UND Students Feel University Should Have Disclosed Financial Relationship With "Independent" Investigator

Earlier this year, in two hugely contentious meetings which saw administrators launching rhetorical bombs at student leaders, the University of North Dakota student government considered a vote of no confidence in President Robert Kelley. They claimed that the university was considering a tuition hike well in excess of what the Legislature called for and were excluding students from the process.

Ultimately the students tabled the vote after Kelley offered a memorandum of understanding promising, among other things, an independent review of the controversy. The photo above is from April and shows outgoing student body president Tanner Franklin, and incoming president Matt Kopp, signing the agreement (read it here) with Kelley. It was seen as a real victory for the students, and though Kelley denies it, it seems likely that his announced retirement shortly after this controversy was inspired by it.

Now the review has been completed, and a report released, and the students are feeling hoodwinked.

It’s sort of hard to say that the review was independent given that it was conduct by an attorney whose law firm has billed over a quarter of a million dollars to the university over the last five fiscal years, including over $94,000 in direct billings from the attorney herself. I wrote about it at Watchdog today:

Ultimately, after two contentious meetings, the student government opted not to pursue a vote of no confidence, instead signing a memorandum of understanding with university administration in July that called for “a neutral, mutually agreeable, third party” to review the tuition process.

That party was Sara Gullickson McGrane of the Minneapolis law firm Felhaber Larson, but that firm has received $250,000 in payments for legal work from UND over the past five years, including over $94,000 billed directly by McGrane, according to information requested from the university by Watchdog.

“It wasn’t truly the independent investigation I was hoping for,” Franklin, who has since graduated, said in a phone interview with me.

When I asked UND spokesman Peter Johnson about McGrane’s past work for the university he pointed out that Kopp was actually involved in selecting her. But Kopp says the scope of her past work for the university wasn’t something he’d been made aware of. And, if he was aware of it, he wouldn’t have signed off on McGrane:

“The University worked with student body president Matt Kopp to find an external reviewer he was comfortable with in terms of conducting the investigation on the tuition model process,” UND spokesman Peter Johnson wrote in response to an emailed inquiry. “We have found Ms. McGrane to be very professional and we have faith in the integrity of her work.”

But Kopp says if he’d been aware of the extent of McGrane’s past work at the university he wouldn’t have approved her.

“I’m disappointed that the depth of the relationship between UND and Ms. McGrane was not revealed to Student Government until after the review was completed,” he said in an emailed comment. “Had the extent of the relationship been disclosed prior to her selection, I would not have approved Ms. McGrane as the individual to serve as the neutral third-party specified in the Memorandum of Understanding signed last spring by President Kelley and Student Government. This naturally raises legitimate questions about the validity of the report.”

“It kind of shows their true colors,” Franklin told me. “That’s what students have to deal with at the universities. This round about, back door, make us look good administration. It saddens me as a student. It saddens me as a graduate. It saddens me that future students are going to have to go through that.”

Those comments strike me as spot-on. Even during a process that is intended to identify communications problems, and rebuild trust with students, it seems the university administration can’t help but be duplicitous and self-serving.

This is a theme with the university system. They are not honest brokers.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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