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Bryan Horwath, Forum News Service, Published November 01 2013

Dickinson State keeps full accreditation in wake of degree scandal

DICKINSON, N.D. - Dickinson State University is once again a fully accredited institution with no strings attached, according to the Higher Learning Commission.

DSU President D.C. Coston received an email from HLC President Sylvia Manning on Friday afternoon stating that the school’s “on notice” accreditation status had been removed.

Coston said he was surprised to receive the email at about 3 p.m. and announced the news during a 10-minute address to DSU students, staff and media members shortly thereafter in Beck Auditorium on the school’s campus.

“At 2:59 p.m., I received an email with a letter attached to it from Dr. Sylvia Manning,” Coston told the audience. “I won’t read the entire letter, but I will read one sentence: ‘At its meeting on Oct. 31, 2013, the board removed the sanction of notice from the university.’ ”

Before Coston could finish, the room erupted with applause.

In Manning’s four-page letter, she identified 14 bullet-pointed findings that led to the board’s decision, including improvements to the way in which DSU reports enrollment numbers, admits international students and oversees “contract review and approval.” In addition, the letter stated that DSU has “provided adequate safeguards against future compliance or ethical problems.”

Following his announcement Friday, Coston said he was surprised by the timing of when the school was notified.

“I was a little surprised that we received word (Friday) afternoon,” Coston said. “Honestly, I thought we would get word sometime during the middle of next week. What happened today was we received affirmation that the core values of this institution, which has been here for almost a century, have prevailed and the institution as a whole has risen in the face of tremendous challenges. We’re ready to move forward.”

Closing a dark chapter

DSU was placed on notice — essentially a form of probation — by the HLC in 2012 after the details of an enrollment scandal at the school was made public in late 2011.

The outcome of the board’s meeting Thursday did not come as unexpected to DSU officials. An HLC “focused visit team” had toured DSU and its operations in April and given it a positive recommendation for restating its full accreditation based on what the team viewed as the progress the school had made.

In a July story in The Dickinson Press, North Dakota University System interim Chancellor Larry Skogen was quoted as saying it was “impossible” that DSU would lose its accreditation with the HLC.

When asked Friday, Coston — who came to DSU following the termination of former school president Richard McCallum after the inflated enrollment numbers became public — said he was never as confident as the chancellor about DSU’s chances to have a positive outcome from its on notice status.

However, Coston reiterated a phrase he had said countless times before — that he was “cautiously optimistic.”

“It’s been a long, long journey,” Coston said. “We’ve been through a lot of trials and challenges. This decision was really testimony to the fortitude of the people who make up Dickinson State today and who have ever been a part of this university. This was affirmation that what we’ve worked to do was done correctly.”

Though HLC board member and former North Dakota state senator Dave Nething predicted during an interview Thursday evening that a decision could be coming Friday, an HLC spokesman indicated earlier in the week that an announcement would likely not come for seven to 10 days.

Friday’s news seemingly puts to bed perhaps the darkest chapter in the institution’s 95-year history, one in which the very future of the school was called into question.

“We have overcome unbelievable odds,” Coston told the audience. “We have done something — you have done something — that is truly remarkable in higher education.

“I was at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities meeting last week and I talked with people in similar roles as mine about what had happened here. To a person, they said if any one of those things had happened at their institution, it probably would have closed it down. Folks, we faced a bunch.”

‘A long way to go’

Despite the changes Coston said the school has made and its clean slate from the HLC, the DSU president said his institution has more work to do.

“We’ve brought a great sense of accuracy to our admissions and screening processes,” he said. “We’ve done a better job also of ensuring academic rigor and integrity. We’ve done a lot of other things related to improvement of business processes and contracting processes, making sure we have appropriate management controls to be sure they’re done cleanly and appropriately. We’ve made remarkable progress, but we’re only halfway home with a long way to go.”

Friday was clearly a memorable day for those who believe DSU has put its problems from the McCallum administration behind it. However, some still have questions about why a number of university administrators under the former president are still employed at the university.

A post this week on the North Dakota political website Say Anything Blog titled “Diploma Mill Era Players Remain in Leadership Positions at Dickinson State University” raised the question of why three DSU employees remain employed despite, at times, being fingered in a series of state audits after the DSU scandal became public.

Though court testimony showed the university handed out illegitimate college credits and faulty degrees, no criminal charges were ever filed resulting from the DSU transgressions.

When interviewed in October, Stark County State’s Attorney Tom Henning said that although Dickinson falls under his office’s jurisdiction, state university investigations are handled by the North Dakota Highway Patrol. Henning said there was never evidence presented to his office that would warrant felony charges and that any criminal charge considered would have been of the misdemeanor variety.

Henning added that, according to his office, the matter is closed.

Through a Freedom of Information Act request, The Press obtained a copy of the report (titled “Rationale for the Team Recommendation”) from the HLC team that visited DSU in April.

Though much of the 46-page report detailed how the university had made progress in focused areas of concern from the McCallum administration, it did state that three “relatively” senior administrators remained in their positions after April 2012, though the report did not identify the administrators.

When asked Friday, Coston said DSU has made necessary personnel changes.

“The Higher Learning Commission teams said that they have faith in the folks that are here,” Coston said. “We have faith in those folks, too. The connectedness between them and some of the things that occurred is tenuous at best and, in most cases, isn’t really there. We have vetted folks and, as best I can tell, everyone who’s a part of Dickinson State today, whether it’s someone who’s been with us for a few weeks or someone who’s been here for an extended period of time, is pulling his or her fair share of the load and doing it appropriately.”

As far as the university’s next order of business with the HLC, in her letter Manning stated that DSU is to “host a comprehensive evaluation in 2014-15.”

Appearing to nearly become emotional while delivering the news that would lead to cheers from members of the DSU community during his speech Friday, Coston summed up his feelings in five words.

“By God,” Coston said, “we did it.”