External Audit Finds Major Problems, Recommends Shutting Down ASU Extended Studies


A recent investigation found the Adams State University (ASU) Extended Studies program to be “largely dysfunctional” with “very serious deficiencies” and “a culture of questionable academic practice that appears to have been in place for many years.” The report, conducted between August 8-11th, 2016 by Dr. David Mathieu found major academic compliance problems and organizational failures at many levels as well as “often greater interest in remuneration rather than quality teaching and the maintenance of academic standards among many of the faculty teaching online courses.” It describes faculty members personally enriching themselves in excess of $150,000 annually for many years in a row while overlooking major aspects of academic integrity. The investigation also found ASU awarding many interdisciplinary studies degrees in areas which ASU does not offer coursework. The report, recently published on the ASU website and available online here, concluded by recommending that the Office of Extended Studies (OES) be closed down entirely and replaced with an Office of Continuing Education.

As previously announced in a press release by Adams State on August 9th: “The university has undertaken a voluntary programmatic and fiscal audit of OES. The external evaluation is being conducted by Dr. David Mathieu of Minneapolis, Minnesota, former Associate Vice Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin system, who has decades of experience overseeing distance learning programs and guiding institutions through HLC reaffirmation.”

The audit included interviews with dozens of ASU staff and administrators individually and in larger groups. At least 14 sets of documents were also reviewed during the investigation. As Watching Adams previously reported, two OES employees and the former Vice President of Academic Affairs (VPAA) were placed on administrative leave during the investigation but were also interviewed upon request.

Among the findings of the OES audit (emphasis added):

“Thus, the span of control over largely distant instructional modalities grew steadily as departments and the university’s interest expanded and the University’s realization of the OES providing additional revenues drove the development of the current structure and the development of a quasi-independent unit of the University was set in motion. These actions occurred well before the tenure of the current President and VPAA.”

“It appears that several aspects of the OES’s responsibilities, however, became outmoded or no longer reflecting best practices in a period of greater regulatory and quality-assessed higher education nationwide. As the University attempted to maintain alignment with such changes, the OES became increasingly independent and rooted in older structural and reporting models. This appears to have contributed to a culture of separation from the university. This culture appears to have been maintained largely by the OES’s leadership and the Office of the former VPAA until the HLC Advisory Team began its investigation in late 2015.”

From this investigation, it appears that OES has become a largely dysfunctional unit and, organizationally, is out of date Vis a Vis the University as a whole. This dysfunctionality is further compromised by OES in its relationship with other offices of the University and what should be mutually dependent access to information and activities.

It should be noted that the dysfunctionality of the OES lies with its leadership and former university leadership, not with the OES or other office staff who are competently doing the work that has been assigned. The leadership of the OES and the Office of the former VPAA did little to correct what should have been obvious issues and problems that would soon seriously impact the University’s reputation and led to an HLC sanction of probation that threatens the accreditation of the University by the regional accreditor.

“At ASU, the continued use of Open Enrollment courses has frustrated attempts to remain in compliance with federal financial aid regulations. The continued use of Open Enrollment courses has additionally encouraged abuse of academic integrity, student engagement, and the maintenance of academic standards. OES staff and the Registrar frequently noted the ability of students to enroll in an independent study course very close to the end of the semester in order to meet athletic eligibility requirements and other needs. ASU staff reported that ASU’s open enrollment policies have attracted students from other institutions who need the open enrollment access to credit-bearing, degree program eligible courses for similar reasons, but academic policy at their own home institution prevented such abuse. It is clear that the academic reputation of ASU among peer institutions has been compromised via open enrollment.”

“In examining institutional payroll for year-end total compensation over a 4-year period of time, it was found that many members of the faculty and some members of the staff received in excess of $100,000 in total compensation with several individuals in the $150,000 range in total compensation and some faculty members, including adjuncts, even higher. This compares to the average new assistant professor initial academic year (9 months) contract averaging under $50,000. The ability of individual faculty to take advantage of additional compensation activities through OES appears egregious and to have been facilitated by “rolling over” course teaching and other activities to the same individuals year after year within OES as the list of names of faculty at the top of the highest levels of compensation appears to be relatively stable year to year.

“Evidence of the negative impact of extreme course load to the quality of online teaching was found through random investigator access to “live” and recently completed online courses of faculty with the largest course load and consequent compensation. In the majority of observations, these was virtually no evidence of student engagement by the faculty in terms of student discussions, regular course announcements, assignment feedback, or answering student email. The majority of courses appeared to be virtually self-taught although this was not the intention when the courses were designed and likely did not match the expectations of students given the information they received in OES promotional materials. Some random checks on student evaluations of faculty in this category confirmed these observations in many cases as they noted the lack of access or availability of their instructor. They also often noted the low degree of difficulty in the course.

“The conclusion drawn from these observations is that there was often greater interest in remuneration rather than quality teaching and the maintenance of academic standards among many of the faculty teaching online courses for OES.

Monitoring of the actual teaching of online courses is not undertaken by OES staff and is not viewed as their responsibility. It is instead viewed as the responsibility of the relevant academic department chairs. However, until recently, the department chairs had little access to the online courses as they were being taught in order to exercise quality control. The chairs now have access, but no evidence of training on using the online course access or agreement on what aspects of the teaching to be evaluated were identified in the review. This investigator understands that such training is now being provided to the Academic Council (council of chairs) and began during the fall 2016 semester.”

The Office of Institutional Effectiveness found that the percentage of Incomplete grades assigned from distance courses offered through the OES was 72.2% of all grades submitted. This compares to < 1.0% during the same period for on-campus, face-to-face classes. The prevalence of Incomplete grades compromises university efforts to assess Satisfactory Academic Progress as Incompletes are considered in the same category as grades of F and U (or equivalent Pass/No Pass designation). Such high numbers of Incompletes also suggest the lack of judicious use of the Incomplete grade and the implied ability of the student to actually turn in assignments to complete the course.”

It was reported and documented that Interdisciplinary Studies majors have been officially transcripted with emphasis in areas in which the University has no offerings such as “Interdisciplinary Studies in Construction Management”, “Interdisciplinary Studies in Child Development”, and “Interdisciplinary Studies in Public Safety”. Such notations on the ASU official transcript are misleading, inaccurate, and in violation of institutional integrity as seen by regional accreditors.

“The ASU Academic Catalog inappropriately states that the Department of History, Anthropology, Philosophy, Political Science, Spanish (HAPPSS) offers a master’s degree in humanities. As the HAPPSS Department cannot have degree-granting authority, the catalog is in error. Only the institution has degree-granting authority. (As an aside, it was noted that the name of this department does not include Spanish in the Catalog header, but does include Spanish in the departmental description immediately below on the same page. It appears that there may be a number of errors throughout the catalog.)”

“The reluctance of the OES to integrate with the remainder of the ASU administrative offices with the computing platform, Banner, as well as the reluctance of previous University administration to force the integration has created a situation where consistency of information being entered is not uniform and data integrity is compromised.”

“Review of the Human Resources area of the University website appears to reveal a lack of complete information regarding faculty and staff positions available at the University, particularly regarding adjunct faculty openings.”

The egregious, diverse, and arguably unethical nature of many of the findings run counter to HLC criteria for reaffirmation of accreditation to the degree that the accreditor felt it was necessary to move directly to an institutional status of probation. Due to the seriousness of the original findings, particularly in a state higher education institution that is part of a state higher education system, it was apparently felt by HLC that violations warranted a very stern warning. From what was learned in the current investigation, the sanction imposed seems justified.

“Although the locus of concern was the OES and its leadership, it is clear that the questionable practices of the OES were directly and indirectly supported by the former senior University administration as well as a variety of organizationally questionable practices of many kinds in other academic areas of the campus. There is, indeed, a culture of questionable academic practice that appears to have been in place for many years; a culture that further compounded the actions of the OES such that, for many, it became standard operating procedure that was rarely questioned.

The report’s findings include multiple areas of concern:

  • Organizational Dysfunction
  • Problems with Open Enrollment
  • Lack of Limitations on Faculty Course Loads and Enrollment Caps/ Consequent Inequalities in Faculty Compensation
  • Lack of Quality Control and Monitoring of Faculty Online Teaching
  • Misuse of Incomplete Grades, Irregularities in Records Submitted to the Registrar
  • Graduate programs of the University appear to be semi-autonomous entities with regard to course approval processes, graduate admissions, and degree authority
    Incomplete Integration of Administrative Computing Platform (Banner) Among All Administrative Offices of the University with Extended Studies
  • Complete and timely information regarding staff and faculty recruitment, position announcements, and the availability of employment information on the Human Resources/Employment area of the University website appears to be incomplete and inconsistent.”

The recommendations for fixing the many areas of institutional dysfunction include:

  • Close OES as an administrative unit of the University
  • Replace with an Office of Continuing Education with responsibility for customized training opportunities, workforce development, non-credit and credit professional education and development, community development opportunities, and ASU service contributing to the development of the San Luis Valley university service area
  • Reassign a number of existing staff from the OES to the Office of Continuing Education as well as other support offices such as business office, registrar, admissions, etc. as deemed appropriate and cognizant of relevant skills
  • End the existence of and access to open enrollment, credit-bearing, degree program- eligible courses as soon as possible
  • The recently implemented policy of limiting the number of courses faculty may teach above the normal load should be continued
  • Implement limitations on individual faculty earnings from all campus sources as a percentage above contract in addition to the course limitations
  • Continue the requirement of the TEED (new online faculty orientation course)
  • Establish clear departmental responsibilities for the monitoring of online faculty teaching via the department chair and/or “lead faculty” responsibilities
  • Initiate broad faculty discussion of the criteria identifying quality online teaching and learning and how these are to be assessed
  • Develop a new curriculum approval process for new courses and new course modalities that relies on departmental rather than individual faculty initiation
  • Limit the use of Incomplete grades to requests by students who meet more stringent completion criteria
  • Faculty continuing to assign abnormal numbers of Incomplete grades assigned should be reviewed by the relevant department chair and the VPAA/designee
  • Policy is required that standardizes transcript format and prevents transcripting of non-standard and non-approved academic program titles in accordance with American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRO) standards
  • Create the position of Chief Graduate and Research Officer/Office of Graduate Studies and Research
  • Complete integration of administrative computing across campus must be accomplished as soon as possible
  • All administrative unit staff must receive comparable as well as functionally relevant training in the existing Banner system and additional training as system upgrades are implemented
  • Post continuing solicitations for current and future openings for part-time faculty adjuncts so that a ready pool of candidates can be maintained at all times
  • All position announcements for faculty and staff positions must be listed in a timely manner on the University website in order to ensure proper implementation of affirmative and EEO-compliant hiring practices campus-wide

The report concludes that “the recommendations presented in this report are many and most amount to huge tasks that are much easier to suggest than they are to accomplish. This is understood and the size and nature of the tasks is appreciated. The recommendations themselves do not remedy all of the campus issues, but their launch will necessarily bring about changes in these other areas. It is strongly felt that the institutional and service area aspirations of the new executive, academic, and financial administration clearly require attention to the matters listed in the findings.”

The conclusion of the audit was described as “blistering” and “explosive” by ASU employees who first learned about it. Dr. Chris Gilmer, the new ASU Vice President of Academic Affairs, stated “while the university is not bound by this report, the administration takes the findings of the report seriously and will be considering the findings and appropriate responses through the lens of full HLC compliance, our top academic priority.” Gilmer is soliciting feedback from the ASU community in a response to the report by October 15th, 2016.

The external audit was commissioned after a report focusing on the ASU Extended Studies program’s lax security in the Chronicle of Higher Education led to an investigation and then a two year academic probation by the Higher Learning Commission, ASU’s accreditor, due to multiple compliance violations. See HLC Places ASU on Academic Probation for more on this timeline of events.