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Posted at 01:03 PM ET, 03/12/2012

Complaint alleges UMUC made ‘hush money’ payments to disgruntled employees

A complaint filed with a Maryland auditor alleges the president of the University of Maryland, University College wasted tax dollars on “hush money” payments to administrators and professors so they wouldn’t talk after being forced out of the institution.


(The University of Maryland, University College. (From the campus library collection at the University of Montevallo, Ala., via Flickr.) )
UMUC President Susan Aldridge went on indefinite leave last month for reasons yet undisclosed. This complaint is dated Feb. 10, two weeks before her departure. It was filed this month with Maryland’s Office of Legislative Audits.

I obtained a copy of the complaint last week. Its author, a UMUC employee, confirmed he had filed it on condition he not be identified by name. An audit office official declined to acknowledge or discuss the complaint. He would not give his name but said he spoke for Legislative Auditor Bruce Myers. He returned a phone call placed to Myers.

Spokespeople for the university and for Maryland’s state university system did not respond to requests for comment, nor did Aldridge herself.

Following Aldridge’s leave, University System of Maryland Chancellor William E. Kirwan posted what he called an “important message” on the UMUC Web site. “I realize that it has been almost a week since I reported to you that President Susan Aldridge was on leave for an undetermined duration, which understandably raised many questions. Regrettably, the situation remains the same and it may be a few weeks before I can give you further information in this regard,” the statement says.

“Fortunately, the management team that has served under President Aldridge and has helped make this incredible University what it is today, is committed to push ahead and make sure UMUC does not miss a step in its climb up the ladder.”

The 91-page complaint document attempts to build a case that Aldridge and her top administrators effectively bought off large numbers of employees, terminating their employment and then paying them large sums in exchange for their silence.

“President Aldridge has surrounded herself with a cadre of shameless sycophants who are willing to terminate anyone who won’t play along,” the complaint states.

“Because many of these people have been misused and then abused, the Aldridge administration must be certain that they do not talk after they have been terminated,” the complainant writes. “Given the abysmal economy, most people are in too precarious a financial position to resist selling their first amendment rights. . . Given the number of people that have been forced out, this sum must be in the hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars by now.”

The complaint appears to be centered largely on the university’s Asia division. UMUC operates in both Asia and Europe and positions itself as a global university, featuring mostly online instruction and a large military clientele.

It alleges that the Aldridge administration concealed the buyout payments from state auditors by retaining terminated employees on payroll and continuing to pay their salaries until the buyouts were fully paid.

The complainant names 23 university employees he believes were terminated and invites auditors to contact them. One instructor was fired after challenging a UMUC test that he believed was too brief, the complaint alleges. Others were terminated for lapses in loyalty to the president, or because their positions were changed to less-well-paying jobs, the complaint states.

The complaint alleges that several employees were fired essentially for trying to uphold high standards. UMUC watered down the rigor of its academic product under Aldridge, the complaint states, as a way to make more money and move more students through their coursework at minimal expense.

In recent years, the university has converted face-to-face courses into online formats, reduced the length of full-semester classes to eight weeks, diluted academic content, inflated grades and weakened the statistical validity of end-of-course exams, the complaint alleges.

Employees who “attempt to maintain academic standards” are threatened with termination, the complaint states.

Some exiting employees were escorted out under armed guard, the complaint states, which it notes is unseemly for an institution of higher learning.

In one sample case, the author alleges a professor was fired in December 2010 after filing a sexual harassment grievance against a supervisor. The professor went home but remained on the payroll until the following August, when her buyout was complete.

“In order to receive monetary compensation for her unjust termination,” the complaint alleges, the instructor “was required to sign a non-disclosure agreement that prohibited her speaking about the terms of the severance agreement to ‘former colleagues, students, military personnel, and state and federal government personnel’.”

The complainant questions whether it could be legal for UMUC, a state entity, to write a contract that prevents a former employee from speaking to state and federal personnel, a group that presumably includes auditors and others who carry out the internal watchdog function.

Later, the administrator named in the harassment grievance left the university. He allegedly posted a message on the former professor’s Facebook page, saying, “Thank you for the $200K,” which the author takes as a reference to a buyout.

The complaint contains many more allegations; one, at least, is worthy of note. In a 2010 e-mail to UMUC faculty teaching at its Asian operation, an administrator announces that the university has introduced a new requirement that all laboratory students purchase “lab kits.”

The message explains that the lab fees are necessary to support purchase of lab materials. The amount of the fee is not stated. Many UMUC instructors thought the fees unfair.

“Because of our military contract,” the administrator continues, “we are not allowed to charge a lab fee or even mention the word, so please understand that the standard term is LAB KIT. If asked what is in the ‘LAB KIT,’ instructors will show the person who is asking the items that will be used in various laboratory experiments for the class be it chemicals, flasks, beakers, pipettes, dissection animals, etc.”

By  |  01:03 PM ET, 03/12/2012

Categories:  Administration, Finance | Tags:  UMUC, higher education

 
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