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Dickinson State University audit suggests school was operating as diploma mill for foreign students (VIDEO)

DICKINSON, N.D. -- Dickinson State University is still evaluating which employees were involved with violating policies that resulted in hundreds of international students not meeting minimum admission requirements, lacking official transcripts a...

Dickinson State University
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DICKINSON, N.D. -- Dickinson State University is still evaluating which employees were involved with violating policies that resulted in hundreds of international students not meeting minimum admission requirements, lacking official transcripts and receiving unearned degrees.

There is not a lone office responsible for the university's latest troubles involving several violations related to its special international programs, DSU President D.C. Coston said.

The multicultural affairs office, admissions office, academic records office and various academic departments all are involved with these students and further evaluation is needed, he said.

"It transcends through a lot of places throughout the institution," Coston said.

On Friday, Coston and Chancellor Bill Goetz revealed the results of an audit that found serious issues with the files of 743 students who participated in the special international programs, which began in 2003.

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The category of students in question is dual-degree foreign students who attended DSU for a prescribed period of time, typically a semester to a year, and then returned to their initial institution, Coston said.

"The lack of controls and violations in policies are isolated to these special international programs," he said.

International students who attended DSU for their entire academic career or who transferred there to complete their academic career are not affected by the audit results, he said.

Ignoring the rules

"Several process level controls have been waived or controls that were once in place have been intentionally overridden or ignored, threatening the overall compliance of the program," the audit report said.

Among the issues:

• Chinese student transcripts that weren't official.

• DSU officials accepting a non-standard English proficiency test for Chinese students.

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• DSU cannot verify certain students' completion of required general education courses.

• Chinese students who did not have the required number of credits to earn a degree at DSU.

• A majority of DSU's international agreements are incomplete, inaccurate and/or expired.

• Agents in China not performing according to their contracts.

The audit report said the university may face sanctions from the U.S. Department of Education, State Department and Homeland Security as a result of the violations.

Of the 743 students involved, 120 students are currently enrolled in international special programs, 39 students finished coursework and are awaiting certificates or degrees and 584 students received a certificate or degree, Coston said.

The majority of the students are from China and some are from Russia, he said.

The audit involved testing files of other students across the campus -- including domestic students -- and those files were "fully intact, in order and there was complete compliance," he said.

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Another scandal

Coston said he requested the University System audit "based on some things that I began to see in late December of 2011 that caused me great concern."

The university will take corrective action, including close examination and possible termination of these programs, he said. The university sent letters Friday to two organizations that have recruited students for DSU and gave notice the school will no longer work with them, he said.

The university will begin informing students of the issues with their files and will let them know the university will work with them, he said.

"This thing will be a shock to them as it comes out, I have no doubt," he said. "We will be trying to work with them to manage their feelings and so on and hopefully get to a point where we can have a good resolution for them individually."

Goetz said the audit is another chapter of the challenges at DSU. Former President Richard McCallum was recently fired for his role in the inflation of enrollment numbers.

The report does not mention McCallum, but the number of questionable degrees granted to foreign students began to rise in the summer of 2008, the audit says. McCallum was named the school's president in April 2008.

Goetz said the university will get through the challenges and do what is right to fix them.

"The academic integrity, the integrity of our faculty remain strong, and I am convinced that with the leadership that we have at this institution at this time, we'll prevail in leading Dickinson State University forward with renewed opportunity and renewed vision," he said.

Coston said a letter is going out to alumni and supporters asking for their continued support.

"We will work tirelessly to be the Dickinson State you revere and cherish," he said. "We are asking them to come together as a family and that we all pull together."

HR issues

Another University System audit of DSU was released last week relating to its human resources department. Neither Coston nor Goetz mentioned it during Friday's news conference.

Coston said he hasn't had a chance to fully review the report.

Issues in the report include:

• Performance evaluations. The audit found only one member of the president's Cabinet had a yearly review completed and in his file. All other members have not had a documented review since 2007 under former President Lee Vickers.

"By not having documented yearly reviews, there is no documented basis for pay increases or promotions," the report said.

• Harassment. The audit reviewed 16 harassment claims between 1997 and 2010. The report found both formal and informal claims were handled according to policy in all cases, but issues exist.

"All the sexual harassment claims should be handled in a more serious manner," the report said.

The DSU harassment policy doesn't have a cumulated or multiple claims aspect written into it.

Therefore, several claims can be made against an individual over a period of time without the results of the current investigation being clearly able to take into account past conduct, the report said.

One person had six claims made against him/her in a five-year period, the report stated. The report did not give any indication of the identity of this person or if he or she is still at the university. Neither Coston nor Goetz had further information Friday.

• Exit interviews. The audit found several DSU employees who chose not to complete the manual exit interview survey due to concerns the information would not reach the appropriate people.

The audit said human resources seemed to follow policy and procedures, but recommended all exit interviews be completed online and received outside of DSU.

"This will further strengthen the internal controls within the process and will allow those completing the exit interviews to be more honest and descriptive without a fear of people on campus knowing sensitive matters and using that information in a retaliatory manner against either the departing employee or his or her co-workers who will be continuing in their employment at DSU," the report said.

State Auditor Bob Peterson said his office is also working on a performance audit of DSU that will be completed and presented to state legislators in late March.

Finneman is a multimedia reporter for Forum Communications Co. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Coston and Goetz at Dickinson State Friday
Dickinson State University President D.C. Coston, left, speaks flanked by North Dakota University System Chancellor William Goetz on Friday morning, Feb. 10, 2012, at the Badlands Activities Center in Dickinson, N.D. (Photo: Dustin Monke / The Dickinson Press / Forum Communications)

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