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Suit: College Lowered Standards For Revenue

December 2, 2009

In an effort to boost tuition revenues, a State University of New York campus lowered admissions and retention standards to admit unqualified – predominately black – applicants who had little chance of graduating, according to a lawsuit filed by a former dean.

Thomas J. Hickey, who filed the suit, says his removal as dean in July was retaliation for questioning financially-motivated academic policies that doomed students to failure at the SUNY College of Agriculture and Technology at Cobleskill. The suit alleges these policies were instituted by Anne Myers, the provost, and later supported by Donald Zingale, who was named president in 2008.

The campus has historically required students to undergo an academic review if their grade point averages fall below 2.0 during their freshmen year, but Hickey says Myers lowered that standard in an overt effort to keep bringing in money from students she knew could not succeed with the minimal remediation offerings provided on campus.

According to the suit, Myers sent a Dec. 2, 2008 e-mail stating that “in light of the budget, we will use a 1.0 [Grade Point Average] cut off for first semester freshmen for Academic Review.”

Myers declined to comment, and SUNY officials would not answer specific questions about the allegations.

David Henahan, a SUNY spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement that “the assertions are baseless and we are confident the court will agree."

In addition to lowering standards for continuing students, the campus has employed a system since at least 1999 that is designed to admit students with insufficient credentials to perform college-level work, according to the suit. The suit cites a Myers-authored memorandum from that year that outlines the policy, although Hickey’s attorney would not provide the document to Inside Higher Ed, saying it would be inappropriate to publicly release evidence not yet provided to the court.

Hickey became dean in 2006, but it wasn’t until 2008 that he began to learn of the problems, according to Phillip G. Steck, his lawyer.

“I think the faculty were very disturbed that students who are not successful in the college are being kept there, and that’s what brought the issue to Dr. Hickey’s attention,” Steck said Tuesday.

As of 2008, the three-year graduation rate for associate degree-seeking students at Cobleskill was 26 percent, and an additional 8 percent remained enrolled after three years, according to the New York State Education Department.

The three-year graduation rate has declined every year since 2002, falling 11.5 percentage points over that period.

Suit: 'Academic Records Falsified'

The admissions practices at the college were common knowledge among faculty, and Hickey was not the only one who expressed concern, according to Steck. In another e-mail quoted in the suit, Thomas Cronin, a physics professor, responded to Myers’s December 2008 e-mail by labeling the practices “corrupt” and even possibly “criminal."

“The list of academically and morally corrupt practices that ensue from our inability to adhere to our own standards is rather long,” he wrote. “One of our worst offenses is that we admit, and re-admit students absolutely unqualified and absolutely incapable of achieving a college degree. Many go into debt or cause their families to go into debt into [sic] order to attempt a college degree. This is an absolutely corrupt practice and it may be criminal. If we have done this to even one student, then we are guilty of a low form of corruption."

Cronin could not be reached for comment.

When Hickey confronted Myers about admissions policies that he believed had a disproportionately negative impact on black students, the provost told him “I do not care about these people,” according to the suit. Hickey and Myers are both white.

The suit says Hickey repeated his concerns in an October 2008 memo, but Steck declined to provide it since it has not been submitted in court filings.

Inside Higher Ed has submitted a public records request for a number of the documents referenced in the suit.

One of the most striking claims of the complaint is that “students’ academic records were falsified in order to facilitate the admission of certain African-American students to the college.” The suit provides no specific evidence to support the claim, citing “information and belief.”

“Everything that is in the complaint we have some factual reason to believe is true, but obviously the admissions records are not in my office,” Steck said.

Hickey’s dismissal as dean followed an April 2009 review of his performance, but the suit suggests the review itself was an act of retaliation predestined to end in his removal.

Hickey has returned to the faculty, but the complaint alleges that Myers – with the full knowledge of the president – has sought to limit his future career options.

“In March, 2009, defendant Myers made false statements about Dr. Hickey that resulted in his not receiving the position of provost at SUNY Delhi even though he was the only person recommended for the position by the university’s duly constituted 16-member selection committee,” the suit states.

Actually, Hickey was not the committee’s lone recommendation, according to the chair of the search.

“The president’s request was that we give her unranked three finalists after all the whole extensive search process,” said Dominic Morales, the search chair and dean of applied sciences and recreation. “Tom Hickey was one of those finalists, and that’s all I could say.”

Candace S. Vancko, the college’s president, stated that she would “call various people” to discuss the finalists, but Morales said he was unsure whether Myers was among them, much less whether she said anything negative about Hickey.

“I wouldn’t touch that with a ten foot pole,” Morales said. “I have no idea.”

 

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