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Friday, January 21, 2022

When politics turns universities into criminal enterprises

  South Dakota university campuses are in turmoil over diversity issues.  This fall at the University of South Dakota, a Center for Diversity and Community (CDC), a coalition of groups of minority students, was evicted from office space it occupied to be replaced by an Opportunity for All Center, which was ordered by the Board of Regents. State legislator Rep. Liz May, R-Kyle, threatened to defund the University of South Dakota’s diversity office by stripping $275,000 worth of the school’s funding. The student government passed a resolution objecting to the Opportunity Center.   At South Dakota State University, the Office of Diversity, Inclusion, Equity and Access was closed.  The student newspaper published a lengthy piece expressing dismay at the demise of the Diversity office, stating that three of its counselors had quit the University.  

At Northern State, there was turmoil over the matter of diversity early in 2021.  A newspaper report said that legislators had composed a letter to President Downs threatening to fire him if he did not desist from some diversity activities he initiated on the campus.  During his tenure at Northern, he accumulated $110 million in donated funds for the university, so his sudden, obviously forced, departure was startling to those in the Aberdeen community.  The press release in April said he was leaving to pursue a new opportunity in higher education, but as of the beginning of 2022, his online resume showed he hadn’t caught up with it yet.

Just before the start of the fall semester last August, the South Dakota Board of Regents issued a charge to the campuses to establish Opportunity Centers.  It is important to note that the Board is composed of active operatives of the state Republican Party, which has complete control of state government.  Only one member has significant experience in higher education.  Regents say the purpose of the Opportunity Centers is to:

       Bolster student success through the implementation of “Opportunity Centers” on campus. Opportunity Centers should realign and focus campus resources to effectively assess and address the individual needs of all students. Opportunity Centers should serve as an inclusive community where all are welcome, accepted and provided access to the services needed to assist, accommodate, retain and graduate, with equal regard given to the unique challenges and needs of every students. Opportunity Centers should supplement or enhance related activities on campus specific to opportunities or challenges of cultural relevance to South Dakota.

The  campuses apparently understood this to mean to banish the diversity centers and set up agencies that were more directly under the control of the political authorities.  The closing of the diversity offices had full complicity of the governor, who wrote:

      “I am glad to see that so-called diversity offices, which have unfortunately become less about serving students and more about advancing leftist agendas, are being replaced by Opportunity Centers that will focus on students as individuals, rather than members of groups," Noem said. "The policies put forth by the Board of Regents are a step forward in our quest to resist the harmful effects this ideology can have on students and preserve honest, patriotic education throughout South Dakota."

To people in higher education, the firing of Dr. Downs from Northern was a signal that the university system had been transformed into outposts of the state’s single party government.  His unseemly departure raised no expressions of concern from the faculty.  One professor who came from Aberdeen but taught at a large eastern university said, “Well, that’s Northern.”

He was referring to a history, much of it recent, that the public is little aware of and staff members tend to dismiss.  But among those who adhere to the professional standards of higher education, it is a matter of concern that they think needs to be addressed.

For more than 20 years (1968-1991), Northern was under censure by the American Association of University Professors.  The censure was over the firing of a professor without any procedures of due process or review.  The censure was lifted when the system proved that it was operating under an enforceable union contract that specified the steps of due process and review that must be followed.  In 2020, however, the legislature passed and the governor signed a law banning faculty collective bargaining unions.  Current faculty have no protections against arbitrary personnel actions.  Many disciplinary faculty organizations have posted warnings in the employment listings of their journals that the South Dakota system is deficient in its faculty contracts and is subject to political whims.  However, censure for arbitrary personnel actions are usually imposed on administrations on behalf of faculty.  Seldom do the actions against college administrators from higher-ups receive sanctions, unless the administrator also holds professorial rank.  The case of Dr. Downs has been referred for potential censure because there are no protections that could be enforced if such actions would be taken against faculty, and it raises questions of academic freedom and integrity.

Northern’s problems go much deeper than personnel issues.  The University has been complicit in two of the biggest scandals in the governance of South Dakota:  the EB-5 and the Gear Up scandals.

The EB-5 program is one through which foreign nationals can buy a green card to become a resident of the U.S. by investing a minimum of $500,000.  The investments are channeled to recipient businesses through regional centers. The Board of Regents established the South Dakota International Business Institute (SDIBI) at Northern State to facilitate and enhance international trade.  Joop Bollen, a man who had immigrated from Holland, was its director, and it was a part of the School of Business.  It became the regional center for coordinating the foreign investments, and although under Board of Regents overview, it worked more closely with the governor’s office of economic development.

One of the recipients of the money invested was a start-up packing plant, Northern Beef Packers, which failed.  Its failure captured the attention of federal authorities who found that $120 million or so of the funds handled by the SDIBI could not be accounted for.  A former member of the governor’s economic development staff, Richard Benda, was intensely involved in the EB-5 project, and after the investigations started was found dead by alleged suicide while on a hunting trip.  Leading up to this, the then-president of Northern was reviewing the budget and questioned what the SDIBI had to do with higher education and why the University was budgeting for it. He, in effect, kicked the enterprise off the campus.

Gear Up was a program to prepare Native American students for college.  The U.S. Dept. of Education provided a grant of $62 million to the state Dept. of Education which was to be matched dollar-for-dollar by the state for the program.  To administer the program, the state contracted with the   Mid-Central Educational Cooperative (MCEC) in Platte.  A state auditor found some glaring irregularities in the MCEC records, the state canceled the contract, and investigations began.  Consequently, the principal administrator at MCEC, Scott Westerhuis, shot his wife, shot his four children, set his house on fire, then killed himself.

Kelly Duncan, who worked at USD and then became dean of the School of Education at NSU, was hired as an independent evaluator and principal investigator on the Gear Up project.  She received $124,000 from the Dept. of Education for her work on the project between 2012 and 2015.

The problem at Northern is not with the university itself but with the way that political chicanery and subversion seems to thrive there.  The firing of Dr. Downs has put the university on the watch lists of professional academic organizations.  For the system, the heavy handed purging of diversity programs and their replacement by politically endorsed and mandated Opportunity Centers raises issues of accreditation.  On their face, the universities do not meet the standards of academic freedom and collegial exchange on which valid institutions of higher education must operate.

Individual faculty members do their jobs as they studied and were trained to do.  But with a nincompoop governor sending down mandates on what and how it should be taught and a group of regents appointed by her to carry them out, the higher is being removed from higher education.  When small-minded politics invades college campuses, it displaces academic integrity and replaces it with cheap and inane power plays.  And that means involving them in schemes in which $120 million of investor money gets lost and never found and the U.S. government gets bilked out of $62 million. 

If someone aspires to fraud and deception, our universities have people who can offer courses in them.

1 comment:

Jerry K. Sweeney said...

Preach it, Brother David.

I was witness to a newly appointed regent proudly informing his fellows, that he recently told a friend he was going to do something about those professors who only 'worked' 12 hours a week. To their credit, the other regents, fully aware what a 12 hour teaching load entailed, had the grace to be embarrassed at the revelation. The audience, mayhap too jaded for their own good, refrained from audible groans or laughter.

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