On October 30, 2021 I read a Dickinson Press newspaper article titled “DSU students demand resignation of university president, VPAA and dean”. In the first paragraph of this newspaper article, there is this statement:
“They highlight allegations of code of conduct abuses, including overreach of administrative authority, incompetence and allegations of illegal conduct and fraud.”
When I read this statement, I thought to myself, wow, those are some pretty serious accusations. If there isn’t some real evidence for these accusations, the person saying or writing these allegations could be opening themselves up to liability for slander, libel, defamation charges in civil court.
Later, on November 19, there was a Dickinson Press newspaper article titled “NDUS investigation finds improper procurement in DSU contract”. The first paragraphs of this newspaper article reads:
“Multiple Eide Bailly Fraud Hotline complaints prompted an NDUS investigation that concluded findings that DSU was improper in their informal procurement process for instructional design with Wyoming-based Learning Corps.”
At first, I had absolutely no idea from the title of this newspaper article, or the first paragraph of this article, that this had anything to do with the DSU student petition demanding the termination or resignation of DSU president Stephen Easton and vice-president of academic affairs Debora Dragseth. However, after reading this entire newspaper article, the sequence of events described in this article does appear to fulfill the quote in the DSU student petition: “…allegations of code of conduct abuses, including overreach of administrative authority, incompetence and allegations of illegal conduct and fraud.”
From my reading of this Dickinson Press newspaper article, here is a timeline of events:
- DSU president Stephen Easton contacts his friend, Dr. Maggi Murdock, at the University of Wyoming to speak to her about her expertise in online learning.
- UW Dr. Maggi Murdock, says to DSU president Stephen Easton that she was just beginning to start her own online learning business, Learning Corps LLC.
- DSU president Stephen Easton then recuses himself from the hiring or contract process, and turns this over to vice-president of academic affairs Debora Dragseth.
- Debora Dragseth turns over the hiring/contract process to an un-named academic affairs employee.
- This un-named academic affairs employee “selects”, and awards contract for online learning to Stephen Easton’s friend UW Dr. Maggi Murdock’s Learning Corps LLC.
- Several people file whistleblower complaints for what appears to them to be violations of code of conduct, rules, procedures, and laws.
- NDUS, North Dakota University System’s Office of Compliance and Ethics, investigates and finds that DSU violated “at least seven laws or procedures”.
I was kind of shocked after I read this entire newspaper article. I already said that from the title of this newspaper article, and the first paragraph of this article, I had no idea that it was going to disclose a series of events that actually match up to the DSU student petition “…allegations of code of conduct abuses, including overreach of administrative authority, incompetence and allegations of illegal conduct and fraud.”
In order to describe what I read and what this means to people reading my blog post, I was going to create a hypothetical situation where the reader imagines that they are president of DSU, or the mayor of Dickinson, or the head of the Stark County Public Works department, and they need to have pavement marking done for streets and parking lots. Would they think that it is O.K. to call their friend in Wyoming, eventually award them the contract for pavement marking, without putting out a public advertisement for bid proposals, giving all in-state contractors a chance to bid on the work, receiving competing bids from other contractors to compare pricing before spending public money collected through taxes?
In the Dickinson Press newspaper article, the response or explanation covering the DSU president, vice-president of academic affairs, and others, was something like “I didn’t know, I was no longer involved”, or “I didn’t know”. These responses appear to have spared any personnel involved from any kind of disciplinary action, penalty, or punishment from the North Dakota University System’s Office of Compliance and Ethics. In other words, no one involved came out and said, “Yes, I knew what the NDUS rules and procedures were for selecting and hiring contractors, but I went ahead and awarded the contract anyway.”
If there was some kind of formal hearing on the allegations in the DSU student petition for the removal of DSU president Stephen Easton and vice-president of academic affairs Debora Dragseth, addressing the specific allegations of code of conduct abuse, overreach of administrative authority, incompetence, illegal conduct, and fraud, would the answers “I didn’t know, I was no longer involved” or “I didn’t know” be sufficient? I don’t think so, I think in a formal hearing the adjudicators would have to consider the following:
- Would a reasonable and prudent public university administrator involved in the selection and hiring of a contractor understand that directly hiring a contractor without following the NDUS procurement process, awarding the contract to a friend, without receiving any competing cost comparisons, is an ethical violation and a code of conduct violation?
- Would a reasonable and prudent public university administrator understand that they do not have the authority to bypass and not follow the North Dakota University System’s procedures and rules for publicly advertising work, receiving a minimum number of competing bid proposals, and selection of the most competent and cost efficient proposal?
- Would a reasonable and prudent public university administrator know and understand that there are NDUS rules and procedures that must be followed in awarding contracts for work?
- Are university administrators responsible for oversight of subordinates who are asked by them to perform such work as handling the selection of contractors for work and the award of contracts?
- In the selection of contractors and the award of contract for this online learning work, was there any deliberate attempt to commit fraud, was there any knowledge or understanding by personnel involved that NDUS rules and procedures were not being followed?