U of Northern Va. moves to SD seeking lax accreditation environment
By Dirk Lammers
SIOUX FALLS (AP) — Website photos showing off the University of Northern Virginia's new main campus certainly look inviting: plush green grass lines a modern two-story office building, a fountained pond burbling outside as students attend class within.
But don't try jumping on the Washington Metro to get to class. The school was shut down by the state of Virginia for lacking accreditation, amid suspicions the school's primary function was to allow those enrolled to obtain visas.
The state found temporary shelter in South Dakota, which critics say lacks the kind of accreditation and rigorous regulatory hurdles used by other states to protect students and follow ethical and education standards.
"They must have been looking around for a soft place to land in terms of regulation, and they thought they found one," said David North, a fellow with the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies.
Roughly 1,300 miles from northern Virginia, the school's new South Dakota home is Suite 123, a vacant unmarked Sioux Falls office inside a building also housing a dentist, insurance companies and the state soybean association. An Oct. 25 letter to students from Chancellor Ali Dastmalchi said the "main campus, offices and classrooms are ready to accept and service new and returning students. Please check the winter term 2014 courses schedule."
University of Northern Virginia's status is unclear, and it's not known if the school is offering any courses online or overseas. School officials could not be reached for comment at the Sioux Falls office. A woman who answered the phone at the school's listed number in Virginia said Dastmalchi was traveling out of the country. An email sent to Dastmalchi was not returned.
The university's website offers a winter class 2014 schedule, a 2014-2016 university catalog and links to photos from the school's 2013 graduation at its Annandale, Va., and Prague, Czech Republic, campuses, but the school's Twitter and Facebook accounts have been inactive since 2012.
South Dakota law allows an unaccredited school to do business as long as it has an affiliate agreement with an accredited institution, a clause North calls "a silly loophole."
The state requires no site visit, no appearance in front of a board, no surety bond and no annual check-ins — common requirements in other states, said Matt Gianneschi, with the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based organization that tracks state policy trends.
"If they have a one-time authorization and it's just, you get in, you get out, you're authorized and it's a lifetime authorization, that's pretty attractive," Gianneschi said. "Once you get through that hoop, you can operate independently without any other oversight from the state."
Private universities used to not need a certificate to operate in South Dakota, but Gov. Dennis Daugaard's office in 2012 asked lawmakers to add the process to comply with new federal regulations related to student loans. Existing universities were automatically certified upon the law's passage, and new ones would have to apply.
Governor's spokesman Tony Venhuizen said the University of Northern Virginia received certification based on the paperwork it submitted, but questions have been raised about whether its affiliate agreement covered all of its programs. A complaint came in to the South Dakota Attorney General's office, which is investigating.
Venhuizen said rather than duplicating regulatory efforts, South Dakota has always taken a less heavy-handed approach with private institutions and has relied on the existing accreditation process.
"Any system you set up depends on the validity of the records that are filed," he said.
The University of Northern Virginia had operated in Annandale, Va., for about 15 years, once serving more than 1,000 students who were mostly from India. But U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials raided the offices in 2011 amid allegations that the school's primary function was to allow those enrolled to obtain a visa.
Virginia officials shut down the school in July 2013 after discovering it failed for the last five years to receive accreditation from any organization recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. ICE followed up in October by withdrawing the school's approval for attendance of nonimmigrant students. No charges have been filed.
Rather than shut its doors completely, the school headed west.
School officials sent an application to the South Dakota Secretary of State's office on Oct. 15, and three days later the office certified the unaccredited school to provide postsecondary education in the state.
The South Dakota Board of Regents, which governs the state's public higher education system, has no authority over private nonprofit and for-profit universities. A South Dakota statute that applies to anyone offering postsecondary education credit or degrees says an institution must be accredited by a U.S. Department of Education-approved agency or actively seeking accreditation for no more than five years while operating in South Dakota under an affiliation agreement with an accredited institution. The statute makes operating without an agreement a misdemeanor with a $25,000 civil penalty.
Northern Virginia had such an agreement with IGlobal, an accredited online school. That agreement was in place only until December, when IGlobal canceled the partnership. David Sohn, IGlobal's president and chief executive, said he signed the agreement with the understanding that qualified students from Northern Virginia would be able to take online IGlobal masters of business administration courses. But Sohn said he didn't know at the time that the University of Northern Virginia lacked national accreditation, making those credits unable to transfer to IGlobal.
"We found that later," Sohn said.