A former dean at SUNY Cobleskill is alleging college officials admit students regardless of their learning abilities in order to draw in tuition money to balance the budget.
Thomas J. Hickey, dean of liberal arts and sciences from July 2006 until July 2009, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit on Nov. 23 against the college, its president , Donald P. Zingale, and Anne C. Myers, the college’s provost and vice president for academic affairs.
In the lawsuit, filed by Albany attorney Phillip G. Steck, Hickey contends he was fired for speaking out against “fraudulent and racially discriminatory practices in education.”
In court papers filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District, Hickey alleges the college since 1999 has been admitting students despite information provided to the admissions office which shows they can’t complete college-level coursework.
“These students are known to lack appropriate academic foundation to succeed at the college level without remediation. The college has taken their tuition for the express and admitted purpose of making budget knowing that these students are not reasonably likely to graduate,” the lawsuit states.
View the complaint
To view the complaint filed by former SUNY Cobleskill Dean Thomas J. Hickey in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York, click HERE.
The policy, according to Hickey’s lawsuit, targets African-American students in particular through recruitment in the New York metropolitan area.
Niether Zingale nor Myers could be reached for comment on Monday. College spokeswoman Kate Birchenough said officials there are not aware of any lawsuit and wouldn’t comment if they were.
Birchenough said it’s the college’s policy not to respond to questions about pending litigation or personnel matters.
Hickey contends in his suit he became involved in an academic review process described as requiring freshman students to achieve a 2.0 grade-point average in order to move on to their sophomore year.
If they were unable to meet that requirement, students would be dismissed from the college.
At one point, the lawsuit contends, the GPA threshold as it relates to academic review was lowered and even suspended for a period of time to keep students at the college and continue collecting tuition as long as possible.
“Using a lower threshold GPA meant that students could stay in the school longer even through they had no realistic possibility of obtaining a college diploma,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit cites a December 2, 2008, e-mail to faculty from Myers stating “in light of the budget, we will use a 1.0 cut off for first semester freshmen for Academic Review.”
In his capacity as dean, Hickey received a complaint about a faculty member from an African-American student who had a B+ in English Composition. But when the student put the complaint in writing, the lawsuit contends “it became clear that the student was functionally illiterate.”
Hickey, according to the lawsuit, then asked all humanities teachers to require a writing assignment in all their classes to assure that “functionally illiterate students do not escape detection and could be identified as in need of remediation.”
Hickey alleges he brought these issues up both to Myers and then to Zingale after Zingale accepted the college presidency, but they took no action to address the situation.
The lawsuit alleges students’ academic records were falsified “in order to facilitate the admission of certain African American students to the college.”
The lawsuit depicts a “racially hostile environment” at the college, rooted in the use of African-American student tuition money to subsidize agricultural programs “which run at an annual deficit, even though these programs serve white students almost exclusively.”
Myers, according to the lawsuit, initiated a review of Hickey’s functioning in his position as dean. Not long afterward, he was removed from his position.
The lawsuit was filed in federal court because the college receives federal financial assistance. It contends retaliation against Hickey for opposing racial discrimination in education is a violation of federal law.
Hickey is seeking unspecified compensatory damages including back pay, punitive damages and attorney fees.
Hickey’s attorney, Phillip G. Steck, could not be reached for comment Monday.
According to college statistics, there were a total of 2,619 students in the fall of 2008. Of those, 73 percent were white, 8 percent were black, and five percent were Hispanic.