Karbhari steps down after UT System releases investigation alleging violation of policies, state law

President Vistasp Karbhari addresses students during Pizza with the President on Sept. 18, 2019, in the University Center. President Vistasp Karbhari has stepped down from his position effective immediately.

Updated at 5:53 p.m. to add a statement from administrator in charge Teik Lim.

This story is developing.

Following the release of a 2019 audit report that revealed UTA appeared to violate UT System and UTA rules and guidelines as well as state laws, President Vistasp Karbhari stepped down from his position effective immediately.

Teik Lim, provost and vice president for Academic Affairs, will serve as administrator in charge until the UT System finds an interim president, UT System Chancellor James Milliken said in a letter to the UTA community. The system plans to announce the presidential search soon.

Karbhari resigned March 4 and was originally to remain in his position until Aug. 31. He also recently withdrew his name from the University of Central Florida presidential search just after being named one of three finalists.

“I am grateful to [Karbhari] for his commitment to [UTA], and I commend him on the difficult decision to step down now so the university can devote its full attention to the important issues at hand,” Milliken said.

In January 2019, the state auditor referred anonymous complaints regarding UTA’s online education recruiting and enrollment practice to the UT System. The system then selected an outside firm, Protiviti, to independently investigate the allegations.

The audit, which the UT System released Thursday, alleged that UTA’s online education and recruitment practices violated UT System and UTA rules and guidelines as well as state laws.

Protiviti determined five key allegations to investigate from the anonymous complaints. It found three to be substantiated: an unfair/lax admissions process for online students through direct admission, that UTA officials were inappropriately influenced by a vendor and found that an administrator had an improper financial relationship with the same vendor.

These violations included using a direct admission program that allegedly allowed “potentially underqualified students” to enroll in an online nursing program and an improper financial relationship with Academic Partnerships, a Dallas-based provider of online program management, paying them more than $178 million over five years.

The program applies lesser enrollment procedural requirements to students seeking to enroll in the online programs referenced in the allegations.

UTA implemented the Direct Admit program without the approval of the UT System Board of Regents or advisory review by UTA or UTS compliance and legal counsel, according to the report.

“The Direct Admit program may have exposed UTA and [UT System] to potential legal liability,” the report states.

UTA senior officials hired the company to implement the admissions program to grow enrollment in the online nursing program, according to the report. It allowed online transfer students to enroll in one of the UTA nursing programs without immediately checking all of their underlying academic credentials.

Academic Partnerships staff were also granted access to UTA admissions personnel. According to the report, the vendor was allowed to provide input in admissions policies and decisions in meetings with Karbhari and multiple College of Nursing and Health Innovation officials.

On at least one occasion, Academic Partnerships offered to reimburse UTA for admissions officers’ overtime so that applications of potential students could be processed at a faster rate. This offer was accepted. UTA officials confirmed receiving over $4,000 in overtime money, according to the report.

The report alleges there was an improper financial relationship between Academic Partnerships and Beth Mancini, College of Nursing and Health Innovation senior associate dean. Mancini received $60,000 in compensation from Academic Partnerships, through university payroll, for services performed exclusively for the vendor.

Karbhari’s expenses and travel show two trips were for travel with Randy Best, the chairman of Academic Partnerships, to Bogota, Colombia in September 2014, and Morocco in November 2016, according to the report.

Protiviti concluded in their report that Karbhari’s trip to Bogota was not pre-authorized and violated UT System Regents’ Rule 20205: Expenditures for Travel and Entertainment by Chief Administrators and for the Maintenance of University Residences.

During one of the investigation’s interviews, Karbhari described Best as a “friend” but not a close one. Best is also listed as a member of the UTA Development Board. The audit claims Best and his company donated more than $2 million to UTA.

Before the report was finalized, Karbhari wrote a letter to Mike Peppers, UT System chief audit executive, saying "UTA categorically denies the allegations made in the report,” calling it flawed and lacking in evidence. UTA also submitted a 36-page document attributed as a “UTA management response,” that denied the investigation’s conclusions.

Protiviti made some edits and provided clarification but ultimately maintained the same conclusions.

Jennifer Burnett, UT System senior attorney and public information coordinator, said in an email that the investigation resulted in a reprimand and changes in policy and practice at the university.

In a statement sent to The Shorthorn Friday evening, Lim said every nursing student, whether online or on campus, must complete the same rigorous academic and clinical programs to graduate.

“UTA’s nursing graduates enter the workforce well prepared and contribute their skills and compassionate care in hospitals throughout the U.S,” he said.

Those that enter the university’s online accelerated nursing program must have a registered nurse license from their State Board of Nursing before they are admitted.

Karbhari did not respond to a request for comment by publication time.

About a month before Karbhari announced his resignation, Deborah Robinson, former vice president for institutional advancement, filed a $200,000 lawsuit against the university, claiming she was subjected to bullying and threats of termination by Karbhari.

Karbhari addressed the lawsuit, saying that it had “no basis,” in his in-person interview with the University of Central Florida presidential search committee on March 5.

@Brian_L8

@reeseoxner

@megancardona_

news-editor.shorthorn@uta.edu

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