OCTOBER 10, 2016
To: Dr. Chris Gilmer, Vice President for Academic Affairs
I am writing to share my perspective as an Alamosa native with a longstanding history of professional and personal affiliations with Adams State University – as a former student, then years later as an adjunct instructor, visiting assistant professor, video contractor, and community member. Having reviewed the external report by Dr. David Mathieu of the Office of Extended Studies as well as the documents concerning academic probation from the Higher Learning Commission, I have some experiences and analysis to share that I believe the ASU administration should consider. Given your commitment to transparency and open invitation for feedback, I write you today in the spirit of reflection and forward-looking recommendations.
During my time working at ASU between 2011-2015, I witnessed the growth of the Extended Studies program and noticed a lack of cohesion between my department (English, Theatre, Communications) and the coursework being offered through OES. I would observe some faculty teaching coursework online and feeling it compromised aspects of good pedagogy given that there was very limited interpersonal interactions. I also observed faculty who, coupled with the lack of reasonable salary raises despite years of exemplary performance, resented the notion that the way ASU administration incentivized increased compensation at ASU was to teach additional coursework online – on top of a full teaching load on campus.
Given the lack of rigorous academic oversight of OES combined with the palpable potential for perverse incentives to teach online coursework for additional compensation, the conditions were ripe for precisely the compromise and outright rejection of academic integrity in ASU’s online coursework as revealed by the external audit. Under those circumstances, this was bound to happen. The OES audit has confirmed what many of us working at ASU during those years suspected: Extended Studies has operated as a for-profit degree mill within the confines of a public university campus.
Worse still, I have come to conclude that ASU’s shared governance model is itself highly dysfunctional and largely incapable of making the internal corrections and regulations necessary to avoid the many detrimental findings of recent outside reviews of the university’s policies and procedures. When individuals are hesitant to come forward due to fear of retaliation or, in some cases, actively shunned and repressed for doing so, the institution as a whole suffers while the egregious practices persist unchallenged. The “complainer” becomes the perceived problem rather than the genuine problems they attempt to identify and solve. When Dr. Mathieu wonders in his report as to how such flagrant lapses in academic integrity could continue uncorrected for many years, I believe a culture of fear at ASU is a primary explanation.
While working as a faculty member, I co-founded the Campus Advocacy Group (CAG) in 2014 as an effort to improve campus morale and develop proactive measures to better the university’s employee and student retention. Our group, comprised of about ten employees across many areas of the campus, was guided by a “positive restlessness” to identify challenges and offer solutions for the broad benefit of the campus community. We strongly believed that only through honest criticism and implementing best practices could ASU become a better place. We also believed that a good idea could come from anyone and deserved to be heard on its own merits.
One of the flagship initiatives of CAG was to map out a shared governance flowchart that best captured existing organization decision-making dynamics as well as some aspirational ideas to better improve the institution’s governance functions. We also conducted a campus-wide shared governance survey online. During the spring of 2015, we also held multiple campus forums and recorded detailed feedback from classified and exempt staff as well as faculty. We presented our findings to the President’s Cabinet and many of them echo the sentiments of this OES report.
CAG noted that the OES was largely removed from the rest of the campus, even as it was purportedly integrated into the academic purview of every department. Dr. Mathieu’s findings stated as much. Our survey found that while most administrators believe shared governance at ASU is working well, many faculty and most staff do not believe shared governance at ASU is functioning at all. CAG raised concerns of transparency, equity, and ethical academic standards to faculty, staff, and administrators. I had no idea such well-meaning efforts would be met with suspicion, controversy, and even outright hostility.
In response to our findings, we encountered an administration which largely regarded our efforts as disruptive, unwelcome and referred to CAG as “that rogue group.” This despite being authorized by President Svaldi to carry forth in our efforts and with members of the Faculty Senate praising us for attempting to unravel the convoluted network of institutional dysfunction – one that has long been a stumbling block for progress at ASU.
By May 2015, it appeared to me that even the attempt at understanding how decisions are made at ASU was interpreted as an act of open sedition. For these sincere efforts at campus improvement, individual members of CAG have been shunned, bullied, driven out of their positions through attrition or constructive dismissal, and some of those who remain are regarded with scorn and treated as outcasts undeserving of community recognition.
More broadly, assassinations of personal character and professional integrity are common responses to “stepping out of line” at ASU. I have watched as institutionalized bullying and an utter lack of shared governance led to the resignation or dismissal of so many of my colleagues – talented people who could still be working at ASU but were driven elsewhere by a toxic campus culture. The many direct and indirect costs of high turnover are, in part, a consequence of this hostile work environment.
With an unhealthy campus culture and dysfunctional shared governance practices, the many serious problems with OES haven’t been addressed in a constructive, self-correcting manner within the organization and, consequently, ASU continues to be flagged by outside agencies and industry press outlets for academic violations and non-compliance with national standards.
As a single organizational entity, it is as though ASU’s culture has actively purged itself of the very antibodies necessary to prevent the organization from becoming sick. Now, in a state best described as a severe illness, ASU has a compromised immune system because its institutional practices have flushed away many of the internal checks and balances that would otherwise keep its shared governance in a state of fitness. In short, ASU blocked out the symptoms (people like CAG members) rather than treating the disease (poorly-run programs and departments).
To be sure, the unforeseen problems that arise from a lack of effective shared governance are not unique to ASU. Dr. Jonathan Rees, co-president of the Colorado Conference for the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), wrote recently about the Mathieu report and ASU’s academic probation in The Academe:
The lesson here is that shared governance may even be more important for schools experimenting with online programs than it is for schools that are mostly or entirely terrestrial. Leave it to your administrators and their willing collaborators to create an online program for the sake of the greater good and it is entirely possible that similar problems will happen at your school too. The ASU example demonstrates how this could affect you whether you choose to teach online or not.
The Higher Learning Commission’s investigation and Dr. Mathieu’s report are dire warnings – not merely about the OES but about the institutional culture of Adams State under which this systemic failure occurred uncorrected for many years within the university. Will ASU listen?
Even my act of writing this to you will be cast by these same institutional forces as being without merit or consideration. Yet such voices of dismissal are precisely those who have enabled and orchestrated the dysfunctional campus climate in which ASU finds itself now – replete with financial and academic problems of considerable magnitude. I suggest that the campus community use the shocking-yet-unsurprising findings of this OES investigation as a watershed moment to honor and embrace a culture of welcome campus criticism and diverse perspectives. Without voices willing to give candid and even critical feedback of the institution, ASU will continue to find itself in a state of disrepair.
Dr. Gilmer, thank you for your willingness to listen.
Danny Ledonne, MFA
Dr. Gilmer’s response:
Good afternoon, Mr. Ledonne,
Thank you for your thoughtful response to the Mathieu Report and about extended studies at Adams State University. I assure you that I do not find it “without merit or consideration” and will indeed give it equal consideration to all of the other information I am receiving. Your time and effort in sharing your perspective are much appreciated.
Chris Gilmer, Ph.D.
Vice President for Academic Affairs
Adams State University