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Coston: Debate over higher ed measure focuses on risk to accreditation missing facts

The Forum News Service article “Debate over higher ed measure focuses on risk to accreditation” and coverage of the Greater North Dakota Chamber forum on Thursday created significant anguish in the Dickinson State University community.

The article accurately portrayed what was said during the Chamber’s forum. However, the comments made by Rep. Al Carlson, the North Dakota House majority leader, literally ripped the scab off old wounds, particularly his remarks regarding a deeply beloved member of the campus community. I wish to correct and add items not included in Carlson’s comments.

First of all, DSU never ducked any issues but took them on squarely and methodically. To suggest otherwise is inaccurate. DSU has taken significant actions which have been reported widely through the media, our website and numerous legislative hearings — most of which Mr. Carlson attended. All of what we have been through has been available to the public and to governmental leaders.

Among the actions DSU has taken are:

-- Corrected inaccurate enrollment numbers in the North Dakota University System database, in the U.S. Department of Education database and in reports to the Higher Learning Commission, which accredits colleges and universities throughout the central U.S. DSU has established policies and procedures with appropriate checks and balances to assure future reporting is accurate.

-- Now almost 100 years old, DSU is proud that every degree posted on a transcript has been earned. Following the audit, the university removed nearly 400 unearned degrees.

However, true to this institution’s commitment to respect the dignity of every person, our staff worked one-on-one with the affected students to prescribe the coursework necessary to earn a degree in one of our approved curricula. Many students chose to continue working toward degrees.

The “diploma mill” label coined by an enterprising reporter in 2011 is not accurate. Review processes assure that any student who is awarded a degree has earned it.

-- I was asked by the State Board of Higher Education to become DSU’s acting president in August 2011. During that first semester at DSU, I worked diligently to learn about the institution and to understand what had occurred.

Between mid-December 2011 and August 2012, the people in 28 of the 45 leadership positions at DSU changed. These changes occurred in most areas of the institution including the office of the president, enrollment services and communications, finance and administration, academic affairs, and student development.

-- Because of the issues at DSU prior to August 2011, the HLC in July 2012 placed DSU’s accreditation in the status of “on notice,” which is the mildest sanction the HLC uses. DSU remained accredited during this entire time. In April 2013, the HLC sent a team to review DSU’s efforts to address past issues.

The team recommended the HLC board remove the “on notice” status, noting the institution had effectively handled all of the issues raised. In a parallel recommendation to the HLC Board, the HLC staff also recommended removal from “on notice” with the comment: “Throughout the Notice period, Dickinson State University has remained highly transparent, proactive, responsive and extremely engaged with the Commission. The institution’s efforts demonstrate an extraordinary commitment to accreditation and, as such are to be commended.”

The HLC Board of Trustees removed DSU from “on notice” on Oct. 31. These materials have been posted on the DSU website for almost a year and are publicly available.

Today, DSU is filled with a wonderful spirit of optimism. There is an infectious collegiality among students, faculty and staff. This leads to an unspoken, yet palpable, bond of deep respect for one another and a commitment to holding ourselves to the highest of expectations.

The community, our alumni and friends, and the citizens of North Dakota can remain confident we will continue to steward and uphold DSU’s tradition of excellence in education and service to the region.

Coston is the president of Dickinson State University.