DSU’s Coston to retire: President led school through difficult chapter in history
By The Press Staffnewsroom@thedickinsonpress.com The head of Dickinson State University is stepping down. After leading the university through several controversial years, D.C. Coston will retire as president once a replacement is hired, the inst...
By The Press Staff
The head of Dickinson State University is stepping down.
After leading the university through several controversial years, D.C. Coston will retire as president once a replacement is hired, the institution announced Friday.
Coston took over at DSU in August 2011 after previous president Richard McCallum was terminated following a controversy over inflated enrollment numbers.
Coston’s most notable achievement was something most university presidents don’t have to worry about: making sure his school retained full accreditation after the state Higher Learning Commission put the school “on notice.”
The status came after an audit, which was released to the public on Feb. 10, 2011, discovered multiple issues with the university, including issuing hundreds of diplomas to students who had not earned them. The “diploma mill” allegedly occurred under the leadership of McCallum.
The release of the audit was followed by several staff resignations and the death of Doug LaPlante, the dean of the college of education. LaPlante was found dead in a park near campus of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound the same day the audit was released. DSU officials maintain LaPlante did not know about the audit before its release, and that there were no ties between the audit’s findings and the multiple resignations.
Coston has said his aim was to lead DSU out of what has been referred as one of the darkest chapters in the school’s history. The HLC took the school off notice at an October 2013 meeting.
“By God, we did it,” a choked-up Coston said in announcing the news on Nov. 1, 2013.
Larry Skogen, interim chancellor of the North Dakota University System, will be at DSU on Wednesday for a visit to start the replacement search process, school spokeswoman Marie Moe said. Coston will stay with the university until a replacement is found.
In a Friday letter to the DSU community, Coston wrote how when he took the helm of the four-year school of about 2,500 students, “None of us knew then what lay ahead.”
He wrote that he has been pondering the decision to retire, and that he feels he served his purpose to help the university “regain its footing” and prepare for a better future.
“I believe that together we have accomplished this goal, and it is now time for DSU’s next president who will lead the institution to its greatest days,” he wrote.
The HLC, which put the school on notice in 2012, complimented the school’s improvements in reporting enrollment numbers, admission of international students and overseeing contracts in its decision to give the school its no-strings-attached standing.
“We asked President Coston to assume leadership of DSU during an incredibly difficult time,” Terry Hjelmstad, chair of the State Board of Higher Education, said in a release. “He rose to the challenge and diligently worked through a number of issues.”
In the past year, Coston worked with state officials to investigate the ongoing accounting and solvency problems at the Dickinson State University Foundation, the non-profit organization in charge of many DSU student scholarship funds. The attorney general pushed the Foundation into receivership in December.
Coston has tried to distance the university from the Foundation’s problems, which were largely caused by development debt, the leveraging of restricted assets and a $1.7 million arbitration ruling. He has maintained DSU and the Foundation are two separate entities.
But while DSU has not been implicated in the problems found at the Foundation, the non-profit’s fiscal issues have caused state officials to withhold $633,000 in funding from DSU and has prompted the Higher Learning Commission to drop the university’s composite financial index score - a type of credit rating unique to higher education.
North Dakota Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said he was “surprised” to hear the announcement.
“I didn’t expect that,” he said.
Moe said no university official was available for comment Friday beyond what was stated in news releases.
Before his time at DSU, Coston worked for North Dakota State University for six years as vice president for agriculture and University Extension.
“We appreciate Dr. Coston’s willingness to stay on until his successor is in place,” Skogen said in the release. “We look forward to working with DSU faculty, staff and students, as well as the whole Dickinson community as we search for the right person to help write the next chapter for this fine institution. Together, we will shape its future.”