don’t say the f word

By on September 16, 2008

By Dennis O’Neil

On June 20, 2008, federal investigators marched into the College of Education and Human Development, emerging hours later with boxes of information pertaining to the activities of former CEHD Dean Robert Felner. Felner is now under federal investigation for allegedly misappropriating approximately $694,000 of the college’s federal grant money.
This was just the first of many dark days the University of Louisville would see. Nearly four months later, the charges haven’t stopped.
This past week, it was discovered through university records that John Deasy, then a California school superintendent, was awarded a doctorate in philosophy from U of L in 2004 after having only studied there for nine credit hours. This violates a university policy that says all doctoral candidates must study at U of L for at least two years, including one in full residency. Felner was the advisor on Deasy’s dissertation committee and had received a $375,000 contract from Deasy in 2002 for a research center that he was running.
U of L President James Ramsey formed a committee Wednesday to investigate the allegations against Deasy. The six member committee will be led by Interim Dean of Graduate School William Pierce, who said the committee’s objective is to investigate this incident and then submit a report to Ramsey.
“We set up the committee quickly and have been told to move as quickly as possible,” Pierce said. “This situation might be clean and there is no reason to believe there are a lot of these types of problems in the university.”
Pierce was quick to point out the severity of these charges though, stating   that they “strike at the heart and soul of the university.”
“If people don’t believe in us, we’re dead,” Pierce said. “We now have 100,000 people with diplomas from U of L asking themselves, ‘is this devalued?’ and I’m one of them.”
James Atkinson, a graduate student in the CEHD and another member of the committee, said the situation has special significance to him having come from Felner’s college. Atkinson said he believed his inclusion on the committee was due to comments he made to President Ramsey during a recent meeting of the Staff Senate.
“I told him I felt there was a lot being said about faculty and not enough being said about how this affects students,” Atkinson said. “I have lost advisors, and faculty members have left as a result of this thing. Now we are left without faculty to sit on our doctoral committees.”
For mathematics Ph.D. candidate Tim Brauch, the situation has immediate significance as well. Brauch, who expects to be done with his Ph.D. in May of ’09 and is about to start his job search, fears how a U of L doctoral degree with be viewed by possible employers.
“Everyone knows about [this situation],” Brauch said. “I can imagine someone looking at my resume, seeing the words “U of L” and asking themselves ‘isn’t that the place where they are just giving Ph.D.’s away?'”
Brauch also criticized the university’s reaction and treatment of the Felner investigation, calling it “slow” and “mostly reactive.”
“Even if you don’t want to comment on the investigation, you at least need to stand up and say ‘we’re fixing this,'” Brauch said. “They haven’t really done that until very recently. If the news hadn’t reported this Deasy incident, would the university have done anything about it?”
Pierce echoed similar sentiments, referring to the university’s reaction as, at times, “too slow.”
“I think that sometimes it is hard to believe that bad things like this can happen here,” Pierce said. “Things are moving more quickly now, but there have been times when the reaction should have been quicker.”
College of Arts and Sciences Dean Blaine Hudson, another member of the committee, said he feels the time for second guessing the administration is over, and that the university must be more forward thinking.
“We have to work with the CEHD and try to help them work through this,” Hudson said. “There are a lot of good people over there and they need our help. We aren’t in a place to sit in judgment on anyone.”
Hudson said any long-term changes to the university depend on what the committee finds. He said if they see indications of a systemic problem, then changes will have to be made.
U of L spokesman John Drees said that Ramsey plans to share the committee’s findings with the Board of Trustees, who will then decide the appropriate course of action.
“If there is wrongdoing in the administration of [Deasy’s] degree, then we will take the necessary steps,” Drees stated, “which could include rescinding his degree.”
Grants, credit card issues
In light of Felner’s alleged misappropriation of federal grant funds, students have begun to question how much care the university is taking with its money.
“It makes me question U of L’s oversight because obviously they are not doing a good job supervising the appropriation of their funds,” freshman biology major Jhalak Dholokia said.
According to Hudson, the grant process is different for each individual college, but each does contain layers of review.
“All of the money that is spent is monitored by several sets of eye,” Hudson said.
“All expenses have to be approved by a superior to the person who encouraged the expense,” College of Business Dean  Charles Moyer said.
According to Moyer, the COB does not have many federal grants issued, so they did not have to make drastic changes to the way they handle funding.
According to Hudson, the College of Arts and Sciences has had to make some adjustments to ensure that their funds are being handled appropriately.
“We wanted to be sure our policy was tight,” Hudson said. “So far, we haven’t found any problems. But, if there are problems we want to be able to correct them.”
Hudson said university issued credit cards, called procurement cards or “procards,” within each unit are also getting a lot more attention.
According to Moyer, procards can only be used for university expenses such as taking a potential donor out to dinner or setting up meetings.
“I think people are paying a lot more attention to the procurement cards,” Hudson said.
“The financial and faculty personnel policies are being reviewed at the central university level, looking ultimately at how the whole system works.”
Hudson said he feels that Felner’s alleged actions were unique,  and does not believe they reflect U of L’s credibility.
“The fact that the university has had a problem with one person doesn’t change the fact that the vast majority of university personnel take their responsibilities seriously,” Hudson said.
Some students have expressed disdain for the university though, saying the administration should keep a closer watch on the actions of its deans.
“This shouldn’t have happened,” senior psychology major Sean Hardy said. “In the future, the university should be more aware of their employees’ actions, especially when it comes to money.”
Accreditation concerns
The CEHD will also receive a visit from the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education this semester. Although NCATE President, James Cibulka, doubts that the college’s accreditation will be revoked, it may receive accreditation with conditions or accreditation with probation.
Barmak Nassirian, spokesman for the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, feels the university is at a critical juncture with this investigation.
 “If they attempt to do damage control, if they try to shield the facts from outside stakeholders, then they’re going to have trouble,” he said. “If it turns out that a degree was inappropriately awarded, the administration has to accept all the blame, depending on what the facts were.”
Drees acknowledged the seriousness of the allegations against the university and is confident that the administration is taking the necessary steps.
“This strikes at our academic integrity, which is the most important thing to a university,” Drees stated. “We’ve taken immediate steps to start investigating, to try to address the problem. This is vital to the university.”
U of L has also come under fire from the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) as a result of this incident. The commission, which requires all graduate degree candidates to gain the majority of their credit hours at the university awarding the degree, has said that U of L could face a possible warning or probation upon their next meeting in December.
Drees said that Ramsey spoke with SACS this past week, and notified them that an investigation into the matter had begun. He could not comment further.
Reflections on Felner
With Felner’s name attached to the CEHD, some fears have surfaced among students about the school’s integrity as well as its future after this investigation.
“The biggest concern I have is how it’s going to affect the students of the College of Education,” senior sociology major Mike Ognia said.
“I might be going to the College of Education for graduate school,” said Hardy. “This situation makes me question if I should consider a different school where they are not having issues with faculty and their handling of funds.”
Now that Felner has resigned and the CEHD is left to pick up the pieces, Hudson reflected that the amount of power given to deans could have helped originate this problem.
“If you look at the way the university is structured right now, deans and vice presidents have an awful lot of power,” Hudson said. “Maybe it was just a matter of time before someone abused it.”
But Hudson also said that, despite this understanding , he is still perplexed by what the university witnessed that day in June.
“I mean, Robert was Robert, but I don’t think anyone expected this,” Hudson said.
-Kara Augustine and Michael Kennedy contributed to this story.

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