The established order at New College of California is rapidly unraveling. Its accreditor placed it on probation in July. The president of the progressive San Francisco college announced last week that he was resigning. On Friday, board members confirmed the president would be leaving immediately -- as reports emerged that he had intervened to change the grades of a student he saw as a potential donor.
A report from the college's accreditor, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, outlines the allegations surrounding President Martin Hamilton's treatment of an international student who had promised a $1 million gift – an international student who Hamilton freely admitted Friday had fooled him.
He denied, however, any involvement in changing the student’s grades. “It took me a long time to realize he was a con man,” Hamilton said of the former student from Nepal who never paid his tuition bills, having told administrators that his substantial financial assets were temporarily tied up in Nepal. “It was the most ridiculous thing. If anything, I’m open and naïve…. You know, we don’t raise a lot of money. He said he had a million dollars and I was grateful he was giving me a million bucks.”
"I am guilty of treating him differently. We let him register with a balance," for instance, Hamilton said. (The college's written response to the WASC report indicates that four Nepali students without access to funds due to civil unrest were allowed to postpone paying tuition, as New College "seeks to support students facing special needs in order for them to complete their education.")
But “the allegation that I was giving him a degree in exchange for a million bucks -- that is just degrading to my soul. I’ve worked to support this place for 30 years,” said Hamilton, whose resignation takes effect September 15. He is on a leave of absence through that point. Luis G. Molina, a board member, is the new acting president.
According to the WASC special investigation report, the accrediting agency received a complaint detailing special treatment bestowed to this international student, who represented himself as "a person of considerable means” with $3.5 million in a non-U.S. bank account. But his academic progress was “irregular and interrupted,” and by fall 2005, the student “was well out of compliance with [Immigration and Naturalization Service] requirements.” The report notes that evidence from interviews suggests that the president and a faculty member made at least one attempt to change the student’s academic record, in order that he would be eligible for admission to a New College of California master’s program and an I-20 student visa.
Marie Hoglund, a former faculty member and academic director for New College of California’s day and evening humanities bachelor’s degree program, filed a complaint with WASC about the college’s treatment of this international student. As the student’s adviser, Hoglund described a situation on April 17, 2006 when the student in question, significantly short of the 120 credits he needed and accompanied by a faculty member and the president, approached the acting registrar. The student presented, Hoglund said, a scrap of paper on which he had handwritten titles of courses and corresponding grades – A’s. The paper requested that various courses the student had taken be assigned a higher number of credits and that grades be changed, according to an account in the WASC report.
“The president signed it, as did the faculty member,” said Hoglund, who has since quit her job at the college to work in foster care compliance. “It was on a scratch piece of paper that was just taken off the registrar’s desk.”
“It just turned into absolute lunacy,” she said, describing the president's alleged attempt to change the student's academic record as intentional. "He showed such tremendous favoritism."
Hamilton denied ever signing the student’s request to the registrar, which he said he only saw afterwards during the course of the investigation. He described it as “laughable beyond belief,” and said his signature had been forged. He also said he was the target of disgruntled former faculty who wanted revenge “and they got it.”
In an e-mail, Ralph A. Wolff, president and executive director of WASC, indicated that since New College has requested a commission review of the accrediting agency’s decision to place it on probation, a committee will be reviewing the evidence that's been compiled. The July 5 letter from WASC communicating the probation decision does not specifically delve into the international student incident outlined in the May special report. But the accreditor does indicate that it found “substantial evidence” that New College of California had violated the accrediting commission's first standard than an institution “function with integrity,” and includes concerns about award of credit and grades without proper oversight, changes in grades by individuals not assigned to teach the relevant courses, and compliance with federal regulations surrounding international student reporting in the case of "at least one international student."
The letter, which also addresses the college's financial instability and complaints brought to WASC about the college's Pilot Hybrid in Leadership in Urban Transformed Environments program and shoddy recordkeeping procedures, critiques “a culture of administrative sloppiness and arbitrariness.”
Yet, it's not just sloppiness (perhaps more easily forgivable at a non-traditional college with 1,000 students, a $16 million budget, and virtually no reserves to speak of) that has upset faculty who see the incident with the international student as emblematic of the institution's instability.
“This particular incident is one of the main concerns that have been discussed by the Adjunct Faculty Council,” Gregory Gajus, spokesman for the council and an instructor in cultural studies, said of the allegations surrounding the president’s preferential treatment of the international student. Both the Adjunct Faculty Council and a Core Faculty Council have called for a replacement in the leadership of the college since WASC placed it on probation.
“What it’s created for the adjuncts is a real sense of how vulnerable the institution is. If the president of the institution can be duped in that way, if those allegations are true, that really makes us feel vulnerable,” said Gajus. He described a tense atmosphere at the college Friday, replete with bounced paychecks and nervous students trying to decide if they should try to transfer “under the wire.”
“The school is running 95 percent of the budget on financial aid dollars and we know there won’t be any financial aid money coming in between now and the fall,” Gajus said. “There are some real questions as to how the school will survive financially."
“Everyone is very afraid of the future, wondering if they are resilient enough to weather the storm.”
“This whole thing, it’s just horrible. My intent was never in a million years for the accreditation to be yanked,” said Hoglund, who said that through her 17 years at the college she knows first-hand that “so many good things have happened there over the years.”
“The reason I reported all of that was to try to preserve some of the academic integrity of the college and also to do it for the students. What I told the board and [what] I told WASC was that I thought what Martin [Hamilton] did was unfair and unethical,” she said in the afternoon following Hamilton's announcement that he would be leaving.
“I think the college really does have a chance now of being just, sacred and sustainable.”