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News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Should Kristi Noem's college degree be revoked?

When Kristi Noem received a college degree while serving in the U.S. House of Representatives (2012), people familiar with higher education and the work of government asked how it was possible.  Congressional staff members, who schedule and assist their bosses, know first hand the hectic and demanding schedule that competent representatives must keep to fulfill their jobs.  They wonder how and why a member of Congress has the time to work on a college degree.  Noem claims she did her classwork while flying around for her Congressional business.  Professors and genuine students also know that legitimate academic work is not done in such snatch-and-grab moments.

Ms. Noem began her work at NSU.  Many accounts state that she dropped out at the death of her father in order to help run the family farm, as in this version:   "As the 40-year-old lawmaker told “CBS This Morning” on Monday, she dropped out of college at age 22 when her father died in a farming accident."

However, accounts with a  more detailed timeline, state that she withdrew from NSU in 1992 and was married that year in Watertown.  The Wikipedia biography states that her father was killed in a farm accident, two years later,  in  March 1994  "a month before Noem's daughter, Kassidy, was born."   Other internet sources, however, state Kassidy's birthdate as April 20, 1993.  It seems more probable that Noem dropped out of college to get married and had her first child almost a year before her father died.  Such discrepancies occur often in the accounts of Noem's life.  

Noem took classes from other institutions, such as Mount Marty College, and eventually was granted a degree in political science  from SDSU. Her last course work included an online course from USD.  SDSU has transfer agreements with other institutions, but it usually involves a course-by-course comparison evaluation.  And the conferring of a degree usually must meet a residency requirement.  Students who have gone through the transfer process and have had to do additional work to meet the requirements raised questions about whether Noem received some special exceptions to receive her degree.  

The fact that Noem earned intern credits for being a member of Congress raised questions even in the national press.  Who was the person in charge to evaluate her performance and study of the work principles involved?  John Boehner?  Barack Obama?

And did she do the college assignments herself or delegate them to an aide?  People familiar with Noem's work habits raised that possibility.

My own experience at earning a degree gives cause for me to question the probity of Noem's degree.  I was an undergraduate before there were student loans, and had to work during some semesters rather than attend classes.  Usually I took at least one night class while working, but during one period when that could not be arranged, I was drafted into the Army for two years. It took ten years to earn my bachelor's degree.  So, I have an appreciation for students who strive to earn a degree, and have been able to support the work of many who did so.  It is that perspective that raises questions about the authenticity of Noem's degree.

Another perspective is the matter of what  a college degree signifies.  College professors have an obligation to insure that their students are evaluated on the work they do, that it is valid academic work, and that it is their own work.  With some for-profit schools providing degrees that require perfunctory work from students, college degrees as a whole do not necessarily signify intellectual accomplishment.  Faculty work hard to make passing grades in their courses represent measurable accomplishment on the part of students, and to ensure a degree is a bona fide certificate of achievement.  When a public figure such as Noem seems to get an easy and privileged pass, the earnest students feel that it diminishes the significance of  their own efforts and accomplishments.  When Noem was awarded her degree, many professors, students, and their parents grumbled that they would like to see her transcript.  Earning a degree while a member of Congress seemed improbable to those who understand the work involved.  

Noem received nationwide recognition from the national press when she graduated from SDSU, but none of the coverage went into how she actually got the work done.  One of  my fellow retired professors thought it must have been more an honorary degree than one actually earned.  The effectiveness of Noem's education was made apparent when she wrote a letter to the Board of Regents instructing them to have the universities teach positive patriotism and to "resist the national trend" of studying those instances when  America did not live up to the ideals of liberty, equality, and justice for all.   That letter reveals a mind that does not understand the purpose of higher education or how it functions.  And that failure of understanding calls into question the nature of Noem's college experience.

A  professor at USD noted about the letter,  "It does start to interfere with academic freedom and intellectual freedom because there's really only one way for the governor's plan to manifest itself: and that would be through required curriculum..." 

Noem does not express herself with the intellectual probity that the attainment of a college degree indicates she should be capable of doing.  A degree, to most people, simply means that one has successfully completed a course of study.  But most people understand that successfully completing a course of study means that one has not committed an academic crime.  The academic offenses for which a tenured professor can be fired are plagiarism and falsifying information.  Plagiarism is passing off someone else's work as one's own.  Falsifying information is mendacity, telling lies and making stuff up.  A college degree doesn't guarantee that its holder won't do those things.  But it does indicate that they know better.

In cases in which colleges find that a student committed academic fraud to earn a degree, the college has the right to withdraw it, and this has been done.  However, colleges do not track their graduates to see if they apply the rules  of academic honesty to their post-graduate lives. When their graduates are found to be dishonest or intellectually incompetent, they can point out that the graduates have lapsed from the academic principles that a college degree signifies.

When examining Kristi Noem's accounts of her college experience, we find discrepancies.  It makes us skeptical about whether her degree means anything other than that she bamboozled a university.

And the electorate.

Friday, July 9, 2021

Does Northern State University have a future?

The Dakota Free Press by Cory Heidelberger pointed out an assessment of higher education that places the South Dakota system as the lowest in the nation.  The ranking is based upon financial considerations, but financial matters reflect political and social attitudes that affect university campuses.   Ranking systems of colleges measure many aspects and produce disparate ratings as to the quality of education offered.  However, colleges that operate in an atmosphere of inferior circumstance and administrative turmoil are places that astute professors and students alike avoid.  Northern State University is in a state of administrative turmoil  that, along with the state being ranked as the worst system in the nation, makes it a place that prospective professors and students must be wary about.


The turmoil at Northern involves  a changing of presidents.  In April, the resignation of Dr.Timothy Downs was suddenly announced in circumstances that appear to involve a forced resignation, and a new president came on board  the first of the July.  During the same week as Dr. Downs' resignation, the president of the Northern Foundation which handles fundraising for the University announced his retirement.  Then this month the athletic director announced that he was leaving for another job.  When contacted, the regents have claimed the departures were coincidental, but experienced college educators see it as the unraveling of an institution that has lost its coherence.  The departures are of the primary executives involved in the raising of $110 million for campus improvements, many of which were for the athletic facilities.  To regard their departures as coincidence stretches credulity to the breaking point.  

Northern has a mixed history with college presidents.  Some have served as agents for the political agenda of  the Board of Regents, which in South Dakota is a  hopelessly politicized agency.  Only one person on the current Board of Regents has any significant experience in higher education and three are appointees of Kristi Noem, which raises questions about their academic values.  Some presidents have attempted to carry out a  traditional collegiate role, which puts them in conflict with the politically-oriented regents.  Dr. Downs seems to have been caught attempting the latter function.  A newspaper report said he had been putting in place some programs for diversity which caused members of the state legislature to compose a letter telling him to either desist or resign.  He did resign.

The incoming president of Northern State faces a dilemma.  He must know that regents who appointed him expect him to be their lackey, and will not support any executive who tries to adhere to the academic freedom on which a legitimate university is based:
...institutional academic freedom safeguards the university as a whole from government or other outside interference. It permits the university to select its faculty and to determine areas of study, appropriate teaching methods, and which students to admit. 

 For about 40 years the South Dakota higher education system operated with a collective bargaining agreement which required the institutions to maintain the professional standards of American universities.  Last year the legislature passed a law prohibiting the college faculty from collective bargaining.  Now the universities have no contract protecting the faculty or the universities themselves from political interference.  The new president, as illustrated by the departure of Dr. Downs, will find constraints if he tries to operate as a free university in a state where the legislature and the governor want to impose the rules.

From the viewpoint of an old professor who believes higher education must be dedicated to the higher, Northern's future is very uncertain.  Will some of the donators of $110 million change their minds?  Is it a place you want to send young people?

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States