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Turmoil roils UMD education department

A message board in the UMD Department of Education lists programs offered. The college’s failure to complete proper documentation for a relatively new program is making graduates worry about getting teaching jobs. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)1 / 3
Jill Pinkney-Pastrana 2 / 3
A person enters the College of Education at UMD recently. The college’s failure to complete proper documentation for one of its programs has affected some graduates. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)3 / 3

Mistakes made by employees at the University of Minnesota Duluth have led to at least 20 of the school’s teacher education programs failing to receive necessary approval from the state Board of Teaching.

That, on the heels of a teacher licensing snafu, has some students worried about the long-term effects on the college’s reputation, and whether the problems will affect their job prospects.

Meanwhile, a UMD faculty leader says morale in the education department is “abysmal,” and the problems have played a part in a donor’s decision to reconsider a $500,000 gift to the university.

A meeting held for students by the dean of the College of Education and Human Service Professions in late March drew pointed questions and comments from an often angry and confused crowd.

One student who spoke told Dean Jill Pinkney-Pastrana that he had advised his brother over Christmas break to enroll in a UMD education program.

“Over the course of the last semester my confidence that that’s a good plan for him … has severely declined,” he said.

UMD’s College of Education has come under fire in recent months for its failure in 2012 to properly document for the state teaching board changes to a dual-licensure elementary and special education program, resulting in a licensing headache for two dozen December graduates. Because that program never was resubmitted for approval, it ceased to exist and is now undergoing external review — what could be a months-long process.

Since that discovery in October, several other education programs have been invalidated after UMD failed to update them accurately, even on an extended deadline. While students currently enrolled in these programs probably won’t face problems, UMD can’t enroll new students — probably a small number because of enrollment deadlines — in early childhood and secondary education programs until the programs are in good standing.

Many of the college’s education programs were set to be updated by last June, as a matter of routine. When that didn’t happen, an extension was granted by the Board of Teaching through January. Those programs were submitted and approved, but UMD then found that what it had submitted was out of date. That meant the Board of Teaching had to disapprove those programs. Now they’re in a review process that may take up to six months.

What happened with the dual-licensure program — also known as the integrated elementary and special education program, or IESE — illustrated “a fairly drastic scenario,” said Erin Doan, executive director of the Board of Teaching.

Reports for the other programs had been sent in as required, but no longer accurately reflected what was being taught.

“Because the board really relies on the accuracy and the attention to detail … in order to approve things, that’s considered a fairly serious issue to have programs reported that are not accurate,” Doan said.

POSSIBLE EFFECTS

The December graduates of the IESE program were able to apply for a temporary license if they had a job offer — which UMD has said it will pay for — but it might have been difficult for some to find work with such a license, said Tim Sworsky, human resources manager for the Duluth school district.

There are many applicants for jobs in elementary education, Sworsky said, and districts might not want to bother with the “limited license” process. Graduates looking for one of the more plentiful special education positions would have an easier time, he said.

The Duluth district has hired some of those December graduates as casual or long-term substitute teachers. UMD’s issues have been well-publicized, so most Northland districts, at least, are aware of what happened, Sworsky said. Duluth Superintendent Bill Gronseth said the district wouldn’t hold “paperwork errors” made by employees against graduates.

The Board of Teaching on Friday was set to grant UMD the ability to recommend those and future graduates of the IESE program for regular licensure, along with graduates of the other programs in question even as they’re under review. Information on what action the board took wasn’t available Friday night.

To Pinkney-Pastrana, that move would be an indicator of confidence in UMD’s curriculum.

Because many students already enrolled for next fall’s classes, few will be affected by the review process and its hold on new enrollments — unless the process isn’t completed and in UMD’s favor by next fall when spring enrollment takes place for many of the programs, she said.

Those affected could include transfer and certain post-baccalaureate students, who may have to enroll elsewhere. Pinkney-Pastrana said she was unaware if anyone had been turned away at this point.

She understands the irritation felt by students and their families, she said, and that the actions taken by the Board of Teaching have made people question the integrity of the education offered by UMD.

“Doubts have been raised,” she said, “and that has hurt. … The only thing we can do is keep saying we are solid.”

Amethyst Stegbauer is a freshman and president of the Education Minnesota Student Association at UMD. She’s enrolled in the IESE program and probably won’t be affected by any of the current issues. But the fact that they exist, she said, is frustrating for students.

“I think it definitely looks bad,” she said, because it makes people wonder what’s going on within the college. Still, she said, things will be sorted out, and future students shouldn’t be affected.

Megan Ruf, a post-baccalaureate student enrolled in the unified early childhood program, said she has no concerns about UMD, and views the situation as something that was “leaked to the media and blown out of proportion.”

Students with concerns should reach out to the Board of Teaching, said Betsy Talbot, consumer protection advocate for the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.

“There have been some missteps and miscommunication,” Talbot said, and UMD should have been more forthcoming with information. That it wasn’t led to increased stress for students, she said.

Students have pointed out that some were alerted to the licensing issue through social media, or the press. Pinkney-Pastrana said she didn’t do “a very good job” of handling the dissemination of the news.

“I was assuming it was a problem we would be able to solve very quickly and it wouldn’t impact students,” she said, noting something should have been sent to students “right away.”

Talbot said potential students shouldn’t let what happen affect a decision to attend UMD, especially freshmen who have general education classes to complete before starting more advanced degree-specific courses.

“This is not a reflection of the quality of education UMD is providing,” she said.

Gronseth said the Duluth school district has many partnerships with UMD, “and our experience with their students is that they are very well-trained,” he said.

HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?

UMD points to leadership transitions, a new, electronic recording system and poor communication as explanations for the mistakes made. The university takes “full responsibility” for what happened, said Andrea Schokker, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs.

She did note “communication issues” on the part of both UMD and the Board of Teaching.

It’s a human resources issue as to who failed to update programs, Schokker said, and it doesn’t fall on one particular person.

“Everyone wants to know who is at fault. Usually it’s broader than that,” she said. “There’s not some smoking gun. We’re investigating what exactly happened and where did things go wrong, and how can we make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Paul Deputy, a former longtime dean who retired in June 2012, said the original IESE program was approved by the Board of Teaching before it was implemented. During his time, all students who completed the program received their licenses, he said.

Doan said changes for that particular program were rolled out in the fall of 2012.

Pinkney-Pastrana said the documentation delays and mistakes showed a lack of rigor and oversight for such matters within the education department.

“As a dean coming into a nationally accredited teacher education program, you never would expect to find those irregularities,” she said. “This is very basic stuff.”

More than a dozen former and current College of Education and Human Service Professions faculty and staff members declined to be interviewed or wouldn’t speak on the record.

Talbot said what happened is a reminder to review policies and procedures regularly,

“especially when there is a change in leadership.” Those stepping into a new role should “do a regular audit of this type of situation,” she said.

Pinkney-Pastrana became dean during the summer of 2013. Bruce Munson held the position in the interim, stepping in for Deputy.

LOW MORALE

Four human resources complaints — all still open — have been filed against Pinkney-Pastrana at UMD since she began in 2013. Of the other four UMD deans, two have had one complaint each filed against them, the others none.

 A mediator has been brought in to deal with issues between some faculty and staff within the College of Education and Human Service Professions and its administration.

UMD Faculty Council President Steve Matthews has heard less-formal complaints from five education department members, and said morale in that department is “abysmal.”

“There is unquestionably a culture of fear. something the Faculty Council is concerned about,” Matthews said, noting it affects employees’ ability to best serve their students. “The very establishment of a culture of fear shows a problem at the management level.”

What should have been a minor crisis, he said, referring to the failure to update programs, turned into something bigger and “divisive” because leadership didn’t pull staff together.

Pinkney-Pastrana, who previously was chairwoman of the Department of Education Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, said mediation was needed to deal with stress and tension. She said UMD’s $6 million budget shortfall has put employees on edge, and new college leadership and paperwork issues added to that.

“People want to go back to the way things were,” she said, noting complaints against her arose out of “assumptions” and some “personal vendettas.”

The college is doing “groundbreaking” things, she said, and she’s “not out to undermine (employees), but work side by side with them.”

UMD takes conflict seriously and is dealing with it, Schokker said, noting the university has confidence in Pinkney-Pastrana.

The culture at UMD — including but not limited to that of the College of Education and Human Service Professions — led Tom Peacock, former associate dean of the College of Education and endowed chair for American Indian education, to change his planned giving to the university.

During the past few years, UMD has become “highly politicized,” he said, and he didn’t want to be a part of it. He’s heard from former colleagues who described “a bunker mentality,” which didn’t exist, he said, when he worked there until 2009.

“Like all places, it has its issues,” Peacock said. “But I think there is an atmosphere that people are hiding in their rooms, wondering who is going to get fired next.”

He and his wife together would have contributed nearly $500,000 for a trust at UMD. Instead, he’s establishing his own trust for scholarships.

WHAT’S NEXT

Although Pinkney-Pastrana told students in March that secondary education programs would be approved at Friday’s Board of Teaching meeting, Doan said paperwork had yet to be submitted and that the matter wasn’t on the agenda. The board was set to disapprove UMD’s early childhood programs on Friday.

Doan noted that it probably won’t take six months to review early childhood and secondary education programs, which include social studies for grades 5-12 and physics for grades 9-12.

Schokker — who said going forward the education department will have a “belts and suspenders” approach to dealing with things necessary for the Board of Teaching — said she is worried that UMD will lose future students because of procedural issues.

UMD’s education programs, including the unique IESE course of study, are good, she said, and their graduates find jobs.

“The hardest part is knowing we may not have students coming into a program that would have benefited them,” she said, “simply because of perception.”