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Alabama State University

A group of 37 Nigerian students is suing Alabama State University, claiming that the university failed to properly disburse scholarship funds awarded by the Nigerian government.

The suit, filed Aug. 25 in federal court, alleges that the university "wrongfully withheld" scholarship monies from the Nigerian students. "As a result," the complaint states, "the plaintiff students have been denied, excluded and/or subjected to decreased services from Alabama State University, and/or charged increased prices for the same services provided to natural-born American students, and/or denied the opportunity to participate in educational opportunities at Alabama State University because of their national origin."

The lawsuit, which alleges discrimination under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, is the second one filed on this matter. The first lawsuit, which alleged breach of contract but did not allege discrimination, was dismissed without prejudice on procedural grounds.

According to the second, discrimination-related complaint, the Nigerian government scholarship covers payment of tuition, fees, health insurance, room and board, textbooks, and other miscellaneous personal costs. The complaint asserts that the university is obligated to disburse all monies not used for tuition and fees to the students, and cites a May 2015 document from a Nigerian government official requesting that credit balances on all line items other than tuition be refunded to students.

In various documents filed with the court, the university has maintained that the students are not a party to the financial agreement between the university and the Nigerian government and that any refunds should be credited to the government, not the individual students. The university has cited a communication from a different Nigerian government official, from May of this year, confirming the amount held in credit at the institution and asking Alabama State to hold on to the funds “until instructions are given on the process of refunds.”

“Without a doubt, ASU will be in a financial conundrum if it has to pay over refunds to Nigerian students after it has been instructed by a current Nigerian government official to hold on to the funds until further advised,” Alabama State wrote in a petition to dismiss the first complaint, filed in May.

The related question is what refunds, if any, are owed, irrespective of to whom (government or student). The students' lawsuit requests that Alabama State be ordered to "refund all monies the Nigerian government has paid for services ASU did not offer to the plaintiff students sponsored by the Nigerian government."

What kinds of services were allegedly not offered? One of the plaintiffs interviewed by Inside Higher Ed who graduated from Alabama State in spring 2015 described being unable to transfer scholarship funds paid in advance by the government for the summer session immediately following his graduation to his new graduate institution, despite presenting a letter -- shared with Inside Higher Ed -- from his government sponsor authorizing the transfer of all credits and balances to Auburn University at Montgomery. The student, Tamarraubibibogha Manfred Gunuboh, said he was dropped from his summer classes at AUM partway through due to the nontransfer of funds and had to (successfully) petition AUM for cancellation of his room and board charges there (he remained in his housing at Alabama State). As far as Gunuboh is aware, the unused tuition for that summer has not been refunded either to the government or to him.

A November 2015 letter included in the court filings from the students' lawyer, Julian McPhillips, cites as another example of unutilized services the case of a plaintiff who is married with a child and lives off campus. McPhillips wrote that "the Nigerian government has paid for nearly two years of dormitory expenses on his behalf, even though he has not needed such expense."

Many of the students' grievances center on Alabama State's alleged withholding of the nontuition portion of their scholarship funds. Students feel that by not releasing certain scholarship funds directly to them, the university unfairly compelled them -- unlike other students -- to live in university housing, eat in the cafeteria and buy their books in the university bookstore rather than shop around for better or more suitable deals elsewhere. In other words, the students only had credit at the company store, and they didn't necessarily like the merchandise -- or the prices -- they found there (even if their government was the one paying).

"Average American students, when they’re brought in, they’re given much lower prices," McPhillips​, the students' lawyer, said in an interview. "They’ve inflated the prices considerably for books and meals and lodging -- they charge some outrageous fees for lodging -- and we think they did it to meet some other financial needs for the university that were not related to the students."

A spokesman for Alabama State declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying the university does not comment on pending litigation. An official with the Nigerian consulate in Atlanta also declined to comment.

Whatever the merits of the lawsuit, this is undoubtedly a case in which a university’s relationship with a substantial proportion of its international student population has gone sour. Thirty-seven international students, after all, are discontented enough to sue.

Alabama State, a historically black university in Montgomery, has a relatively small international student population: it enrolled just 122 international students in 2014-15, according to data held by the Institute of International Education.

The institution, which has a six-year graduation rate of 27 percent, has had accreditation troubles of late. The university’s accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, took Alabama State off warning status in June, a sanction that had been imposed two years earlier for failure to comply with requirements and standards on issues related to financial stability and control, and conflict of interest on its governing board.

The professor who recruited the group of Nigerian students to Alabama State said he now regrets it.

“I feel very guilty that I brought these students to be exploited by Alabama State University,” said David Iyegha, a retired professor of geography who has served as an advocate for the Nigerian students.

“At some point I was wondering why the Nigerian government would bring us here,” said Kehinde Batife, one of the student plaintiffs in the case.

“It’s not like this is such a fantastic school.”

Batife, who graduated as a criminal justice major in the spring, at first treated Inside Higher Ed’s request for an interview as an opportunity to begin a negotiation, writing via email that he was willing to share “firsthand testimony from the victims” and documents to back up the story. “Based on the fact that other publications are contacting me for this same story, it is going to be the highest bidder takes it all. What do you have to offer?” he wrote.

After Inside Higher Ed’s reporter clarified that the publication does not pay for access to news or sources, Batife declined to talk immediately, saying he first needed to consult with others involved with the suit. But he subsequently agreed to an interview and shared a letter the students sent to Nigeria's president enumerating their complaints. The June 3 letter accuses Alabama State's administration of having "singled out only the Nigerian students -- because the university has complete control of the money the government sent -- to be exploited by subjecting us, the students, to conditions that are inconsistent with the norm in other institutions in the United States and even at Alabama State University itself."

"We are not in this to make money for ourselves," Batife said. "I’m a criminal justice major. I’m in school to defend myself and to defend other people. I’m thinking to pursue a law degree. Someone who is educating me will not call me a fool to my face. They call us cash cows and things like that."

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