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Kirsten Franzen, Published April 14 2013

Quality of data sound

As chief compliance officer of the North Dakota University System, it is my responsibility to ensure the university system and its employees comply with legal and regulatory obligations. In my short time with the University System, I have been impressed with our team’s efforts to fulfill our mission with integrity and with transparency.

I was therefore surprised and concerned when I learned of NDUS employee Linda Baeza Porter’s March 27 testimony to the North Dakota House Appropriations subcommittee. In short, Baeza Porter accused several members of the NDUS administration of violating state Board of Higher Education policy, of breaking open records laws, and of perpetrating fraud. My investigation of Baeza Porter’s claims has concluded that those claims are simply not true.

Baeza Porter’s allegations arise from two incidents. First, a report Baeza Porter had prepared regarding student remediation rates was made public. Baeza Porter expressed her concerns to me after the report appeared in a local blog. She said the data were accurate, but she was anxious that the report had been somehow “leaked” or that there was a security breach. I explained to her that under open records laws, the report was a public document and releasable to anyone who requests it.

Unconvinced, Baeza Porter repeated her concerns to NDUS General Counsel Claire Holloway, who also assured Baeza Porter that the report was an open record fully available to the public. Despite these assurances, Baeza Porter insisted on presenting this claim to the appropriations subcommittee. Baeza Porter’s testimony that somehow open records laws were violated by releasing documentation is bewildering.

Second, Baeza Porter disputed the accuracy of graduation and remediation rates Chancellor Hamid Shirvani presented to the Legislature. Specifically, she indicated the data were “altered and misrepresented.” While Baeza Porter’s testimony to the appropriations subcommittee is hard to follow, I have independently reviewed the data regarding graduation and remediation rates that were provided to the appropriations committee. The data are identical to U.S. Department of Education data. In fact, prior to her testimony, Baeza Porter brought her concerns to NDUS Director of Internal Audit and Risk Assessment Bill Eggert. Eggert also found the data identical to U.S. Department of Education data. He explicitly told Baeza Porter that the data were not fraudulent and directed her to not use the word fraud when discussing her concerns. Nevertheless, Baeza Porter used the word multiple times in her testimony the very next day.

Baeza Porter also seems to allege members of the NDUS staff used selective data to make campus presidents look bad. Specifically, she said certain “peer” institutions, rather than aspirational competitors and national averages, should have been used as comparators for NDUS schools in Shirvani’s presentation to the Legislature. This is not a legal allegation, but it, too, is belied by facts.

The subcommittee has told NDUS officials it does not find peer institutions’ data to be helpful. More to the point, the use of the peer institutions’ data would actually have made the NDUS institutions’ data look worse by comparison. Baeza Porter’s allegations do not hold up to scrutiny.

As with all organizations, the NDUS has room for improvement. The best organizations do not rest on their laurels; instead, they continually strive for improvement. Now that concerns about data quality have been laid to rest, we are focusing on our main task – building a first-rate university system.

Franzen, J.D., is chief compliance officer,

North Dakota University System.