DICKINSON, N.D. - Things are not right at Dickinson State University.
There’s no nice way to put it. The university, along with the entire North Dakota University System, faces another dark chapter, possibly just as bad as the one DSU endured almost three years ago.
Last week, North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said he recently became aware of many financial and ethical problems with DSU Foundation. This included the organization using scholarship funds to cover its operating costs. The foundation was accused of using funds meant to help future students as collateral for other projects.
This isn’t something that just happened. It traces back years.
Press stories over the past 11 months revealed that the foundation had been under fire for poor recordkeeping and was embroiled in legal disputes. All the while, rumors spread that funds were being used inappropriately.
Leaders did not want to admit that, however. Board members denied any wrongdoing had occurred. They hid behind closed doors, saying the foundation was independent of the university and not subject to the state’s open record laws. As the foundation went deeper into debt, the board members only dug themselves a deeper hole until finally, it was too deep.
Now, the foundation’s CEO and board president have resigned. It has to pay more than $1.5 million to a developer and his companies. Auditors so far have not been able to determine the depth of the problem because they say there are too many components missing.
There is no other way to describe it than, as Stenehjem said, “The financial records of this foundation are in chaos.”
It’s not just the foundation that is at stake. This debacle has put DSU’s accreditation at risk, said university system interim Chancellor Larry Skogen, a DSU graduate.
Officials who have worked hard to shed the negative title of “diploma mill” may very well have lost the trust they so recently regained. Students are wondering if they will get their scholarships, and future students may wonder if it is safe to trust a school affiliated with a fundraising organization that has mismanaged funds.
DSU can say the foundation is an independent organization all it wants. That doesn’t hide the fact that the foundation still handles the funds that go directly to the university and may have ruined future investments and major projects for the school.
And it’s not going to end there. As more light is shed on this scandal, more violations are going to be revealed. It’s going to be like peeling away the layers of an onion, and who knows what will be discovered? It’s more than likely not going to be flattering.
In hindsight, DSU and the university system should have interfered before this situation got out of hand. If they had any suspicions at all, someone should have stepped in and said, “Enough.” The job of the university system, including DSU, is to make sure that every tool used to help students get an education is managed properly. They failed at that, but no one can change the past.
The next question is how are DSU, the foundation and the university system going to act?
First, everyone has to admit there are major problems, and they have to be open about it. There can’t be any more meetings behind closed doors, YouTube videos or the words “no comment.” The public - taxpayers who fund this institution - deserves answers. Everything is going to come out into the open and leaders from all involved parties need to be upfront with their information.
It’s going to be painful, but if DSU and the foundation want to prove they are there to restore the integrity of the university, they must admit there are serious problems and be willing to work with each other. This community depends on it.