A St. Cloud State University faculty member who raised concerns about discrepancies between awarded and recorded grades said Friday that he’s not convinced administrators took them seriously, despite a recent visit by federal investigators.
“Academic integrity is something you can’t mess around with,” said chemistry Prof. Jack McKenna.
But university spokesman Adam Hammer said that nothing “scandalous” occurred and that there was no “wrongdoing,” despite the weeklong visit from federal investigators in late June.
The problem was an administrative issue that has been addressed with stepped-up internal communication emphasizing that “faculty needs to be consulted” if students are granted late withdrawals from courses or are allowed to drop courses after grades have already been awarded, Hammer said.
McKenna said he took his concerns to the administration more than a year ago after he and two colleagues found grade changes about which they had not been consulted. “The administration has not taken it seriously,” he said.
Although federal agents spent several days at SCSU asking questions, no formal investigation was acknowledged, so what the agents sought isn’t known.
McKenna said he was asked about grades being changed and courses being dropped from transcripts without faculty members being notified. Such changes could affect required course loads for financial aid eligibility and the status of student visas for international students.
He said he talked for 90 minutes with two federal agents. One, from the U.S. attorney general’s office, works with the U.S. Department of Education on fraud investigations; the other was an FBI special agent, he said.
Gregory Boosalis, spokesman for the FBI in Minneapolis, said the agent was there in a “support role” for a Department of Education investigator, a common practice. “We do not have a case open,” he said. “Currently, the information we have is that we don’t have any jurisdiction.”
A spokeswoman for the Department of Education in Washington, D.C., said she was unaware of the situation, but added that fraud investigators typically will not confirm the existence of an investigation.
Transcripts were improved
In the spring of 2012, McKenna and two other chemistry professors noticed that students’ transcripts had been changed without the required faculty authorization. Mc- Kenna said professors in other departments noticed similar changes, but most didn’t speak up for fear of reprisals.
Under Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system policies, students who drop out after 80 percent of the semester is completed must get special permission from the administration and faculty. Legitimate reasons for withdrawal or dropping would be military service, or medical or financial issues, according to McKenna and Hammer.
The chemistry professors said the students at issue did not fit into that category. Instead, they had completed the work, taken final exams and scored poorly, earning Ds and Fs. But later they were allowed to withdraw, leaving a “W” on a transcript, or to drop the course entirely from their transcript, leaving no evidence that they had ever taken it, according to McKenna.
Such changes would burnish a transcript. Unlike a poor grade, a “W” isn’t factored into a grade-point average. The erasure of a dropped course from a transcript eliminates the stain of poor performance from the permanent record.
Chemistry Prof. Tamara Leenay also noticed discrepancies in 2012 and gave the documentation to McKenna. “It was just odd, all of the sudden, these grades are being changed,” she said.
Leenay said she has been out of state on vacation and did not meet with federal investigators. She also said that since she discovered the discrepancies and shared them with McKenna, no one from the administration has talked to her about the issue or asked for her records. “I was just waiting for the process to take place,” she said.
McKenna said he went to Devinder Malhotra, provost and vice president for academic affairs, in May 2012 and asked him to personally sign off on late withdrawals and dropped classes.
“He said no. He considered it a nonproblem and just dismissed it,” McKenna said.
Malhotra did not return a call to his home Friday.
Memo requires changes
McKenna said that late withdrawals and drops used to be handled by only a couple of people at SCSU, but that the duty was dispersed to individual colleges and more staffers began handling them, leading to lax oversight.
Hammer responded that that problem has been addressed with a memo from Malhotra to administrators and staff about the process for withdrawals and drops.
Among the requirements is that the staff member contact the student’s professor and the financial aid officer to determine whether the withdrawal or dropped class affects a student’s aid status.
“We’re following federal aid guidelines,” Hammer said.
He said the university has not been notified of a formal investigation by the FBI or the U.S. Department of Education. He also said no agents interviewed the university president or the provost.