coursework.

“Isn’t that highly unusual?” he asked.

North Dakota University System auditor Bill Eggert agreed it was.

“I would have loved to do this in college, as well, and get two degrees in four years,” he said. “I don’t know where this started from. I don’t have a good answer for you. But, yes, I think it’s highly unusual.”

Eggert said the issue links to the inflated enrollment problems under former President Richard McCallum, who was fired last year. Rep. Bob Skarphol, R-Tioga, asked what advantage DSU had by doing this since legislators don’t provide funding based on enrollment.

“That’s the mind-boggling part of this,” Skarphol said. “I just don’t understand the logic.”

Rep. Bob Martinson, R-Bismarck, said it amazes him that this problem has been going on for several years and no one said anything.

DSU President D.C. Coston said he’s met with faculty members who acknowledged they weren’t holding those students to the same standard as other students. Faculty members are meeting and addressing that question, he said.

Martinson asked why they were still employed.

“To me, they don’t have the integrity that they need to be there,” he said.

Several officials discussed the environment of fear and intimidation on campus. Anyone who attempted to blow the whistle met with heavy resistance, said Stuart Savelkoul of the Public Employee Association.

Martinson said he still didn’t understand why no one spoke up.

“If the attitude is, well, people were just afraid or they grumbled about it or they had bridge that night, if that’s the answer, that’s not going to help restore the integrity of Dickinson State,” he said. “Because the public doesn’t buy it.”

Coston said they continue to work with employees who were implicated in the audit.

“I don’t want to leave you here with the idea that we’re not taking this seriously,” he said. “I want to be sure that we’re doing the appropriate things.”

Sen. Tim Flakoll, R-Fargo, asked how much recruiters were paid for each student who came to DSU.

Since 2003, DSU paid

$2.1 million to various recruiters, Coston said. Agents were paid $2,900 or $2,000 per student, depending on the program, he said. The money came from fees these students paid to the university.

In many cases, parents of these international students paid agents between $8,000 and $10,000 to place their child in a university in the United States, he said.

Paying recruiters isn’t illegal or against accreditation standards but it is “highly frowned on,” Coston said.

DSU has terminated its agreements with these recruiters and has ceased the special international programs, he said. The university is also working with the 120 program students currently on campus to evaluate their transcripts and explain what it would take to earn a degree, he said.

Another audit of DSU is scheduled to be released to legislators later this month.

Finneman is a multimedia reporter for Forum Communications Co.