If you never got to experience the thrill of a fraternity rush at the University of Northern Virginia, the electricity of a basketball game featuring the UNVA Fighting Commuters, or the silent satisfaction of having your F-1 visa application validated, your opportunities are gone. (If they were ever there.) The University of NoVa, operating out of the ground floor of an office building on Little River Turnpike in Annandale, has been ordered to cease and desist after 15 years of operation, due mostly to the fact that it has been unaccredited by any recognized group for five years now, and also because it failed four audits by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia which indicated failure to hire “qualified faculty” or use “appropriate curriculum content.” Which are key elements in any good university.
The school, not widely known to many who thought they knew Northern Virginia, has had problems with its ownership, its record-keeping, indications that its chancellor was “a suburban sex-dungeon master” and with allegations that it was simply a way for foreign nationals to obtain a U.S. visa. It was one of the subjects of an investigation by the Chronicle of Higher Education in March 2011 about small for-profit colleges exploiting visa loopholes to recruit foreign students for big dollars.
In that article, UNVA founder Daniel Ho told a reporter that the school “is very profitable. Very profitable.” He acknowledged that, “I can sell degrees. I can sell diplomas. But I won’t,” he said. “Who’s going to supervise me, control me? Myself.”
Well, the folks at the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia, or SCHEV, had something to say about that. Beginning in 2007, it audited UNVA periodically, always finding “items of non-compliance” such as not documenting or reviewing its faculty or maintaining student records that show the requirements for admission. UNVA’s accreditation was revoked by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools in 2008, and the school never obtained approval from any other Department of Education-approved body again, as required by Virginia law.
David North, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, pointed out that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials raided UNVA in 2011, but then took no further action. North visited the Fighting Commuters campus last week, posing as a student’s “uncle,” reprising my own 2011 visit as a “reporter,” and counted four classrooms on site. “Somehow this tiny outfit managed to produce 189 alleged grads,” North said, “who got short term work permits (29 months) because of high-tech degrees from this place. They were the 18th largest university in the nation in this category.”
I called the university several times on Monday, but failed to get a human on the line. I also e-mailed the home of the Fighting Commuters (the mascot chosen in 2011 by the State of NoVa staff), in hopes of hearing from Ali Dastmalchi, the current chancellor and CEO, but have not heard back.
The cease and desist order issued by the state higher education council was first reported by Bre Payton at Watchdog.org, who also noted the university will have to refund any fall tuition money it has already collected. This leaves an unknown number of students in limbo, some of whom may have legitimately been trying to obtain a degree, even if from an unaccredited four-room school in the basement of an Annandale office building.
The state council’s chronology of the shutdown of UNVA states that the school was established in 1998 and attained accreditation from the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools in April 2003. But four years later, that same group denied UNVA reaccreditation, finding that there was “insufficient evidence that the distance education faulty is reviewed by the administration” and “insufficient documentation that the institution follows its Satisfactory Academic Progress policy,” among other problems.
The state council conducted audits in both 2007 and 2008 which found problems, their chronology notes. Meanwhile, a dispute erupted in court over who owned the school. A new chancellor, David Lee, asked the state council to allow more time to obtain accreditation. But nothing happened, and Lee resigned in August 2011 when his online search for an “attractive submissive” to live in his basement “dungeon complete with bondage racks” became public. I am not making this up. This occurred at the same time as the ICE raid, so that was a really tough time for UNVA.
The audits and the lack of accreditation continued, and in March 2012 the state council notified the university it was about to revoke its certification to operate in Virginia. UNVA entered an agreement by which it would at least be a candidate for accreditation by June 2013, and agreed to “extinguish Dr. Ho’s financial interest in the institution” and “ensure Dr. Ho relinquishes ownership and involvement in the administration.”
But still, according to the state council, the Fighting Commuters couldn’t get it done. The state council conducted another audit in October 2012 and found items missing from files. Dastmalchi reported that UNVA was seeking accreditation from the Distance Education and Training Council, which is a problem since F-1 foreign students must take classes at a brick and mortar location. However, according to the audit, “University of Northern Virginia has failed consistently to remain in compliance with such items as the hiring of qualified faculty, appropriate curriculum content and student disclosures regarding transferability of credits to other institutions.”
The state council’s audit concluded that UNVA “deliberately and continuously demonstrates its disregard for the requirements of Virginia law and regulation. The violations identified above are not merely technical in nature. They touch on the most fundamental provisions in [state law] related to minimal standards of academic quality and fair treatment of students.”
The cease and desist letter sent July 17 orders UNVA to turn over a list of all students, their visa status (many are from India), their financial records and the location of their transcripts. The state council said it would notify students that the school is no longer legally authorized to operate in Virginia, confer with the Department of Homeland Security to determine viable options for foreign students and estimate claims for unearned tuition.
And so the University of Northern Virginia is gone. There were never any basketball games, or fraternities, or any of that trivial college stuff. But the name could be a good one, a prestigious one, representing a wealthy and well-educated part of the country, for someone who wants to launch a legitimate replacement. And the rights to the Fighting Commuter brand and intellectual property are, at last check, still available.