DSU students demand resignation of university president, VPAA and dean
More than 300 people are demanding the immediate termination or resignation of the university president, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Dickinson State University for what they say is a broad spectrum of concerns with administration. They highlight allegations of code of conduct abuses, including overreach of administrative authority, incompetence and allegations of illegal conduct and fraud.
Students in Dickinson are demanding the termination or resignation of Dr. Stephen Easton, Dr. Debora Dragseth and Dr. Brent Rogers.
A petition created by Dickinson State University student Stephanie Schendel, which has garnered 311 signatures as of Monday morning, seeks to "restore the integrity to Dickinson State University and its programming" that students say has been seriously weakened under the present administration through overreach of administrative authority, incompetence and fraud.
"We, the undersigned, demand the resignation or termination of President Stephen Easton, VPAA Dr. Debora Dragseth and Dean of College of Arts and Sciences Dr. Brent Rogers," the petition begins. "President Easton and Dr. Dragseth have continually tried to excuse their mismanagement of personnel and resources by citing 'increases in student enrollment' as evidence that their management style is effective...Unfortunately, this is not the case. This petition seeks to remove the façade that has been put in place by President Easton and Dr. Dragseth, remove them from the positions they have been abusing, and restore integrity to Dickinson State University and its programming."
The students' petition outlines alleged violations of the North Dakota University System Code of Conduct, violations of the Assumed Practices of the Higher Learning Commission, procurement fraud, grant fraud, abuse, overreach of administrative authority, failure to perform essential duties related to job descriptions and incompetence by three of the highest ranking administrators.
"The student body pays tuition, many of us going into long-term debt to do so. As such, we expect a certain level of professionalism and quality of services rendered. We find that everywhere we look at DSU, except with matters concerning administration. There is no honesty or transparency to be found," the petition reads. "We have been told repeatedly by the above-mentioned administrators that 'they are working on it', 'there is not any plan to cut majors at this time' and that there is no reason for us to transfer to complete our programming. These assertions alone are evidence of the dire situation we find ourselves in. It is highly unlikely that this information is factual. There are a number of degree programs with incomplete programming due to faculty losses, resulting in well over one hundred students unable to complete necessary credits for on-time graduation."
Within the Natural Science Department alone, four professors have tendered their resignations — Eric Brevik, Corrine Brevik, Joshua Steffan and Paul Barnhart. This includes the department chair, Barnhart, which leaves a single tenured professor remaining. But the concerns extend beyond the sciences. Multiple surveys of Dickinson State University faculty and staff have rendered concerning results. A survey of workplace satisfaction featuring 70 responses from 28 staff and 42 faculty showed 63% of respondents were unsatisfied with the administration. Allegations of misconduct extend beyond student complaints with multiple faculty members painting a broad spectrum of abuses, including a toxic, retaliatory and predatory work environment, rife with mismanagement and a "good ol' boys" top-down leadership system.
Speaking to The Press on the condition of anonymity, one former faculty member outlined internal issues with administration.
“Part of the issue is that it's unfortunate that by being honest we’re worried about retribution. The administration used a global pandemic that has killed millions of people to utilize state and federal money to push the university in a direction no one other than the administration wants," they said. "We have no shared governance on this campus. If there was shared governance, what I’m doing right now in even speaking to you wouldn’t potentially affect me for years to come. Right? Ultimately, their goal is to become the University of Phoenix, where everybody is online. Does that model make more money for the institution? Probably. But our students are not going to be successful under that model."
They continued, "There’s no getting around it, DSU is the red headed step-child of the NDUS system. What was it about ten years ago when we were in the diploma mill? We’re going straight back to that and the students see it and are worried."
Easton responded to the petition in an email to the campus on Oct. 31, which addressed some of the allegations raised by students.
"The petition makes allegations that have already been reviewed, found to be unsubstantiated or corrected. These are challenging times at Dickinson State as well as in higher education generally. But during the past two years, even with the challenge of a worldwide pandemic, Dickinson State has been on a positive trajectory," Easton wrote.
In his email, Easton highlighted a transition from substantial deficit spending toward a balanced budget.
"We have increased our enrollment by roughly 5%, while nationwide enrollment at primarily undergraduate institutions has fallen by about 6%. We have refilled our residence halls, including one that was unused two years ago. We have added successful new academic programs," he wrote. "Who made that happen? You did. It is the staff, faculty, coaches and students who put DSU on our current positive path, with the help of DSU alums and other supporters. As I have often said, DSU’s students, faculty, and staff have done wonderful work during, and despite, the pandemic and its challenges."
Easton said that DSU leaders, in conjunction with stakeholders, would continue to provide the best possible solutions within their means to deliver the "high-quality educational experience" that students deserve.
Dickinson State University representatives will be meeting with The Press to discuss the allegations and calls for resignation on Tuesday, Nov. 2.
State Board of Higher Education Chair Casey Ryan and the North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott issued a joint-statement in response to the petition initiated by students.
"President Easton and his leadership team are doing transformative work building a Dual Mission Campus, one of the most innovative not only in North Dakota but in the Northern Plains/Mountain Region," the statement began. "Moreover, over two tumultuous years of COVID-disrupted budgets and campus operations, his team's response under pressure has been both innovative and of the highest integrity. It is unfortunate some people would be so unfairly critical of the DSU team that is growing enrollment and has successfully navigated one of the biggest shocks to the NDUS/DSU in the past century."