A jury has ordered Globe University in Woodbury to pay $395,000 to a former dean who said she was fired for complaining about unethical practices at the for-profit school.
Heidi Weber, 46, had sued the school for violating a state whistleblower law after she was fired in 2011 as dean of the medical assistant program. She had accused the school of using falsified job placement numbers and other questionable tactics to mislead prospective students.
Following a weeklong trial, a Washington County jury ruled Thursday that Globe had fired Weber after she made "good faith reports" of suspected violations of law.
She was awarded $205,000 for lost wages and $190,000 for emotional distress. Her lawyer, Clayton Halunen, said that Weber felt vindicated by the verdict. "Her only interest in bringing the lawsuit was really to expose what she observed was going on at Globe," he said. "Evidence came out about how they lie about placement rates, lie about salary ranges, lie about its accreditation."
Globe's lawyer, Matthew Damon, said the school is considering an appeal. "Globe's position is that she was terminated for performance and a lack of leadership," he said. He denied that any fraud occurred, saying that some of the job placement numbers were reported in error. "Every single time one of those discrepancies has been brought to our attention, we've addressed it," he said.
Weber, who lives in Stillwater, became dean of Globe's medical assistant program in February 2010. She maintained in her lawsuit that she was fired just over a year later for repeatedly raising concerns that students were being deceived.
Among the allegations was that the school published false job-placement rates for its graduates; failed to provide adequate training at medical sites; and paid admissions staff commissions to boost enrollment.
Weber has been unable to get a job since she was fired in April 2011, according to Halunen.
"What Heidi Weber reported was that the school was engaged in fraudulent conduct," he said. "Their only concern … is to enroll as many students as possible." He said he hoped the verdict "is going to expose them to more scrutiny."
Damon said the trial did not prove those allegations to be true. "There's a big difference between a mistake and a fraud," he said.
Damon said the jury may have been swayed by "a lot of irrelevant and prejudicial evidence" from two witnesses who testified about what he called unrelated issues. Globe has 30 days to file an appeal.
Another former Globe employee, Jeanne St. Claire, has sued the school for allegedly firing her after she complained that it was "greatly exaggerating" its job-placement rate. St. Claire was the dean of business from 2009 until October 2011. Her lawsuit is pending.
The jury's award follows several years of mounting pressure for accountability from for-profit schools. A 2012 report by U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, criticized almost every aspect of the for-profit college industry, whose schools educate nearly 2 million students nationwide, including tens of thousands in Minnesota.
The U.S. Education Department now requires schools to document whether students can find jobs that allow them to repay federally guaranteed student loans.
Globe and its affiliate, Minnesota School of Business, have 11 campuses in Minnesota, Wisconsin and South Dakota. It's part of the Globe Education Network, a group of for-profit career schools with more than 11,000 students.