Leadership & Governance

Battle Shapes Up as Dickinson State U. President Refuses to Resign

August 07, 2011

The president of Dickinson State University, Richard J. McCallum, has refused to resign, despite calls for his ouster following the release of an audit that found his office had pressured staff members to overstate student enrollment numbers last year.

"Any reporting errors were quickly corrected with no negative consequences to the university," he said in a letter to faculty and staff members of the North Dakota institution. "To the extent that I am permitted, I will continue to perform my responsibilities as president."

Mr. McCallum's statement followed days of silence and defied a call for his resignation by William G. Goetz, chancellor of the North Dakota University System. "There were a lot of opportunities to work through this," Mr. Goetz said on Saturday. "We've made attempts to contact him, but we don't get anything back."

Mr. Goetz asked Mr. McCallum to resign on Wednesday, a day before the public release of an internal audit by the university system that held Mr. McCallum responsible for the erroneous enrollment numbers, which were posted not only in university documents but also in official reports to the U.S. Department of Education.

The board of the system has the power to hire and fire presidents, but it is unlikely to make any determination regarding Mr. McCallum before Monday, Mr. Goetz said.

Mr. McCallum, who has served as president of the university since 2008, was accused in the audit of creating a distrustful culture that led staff members to cut corners, which resulted in about 180 attendees of university conferences and training sessions being erroneously counted as students in the fall of 2010.

Those who were misidentified as students included members of the general public, high-school students seeking dual credit, and business employees who had attended various sessions, some of which lasted for just one or two days, on issues of concern to their companies. Two of those sessions were about computer software, another was about energy technology, and another was focused on service and hospitality for employees of the Walt Disney Company. Two additional sessions were about Theodore Roosevelt.

The discrepancy in the enrollment numbers came to light when several of the people who had been mislabeled as students were contacted by the National Survey of Student Engagement, or NSSE, about their experiences at Dickinson State. They responded that they were not students. NSSE reported this to its Dickinson State contacts, and the North Dakota University System began an internal audit to look into the discrepancies in May.

The error was deliberate and systemic, said the system's auditor, Bill Eggert. Three departments at Dickinson State—the Office of Extended Learning, the Office of Enrollment Services, and the admissions office—had the opportunity to flag the problem. But all three were "pressured" by the office of the president to keep up the appearance of continuously growing student enrollment, he said.

That pressure was symptomatic of larger flaws, Mr. Eggert wrote in his report, which was released to The Dickinson Press, a local newspaper, on Thursday. "The current leadership has created a campus culture that is divided, one of distrust, disrespect, and staff being pressured to engage in unethical, suspect, or wasteful activities to meet demands," he wrote.

In his letter, Mr. McCallum disputes the contention that his management style fostered an unethical climate on campus. He says the allegations against him "are largely based on rumor and innuendo, not fact" and he describes the complaints about his performance and management style as coming out of the blue. "This action by Chancellor Goetz came as a complete shock to me," he said in his letter.

Mr. McCallum has not responded to e-mails from The Chronicle seeking comment. He has not spoken with his staff since the audit's release on Thursday, Ken Haught, Dickinson State's interim director of university relations, said on Friday afternoon. "It was quite stunning, a shock," Mr. Haught said of the audit's findings. "We thought it was just a few individuals and it was truly an oversight. The number we heard was 180 students—that's a significant number."

'Weak Registration Process'

Mr. Goetz, who served as a professor and dean in the business school at Dickinson State prior to becoming chancellor of the system, said on Saturday that he last spoke to Mr. McCallum on Wednesday but had not heard from him since, despite several efforts to reach out. The two men met on Wednesday to discuss the audit's findings, and Mr. McCallum offered no explanation, according to Mr. Goetz.

Mr. Goetz said that student enrollment in the state's colleges had been the subject of some public and news-media scrutiny in recent years, but that enrollment numbers do not have a large effect on how institutions are measured or financed, or how university employees are evaluated. Like many state systems, North Dakota's tracks the effectiveness of its colleges on several accountability measures, including gauges of student, alumni, and employer satisfaction, tuition affordability, and retention and graduation rates. Enrollment, in itself, is not one of these measures, though several presidents in the university system view enrollment growth as a point of pride, said Mr. Goetz.

An uptick of 180 students at Dickinson State, which enrolls about 2,500 students, would account for about a 7-percent bump in enrollment. And in years past, said Mr. Goetz, Dickinson has failed to show much growth in that area.

Still, a widespread institutional effort to inflate enrollment seemed to defy explanation, said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of external relations for the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. Typically, metrics that are prone to manipulation — whether they be graduation or retention rates or test scores — deal with areas that are more directly and clearly rewarded by policy makers. And, while some for-profit colleges have inflated enrollment numbers in the past, the intent has typically been to secure revenue from student loans.

"I honestly can't fathom this," Mr. Nassirian said of the Dickinson State situation. "Once you factor out personal gain, the cost-benefit analysis becomes really sort of untenable. Why would you risk your career?"

Mr. Nassirian added that instances such as these demonstrate the loosening ties between registrars and faculty, and the increased pressure for admissions officials to serve as administrative functionaries. "No matter what the final disposition of this may be, and whether it was appropriate or inappropriate, the thing that is clear is that you are dealing with a weak registration process," he said. "That is the common theme in all the variants of this particular phenomenon."

Mr. Eggert warned in the audit that the episode might damage the reputation of the university and lead to potential penalties from state or federal governments. Later in the audit, however, he acknowledged that this worry is more speculative than actual; financing models used by the state do not yet rely on enrollment data.

It is also not immediately clear, said a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education, what penalties might apply for transmitting deliberately false information to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.