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Clean Audit Gives Grambling Hope for the Future

Clean Audit Gives Grambling Hope for the Future
Officials celebrate financial makeover, turn attention to other areas in need of review
By Scott DyerGRAMBLING, La.
Grambling State University scored a major victory in its fight to remain accredited last month when the historically Black school received its first unqualified audit in five years.
Accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) is critical for Grambling because nearly 90 percent of its students are currently receiving Pell Grants or other aid linked to accreditation. The accrediting agency had placed Grambling on probation in December, and had set a deadline of Sept. 25 for Grambling to produce audits for the past two fiscal years.
“Without this audit, we had no hope for the future because we felt SACS would have to uphold its own standards and not allow us to be reaffirmed (for accreditation),” says Dr. Sally Clausen, president of the University of Louisiana System that includes Grambling.
Auditors refused to render an opinion for the 2000-2001 fiscal year, saying that the school’s books were in such disarray that they could not “crosswalk” between the financial statements to the ledgers to verify the original documentation.
But auditors gave Grambling a clean or “unqualified” audit for the 2001-2002 fiscal year, largely due to the efforts by the school’s new financial chief, Billy Owens.
While Grambling officials were hoping the auditors would issue unqualified audits for both fiscal years, Clausen said a clean audit for the 2001-2002 fiscal year was the most essential.
“What SACS absolutely required was that the last year had to be unqualified — and that’s where most of the effort was,” Clausen says.
SACS is sending a team of higher education inspectors to Grambling late this month, and is slated to consider possible reaffirmation of the school’s accreditation during a December meeting in San Antonio.
In the meantime, Clausen said she has arranged for a Baltimore higher education expert to perform a “complete institutional review” of Grambling as soon as possible. The expert, James Fisher, recently completed a similar review of the University of Louisiana at Monroe, which has also suffered recent accreditation woes.
“Up until now, all of our efforts at Grambling were focused on the audits,” Clausen says. “But we recognize that other areas on the campus need attention as well.”
Clausen said she wants Fisher to “do a clean sweep of virtually everything” from the academic programs to student affairs to institutional research to the annual Bayou Classic football game with cross-state rival Southern University.
“This will give us an opportunity to work ahead of time on those things that we need addressing before somebody like SACS or a board or a reporter or a district attorney says we’re not doing something we should be doing — we’re trying to be proactive,” Clausen said.Rumors spark national concern
In recent months, Grambling’s accreditation woes made national headlines, and Clausen says she received calls from concerned high-ranking officials across the nation about the school’s status.
“I’ve had calls from the U.S. Department of Education; I’ve had calls from the White House; I’ve had calls from the U.S. Senate — and not just Louisiana’s senators — asking how Grambling was doing,” Clausen says.
“They all want to know if the rumor is true that Grambling may be shutting down,” she added.
The rumors were so widespread that Grambling’s interim president, Dr. Neari Warner, wrote letters to 5,000 current and prospective students last summer to dispel rumors that the school was on the verge of shutting down.
Enrollment at Grambling has progressively decreased since 1993, when it enrolled 7,833 students. When Warner took over as the school’s interim president in early 2001, enrollment had fallen to 4,500 students.
Warner noted that between 1993 and 2001, Grambling’s faculty decreased by 30 percent, compared to the 43 percent drop in enrollment. But Warner said she was stunned to learn that during the same period, the number of non-teaching staff increased by nearly 20 percent. Warner responded by laying off more than 100 staffers in the fall of 2001.
“We had to make this bold move because our agenda is Grambling State University,” Warner says. “We were in favor of saving Grambling State University as opposed to individuals who perhaps were doing those things that they should not have been doing,” she added.
Despite the adverse publicity surrounding accreditation, Grambling’s headcount this fall totaled 4,462, a decrease of only 38 students compared to last fall. And Warner noted that freshman enrollment actually increased by 18 percent this fall to 1,057, the highest number of freshmen since 1996.
“The rising freshmen enrollment is a good indicator that, despite the rumors and negative media coverage, Grambling State University’s reputation is good throughout the state and the nation,” Warner says.
Warner also thinks it’s unrealistic to expect Grambling to ever build its enrollment up back up to the 7,833 recorded in 1993.
“We’ll always be measured by that high number of students in 1993, but we’re not expected to ever have that number again. Grambling cannot really accommodate that number of students. How they did it is a mystery to me,” she says. For Warner, a more realistic goal is between 6,000 and 6,500 students.
One of the biggest factors in Grambling’s financial woes has been the lack of administrative stability, according to Warner. Since 1993, Grambling has had five presidents, five vice presidents of academic affairs and seven vice presidents of finance, she says.steering clear of troubled waters
According to Warner, one of the biggest heroes in Grambling’s accreditation effort is the school’s new financial chief, Billy Owens.
Owens was hired in 2001 from Chicago-based Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity), which was founded by activist Jesse Jackson in the 1970s to strengthen the economic interests of African Americans.
Louisiana Legislative Auditor Dan Kyle, who is responsible for auditing Louisiana’s public colleges, credited Owens with a Herculean effort that included a makeover of the school’s financial staff. Kyle said when his auditors went to Grambling to audit the 1998 and 1999 fiscal years, they found “an absolute disaster.”
The school was in the process of converting to a new computerized accounting system when several key people quit, Kyle says.
“They lost the only people who understood the new system, and they had a system running with people putting information into it who simply didn’t know what they were doing,” he added.
In all, Kyle assigned 15 auditors to Grambling, and they put in over 6,400 hours to complete the audit. Kyle’s auditors did find 13 minor irregularities in internal controls, policies and procedures in their review of the 2001-2002 fiscal year. And in a separate investigative report, the auditors alleged that a former Grambling athletics department employee, Ruby Franklin, illegally took some $35,000 in ticket revenues between July of 1998 and August of 2001.
Kyle alleged that Franklin altered checks made out to the Grambling Athletic Department and diverted the money to the Grambling State University Baptist Student Union, which she controlled. Franklin spent about $4,500 of the money to pay vendors and employees of the Baptist Student Union, and admitted to spending the rest of it herself, Kyle said. Franklin has since resigned and Kyle has turned the evidence over to the local district attorney for prosecution.
Besides the audit problems, Clausen said the SACS had found other deficiencies with Grambling, including deficiencies in the library structure and the availability of resources. Clausen said the inspection team would be closely monitoring the school’s progress in those areas during its site visit next month.
“They will be here to verify that those deficiencies were indeed addressed appropriately, not just on paper,” Clausen said. SACS is slated to make a final decision on Grambling’s re-accreditation in December.

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