Area colleges among 15 being probed by state attorney general

Rob Montana

Whether or not a pair of local colleges did anything wrong remains to be seen, but what is known is that Alfred University and Alfred State College were among 15 institutions of higher education to have records subpoenaed by the state Attorney General's Office.

According to Associated Press reports, AU and ASC - as well as Harvard, Columbia, Northwestern University, American University, Brown University, Brandeis University, Fordham University, Manhattanville College, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Pace University, Cornell University, Siena College and the College of New Rochelle - are being probed by the New York Attorney General's Office to make sure study abroad programs are not cheating students.

According to the AP story, investigators are focusing on the schools after checking into a number of companies around the globe that help colleges provide study abroad opportunities and finding questionable practices.

Representatives from the AG's office did not return several phone calls by press time, but one official did speak with the Associated Press.

“We have certainly found indications there are financial relationships between some study-abroad providers and schools and some evidence of perks,” said Benjamin Lawsky, deputy counselor and special assistant to Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, in the AP report.

Alfred University issued a press release on its Web site Monday to inform faculty, staff and students about the investigation. In the release, AU President Charles Edmondson issued a statement that Alfred University is required to submit “the bulk of our records of international educational programs for 2005 and 2006.”

The subpoena from the attorney general's office for AU was dated Jan. 15, and Edmondson said in his statement that the university had no contact with the AG's office prior to receiving the subpoena.

“The subpoena gave no reason for the investigation and cited no specific acts or policies that may have precipitated an investigation,” he said in the release. “The university's attorney will attempt to contact the attorney general's office, but because today is a legal holiday we do not expect any communication before Tuesday.”

AU spokesperson Sue Goetschius said, to her knowledge, the university's attorneys had not made contact with the attorney general's office yet today. She also got the impression the probe was a broad-ranging look into how different types of colleges and universities deal with their study abroad programs.

“There has been no indication they're looking into any specific programs,” Goetschius said.

Edmondson also stressed that in his statement.

“No one has even alleged any illegal actions involving international programs by Alfred employees,” he said. “It is also important to emphasize that the subpoena identified no individuals, no practices or acts, and no specific programs that might be under scrutiny.

“The genesis of this matter seems to have no specific connection to Alfred University. As some of you may be aware, in August of 2007, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo announced his intention to investigate the financial relationships between college and university officials and individuals and companies that provide services in support of Study Abroad programs,” Edmondson added in his memo to campus. “Evidently, he believed that some of these relationships involved undisclosed and possibly illegal payments from providers to employees of colleges and universities.”

Alfred State College officials did not have a statement prepared by press time.

Lawsky told the AP that investigators want to know whether a school chooses a provider “because they're the best, the cheapest, the most cost effective or because there's a cozy financial relationship with the school and those who work at the school.”

Some schools that received subpoenas and document requests in recent days were chosen because of the nature of their relationships with study-abroad providers, but the group also could be a sampling of colleges and universities with study-abroad programs.

“There certainly is a much larger number of schools involved with these practices,” Lawsky said.

The study of 10 schools in New York state and five outside it occurs as the number of students getting academic credit for overseas study has risen 150 percent in the past decade.

During the 2005-2006 academic year, more than 223,000 U.S. students studied abroad, up 8.5 percent from the year before, according to the latest annual survey by the Institute of International Education.