by Matt Rosenberg February 24th, 2012
An ethically dicey work-around to help University of Washington School of Social Work master’s degree students maintain eligibility for financial aid and tuition waivers led to the forced resignation of an assistant dean named William G. “Gary” Olson. The Bellevue resident is now an adjunct instructor at Bellevue College, and claims through his attorney he was wronged by UW for engaging in what was an accepted practice there – albeit one about which he himself raised the initial questions that led to his exit.
Well away from public view UW found last year in an Internal Audit division investigation that from 2003 to 2011 Olson, the Assistant Dean of Student Services at its School of Social Work, awarded 139 students passing grades in a “Readings In Social Work” independent study course he taught, even though they did no work for the course. According to the audit division’s report dated June, 2011 – and obtained recently by Public Data Ferret through a public records request – the actions by Olson rendered invalid more than $200,000 in financial aid awarded to 54 of those students. University officials firmly maintain that Olson’s actions were isolated and that strong corrective steps have been taken.
Financial aid for MSW candidates at issue
Most of the School of Social Work students involved were candidates for an MSW or Master in Social Work advanced degree. UW financial aid rules state in part that to continue to receive aid grad students must maintain full-time student status by completing 10 credits per quarter, and also emphasize in bold font that, “if you drop below full-time before the start of classes and aid has been disbursed to you, you will owe a repayment of aid.” At UW, 10 credits typically equates to two or three classes.
After pledging in the report to decide on Olson’s possible dismissal by the end of July, the school announced his departure in a July 13 email (link and screen shot) from the UW School of Social Work Dean Edwina “Eddie” Uehara to staff, forwarded to the school’s students by Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Emiko A. Tajima. It stated:
“I write to tell you that Gary Olson, longtime Assistant Dean of Student Services at the School of Social Work, is leaving his position, effective August 12, 2011. Between now and that time, Gary will be taking time away from his office. I know you all join in me in appreciating and thanking Gary for his many years of service and passionate commitment to the school and our students…..”
An isolated case, university says
Olson was classified as a staff employee, not faculty. Uehara said Olson’s resignation was sought and obtained. His attorney Neil Robblee of Edmonds said Olson was told he would be fired, otherwise. Norm Arkans, UW’s Associate Vice-President for Media Relations and Communications, said Olson “…was otherwise a perfectly good employee but had been doing things under the radar that were just plain wrong. The university saw a fire, took out a fire hose, and unfortunately someone lost their job.” Uehara said in her school the practice of awarding course credits for no corresponding course work was something only Olson did. Arkans added that despite claims to the contrary by Robblee, “as far as we know it’s certainly not a common practice at the university. When students get credit, they are doing work.” Internal Audit replied to a public records request for any other reports of the practice dating back to 2005, stating that none existed.
Students will not have to pay back tuition waivers
The “Readings In Social Work” course was referred to in the course catalog as SocW 599. The audit specifies that a total of 54 students got a combined total of $211,894 dollars in aid that was invalidated by the falsely awarded credits from Olson. Unwarranted aid totaling $122,782 to 25 students from the U.S. Department of Education is in the process of being returned, and the $13,562 in state Child Welfare Training Assistance Program money to 13 students has already been refunded, Uehara said. Another $75,550 in UW tuition waivers and medical benefits invalidly awarded to 16 students will not be recouped from them, Uehara and Arkans said, as the mistake was Olson’s, not theirs. However, the School of Social Work has offered to pay the money back to the University’s Graduate School.
Of the other 85 students, most were also on financial aid but unlike the 54 they had enough of a cushion in their course load so that the falsely awarded credits from Olson did not affect aid eligibility, Uehara confirmed. Thirteen of the 85 were undergads enrolled in the graduate-level “Readings In Social Work” course with Olson in order to receive career and academic counseling.
Olson first raised questions himself
According to the audit, concerns were voiced by the university’s office of Student Financial Aid after Olson himself “asked if it was a problem he was providing credits for no real work to students who had completed their requirements for graduation but still needed to be enrolled in 10 credits to maintain their full time status.” Olson “misunderstood and misapplied” more lenient credit-awarding standards for PhD students who have ‘”much more academic freedom to work at their own pace…for an independent study,” the audit said. Under UW scholastic regulations “demonstration of competence” specific to course materials is required for awarding of a credit in a pass/fail class such as SocW 599.
School’s corrective steps
The school has taken a series of actions in response to the investigation. In addition to discharging Olson from his position, the School of Social Work strengthened oversight of course work verification including independent studies, and has segregated duties concentrated under Olson to create independent study courses and also review and approve related study plans for enrolled students. And undergraduates will not be allowed to take SocW 599, which the school says in the audit was always intended to be a graduate level course.
Reached by a reporter at Bellevue College where he now serves as an adjunct instructor, Olson referred questions to his attorney Robblee, who claimed – contrary to what UW officials say – that what Olson did was a “long-standing practice” in the school of social work and “in at least one other department of the university” which Robblee declined to specify. A public database of registered voters shows that Olson resides in Southeast Bellevue with Dagmar Christine Schmidt, who is the director of student services at the UW School of Nursing.
“War On The Poor” by UW, Olson’s lawyer claims
Robblee added “the overwhelming reason for students to get the 599 credit is for financial aid.” Many are minorities, have outside jobs as well as aid to help finance their degree programs, and so to punish the practice approved by Olson is to declare “war on the poor” at a time of escalating tuition costs, Robblee asserted. Too much should not be read into the word “readings” in the “Readings In Social Work” independent study course, he added. The credits for the course were given by Olson to reflect the students’ general course of work as opposed to specific work for the course, Robblee said.
Olson – who is listed on state employee salary records as William G. Olson, and on property records as William Gary Olson – was paid $83,051 for fiscal year 2011 (July 1, 2010 to June 30, 2011) and another $3,611 as a part-time lecturer according to agency salary information on UW from the State Office of Financial Management. Uehara said Olson got no severance package.
Now teaching at Bellevue College
Olson to date has taken no legal action against UW related to his forced resignation despite hiring Robblee. He landed at Bellevue College teaching English Composition in fall semester 2011. This semester he is teaching the same class offering again, and developmental English for native and non-native speakers.
Prior to being hired as an instructor at Bellevue College, Olson told officials he had left UW and they “are being made aware” of the circumstances, Robblee said last night.
Bellevue College spokesperson David Sandler said he was checking who hired Olson and how much they were told at the time, adding subsequently in a written statement, “Mr. Olson was hired last October as an adjunct instructor to teach an English class during the Fall quarter, and is teaching during the current Winter quarter. We are currently gathering information about the situation and may have further comment at a later date.”