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Scholarship scandal in Louisiana

Baton Rouge, La.

Last fall when William “Bud” Davis, the
chancellor of State University, suddenly resigned his position in the
wake of charges that his office awarded nearly fifty minority
scholarships to White students, many educators and politicians around
the state sighed a collective relief that this most recent scholarship
fiasco appeared to end as Davis departed.

Louisiana is, after all, the same state where only four years ago
it was revealed that hundreds of legislators and local officials gave
tuition waivers — starting at $17,000 for two semesters — to their
offspring or close relatives to attend Tulane University. That
revelation prompted a furious public outcry that virtually closed down
the long-standing tuition waiver program.

But now a new scholarship scandal threatens to dwarf previous ones.
It concerns colleges and universities in every section of Louisiana,
and at least $82 million in state public student aid has been either
improperly awarded or bureaucratically mishandled.

“I’m sort of stunned by the extent of these findings,” Louisiana
House Education committee chairman Charles McDonald said upon reviewing
a forty-two-page copy of a legislative audit that surveyed only random
samplings of scholarships.

He isn’t the only one taken aback by the findings. The survey’s
author, state legislative auditor Daniel G. Kyle, repeatedly reminded
lawmakers that the problem is almost certainly wider and deeper than
his audit suggests. Another lawmaker on the committee said she was so
depressed by the findings that she didn’t even want to talk about it.
And Representative Carl Crane demanded more accountability, arguing
that those directly responsible should not only be disnussed, but
subject to criminal prosecution.

“For $80 million to $90 million dollars to be mishandled, I think,
is an embarrassment to the colleges and universities of our state,”
said Crane.

The legislator is particularly galled by the schools’ arguments
that their scholarship problems were mostly in the past. The audit
covered the 1995-1996 school year.

“I am sick and tired, after two years of us getting together and
hearing `Well, we did not have this in place, but the next time we come
up here it is going to be different.'”

Southern Stands Out

Kyle said that the problems have appeared in most of the state’s
public universities and colleges, including Nicholls State. Northeast
Louisiana, Southwestern Louisiana, and Louisiana State. However,
Southern University, according to Kyle, has received the most attention
because its problems with administration of the scholarships were so
many, so varied, and so grievous.

Appearing before lawmakers, Southern University President Dr. Leon
R. Tarver II said that the scholarship problems occurred largely before
he became the head of the Southern system. He said that since then, he
has implemented changes designed to prevent future similar scholarship
abuses and mistakes.

“We are now going to have criteria for every scholarship. We noted
in the audit that there was not a criteria for every scholarship
before,” said Tarver. “There won’t be a scholarship awarded that does
not have some criteria.”

Dr. Edward R. Jackson, the executive vice-president of Southern,
later explained that, until recently, there was little coordination or
control over who did the awarding of scholarships, who got them, and
how they were used within the Southern system — which has campuses in
New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Shreveport.

“But now we have taken a major step, and that is to develop a
system-wide comprehensive scholarship policy. This policy will take in
all of the institutions of Southern, and it will include all sorts of
scholarships,” said Jackson. He added, “We have, for example, covered
all of the academic scholarships to students based on the judgment of
only one school official.”

The report also said that colleges and universities violated their
own written criteria for selecting scholarship recipients.
Southern-Baton Rouge was particularly noted for failing to “maintain
adequate controls over financial assistance awards.”

Controls were so inadequate at Southern Baton-Rouge that some
students received scholarships even though their grade point averages
were as low as a D-plus. Additionally, scholarships not only went to
the children of the university employees but also the employees
themselves. A $500 minority engineering scholarship was given to a
student who was not enrolled in the program.

“Of 368 Academic Scholarships, 55 awards totalling $43,280 were
made without review and recommendation by the scholarship committee. .
. . The university was unable to document whether the Chancellor’s
office or the scholarship committee made the initial selection of
another 218 awards totaling $274,679.”

Remedial Administration

The audit also found that:

* Four universities (five campuses) awarded financial assistance to
students based on the discretion of just one official on each campus.
They included LSU, the Paul M. Hebert Law Center at LSU, Northwestern
State, the University of Southwestern Louisiana and Southern University
in Baton Rouge.

* Four colleges on six campuses did not follow their own written
criteria for selecting recipients of financial assistance awards. Those
schools were Grambling, LSU-Alexandria, LSU-Eunice, LSU-Baton Rouge,
Northeast Louisiana University and Elaine Nunez Community College, said
the audit.

* LSU-Baton Rouge and Nicholls State issued checks totaling
$150,000 to students rather than crediting the students’ fee bills.

Kyle said that criticism will be eased when comprehensive written
policies governing financial awards are in place. He also suggests that
the decision on who gets a scholarship not be left to only one school

Southern officials told the lawmakers that they had begun to
implement needed changes to their scholarship system even before Kyle’s
audit was released. They added that they had talked to the auditor more
than a year ago about his recommendations for solutions to their
problems, and that those recommendations were acted upon shortly

Jackson said the possibility of future scholarship problems has
also been significantly minimized by Southern’s new approach to
awarding financial assistance.

“We will now have oversight committees on every campus, and there
will also be a system-wide oversight committee to provide oversight to
the oversight. We, in essence, have a double-check built into the
system,” he said.

To the extent that Southern has improved the way it awards scholarships, many lawmakers express optimism.

“I am proud to see that the new president has taken a giant step
towards solving their problems. I have no doubt in my mind that these
problems are going to disappear,” said Representative Israel Curtis.

Crane agreed: “President Tarver has taken some very decisive action
and he is to be commended for that. But I am still interested in how
these things happened in the first place, and I want to know are there
still people working at Southern who did these things in the first
place? I think their ability to administrate and manage these kinds of
programs comes under very serious question.”

But McDonald said many of the questions that still remain may be
answered when a follow-up audit of Southern and Louisiana’s other
public colleges and universities is conducted next spring.

“We want to make sure that these policies and guidelines that the
universities tell us have been put back in place actually have been,”
he said. “We want to give the universities a chance to do something
about this. Each school may approach it differently. But, one way or
the other, we will be back in the spring to see how they are doing.”

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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