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Released December 10, 2003

ADMINISTRATION PROBE FINDS FLAWS, REDRESSES
POLICY IN GRADUATE ENROLLMENT PROGRAM

An internal audit conducted by The University of Southern Mississippi has found human error to be the cause for discrepancies in its initial enrollment figures for the fall semester. Administrators ordered a review of the university's implementation of the continuous enrollment policy after flaws became apparent in early November.

The continuous enrollment policy was originally established by the faculty's Graduate Council to help graduate students maintain contact with the university throughout their graduate studies. As outlined in the university's 2003-04 Graduate Bulletin, the policy also allows master's, specialist and doctoral students access to university and faculty resources and encourages timely completion of graduate degrees.

However, while the policy has been in effect for many years at Southern Miss, it has not been consistently enforced. After acknowledging the faculty and fiscal resources required to support graduate education and to assist graduate students with obtaining their degrees, university administrators decided to enforce the policy in an attempt to collect relevant tuition revenues for the fall 2003 semester.

Efforts to enforce the enrollment policy were presided over by the Office of Institutional Research under the direction of Dr. Susan Siltanen, formerly associate dean of the Graduate School. Southern Miss Provost Dr. Tim Hudson said it was brought to the administration's attention last month that there were "inconsistencies regarding the actions that were to be taken and the actions that were actually taken."

A resulting investigation found the following flaws in the implementation of the continuous enrollment policy: the university fully recognizes that the query of students was inaccurate, was not correctly validated and was not shared with the graduate adviser in each department. It also acknowledges the graduate student pool was not notified about its placement in the placeholder course (in compliance with continuous enrollment standards). It has also been discovered that because students were not notified by the university and thus did not pay tuition fees, many of them were automatically dropped from the system.

Due to the problems in successfully implementing the continuous enrollment policy, Dr. Siltanen has tendered her resignation as director of the Institutional Research Office. As a valuable member of the university family, Dr. Siltanen will maintain her role as a tenured faculty member, President Dr. Shelby Thames said. "She has had a successful career here at Southern Miss, and we expect that to continue," Thames said.

Reiterating the role human error played in the implementation of the policy, Dr. Hudson said that in no way were Dr. Siltanen's actions intended to harm students, faculty or the university. "No student's academic or financial records were negatively impacted. This is a situation of human error that has unfortunate consequences for the university," he said.

To aid in its review of the enrollment reporting process and the implementation of the revised continuous enrollment plan, the university has requested from the Board of the Institutions of Higher Learning the services of Dr. Phil Pepper, assistant commissioner of Economic Research. "We want to make sure that every number coming from our university, whether it is regarding enrollment, retention or graduation rates, is 100-percent accurate," Thames emphasized.

Final enrollment numbers for all state universities will be submitted to the IHL on Dec. 15. Numbers submitted at the start of classes in September were preliminary figures subject to fluctuations from dropped or added classes, nonpayment and withdrawals.

The administration has adopted plans to remedy flaws in the execution of the continuous enrollment policy for subsequent semesters. Actions to be taken will include reviewing the policy with the Graduate Council; compiling and thoroughly analyzing the records of graduate students who fit the criteria for continuous enrollment and notifying the correct students regarding the continuous enrollment policy; and enrollment needs and billing intentions of the university. Remedial actions will also include assessing the records of students who have not completed their degree programs but have not yet enrolled in any other course; working with academic departments to enroll graduates in an appropriate course at a specified, pre-announced time, should they fail to otherwise comply with disseminated policy and procedure; and billing those students for the one-hour course as is consistent with the continuous enrollment policy.

Faculty members who have had experience with graduate studies praised the continuous enrollment policy, saying it provides a much-needed service to students pursuing their advanced degrees.

"I have been working with graduate students for 28 years," said Willie Pierce, dean of the College of Education and Psychology. "This policy has been on the books for a number of years but until now it was hard to track the students. With the data capabilities we have now, we can and should keep up with them and continuously enroll them, which allows us to offer services to them such as continuous involvement with the faculty and library and technology resources. This is consistent with many universities across the country."

Dr. Hudson said because the continuous enrollment policy is both "faculty and student friendly and legitimizes the use of faculty, staff and university resources," Southern Miss will move forward with its implementation.

Added Dr. Thames, "It has been and continues to be our policy to make every decision in the best interest of our students. We have identified and acknowledged the mistakes, and we will move forward knowing that those same mistakes will never be repeated."

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April 20, 2004 4:09 PM

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