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Shaking the foundation at AFA 

After a half-century of taking pride in being at the pinnacle of academic rigor, the Air Force Academy now faces an investigation that could unhinge that reputation — and deal grave consequences to top leaders.

Based on allegations from two whistleblowers, the Air Force Inspector General's office has opened a formal investigation of two AFA leaders for allegedly misrepresenting faculty credentials to the academy's accrediting agency.

The alleged actions of dean of faculty Brig. Gen. Dana Born and vice dean Col. Richard Fullerton, if substantiated, would be the equivalent of crimes under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. If the allegations are proven to be true, Born and Fullerton could face court-martial with punishment that includes dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of pay and prison time.

In addition, the accreditation agency has authority to impose sanctions that could threaten the ability of cadets to transfer credits to accredited institutions when they seek advanced degrees.

Born allegedly failed to obey an order or regulation by "inaccurately portraying the academic credentials" of faculty to the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, the Inspector General's Office says in a letter to complainants. Fullerton is accused of making a false official statement about faculty members' qualifications when he wrote the academy's 2009 Institutional Self-Study report, the IG's office says.

"The Air Force Academy, as an institution of higher learning, relies on objective accreditation as a confirmation of its legitimacy," says one of the two whistleblowers who raised the allegations but asked not to be identified for fear of retribution in legal matters involving the academy. "If that process was flawed to cover up any shortcomings of the instructor corps, then the very accreditation of the Air Force Academy as an institution of higher learning comes into question."

The other whistleblower makes a separate point, saying, "If those two individuals did commit those acts, it is especially serious because they are in positions of leadership where they were supposed to be role models of core values for the cadets."

The academy declined to comment.

Accreditation threat

The Higher Learning Commission, based in Chicago, accredits more than 1,000 colleges and universities in 19 states, including Colorado. At present, 19 schools have accreditation actions against them, the commission's website shows, ranging from being "on notice" to no longer being accredited. (Many schools choose to withdraw from accreditation rather than have it canceled.)

Accreditation is based on criteria involving mission, integrity, future preparation, application of knowledge, service, student learning and effective teaching, notably "qualified faculty." Being accredited assures a school's credit hours can be transferred to other accredited institutions, and can be a requirement for federal and state grants and scholarships.

The commission can sanction institutions, including canceling accreditation, when criteria aren't met. The academy's long-standing accreditation, which hasn't been interrupted since it was bestowed in 1959, was renewed in 2009 for 10 years, at least in part on the strength of Fullerton's report.

Born, too, is accused of misrepresenting faculty qualifications to the commission and also "to a newspaper reporter," the Inspector General's Office says in a letter to the whistleblowers outlining the allegations and saying an investigation has been launched.

Born, an academy grad, has been dean since October 2004; Fullerton, also an academy grad, has been vice dean since last year and was a department head at the academy before that.

In an interview with the Indy last year ("Degrees of separation," Dec. 16, 2010), Born said: "All the instructors we have, have graduate degrees in the areas they're teaching or a related field." That story ran as the Rand Corp., hired by the Air Force, embarked on a study of faculty issues, including whether the Air Force can afford to pay military members while they obtain advanced degrees when civilian instructors are available at a lower cost. That report is due to be completed by Sept. 30.

Born resisted findings in a 2003-04 study ordered by the Air Force secretary that called for hiring more civilian instructors to improve quality and increase diversity, saying expanding civilian slots beyond the traditional 25 percent of faculty would risk "the essential military character of the institution." Since then, the number of civilians has risen to 33 percent due to the nation's wars and the Pentagon's demand for more foreign language classes.

Eighty percent of civilian faculty members at the academy, or about 144 of 180, have doctoral degrees. That number is 40 percent, or about 146 of 365, among active-duty military faculty.

According to academy documents obtained by one of the whistleblowers under the Freedom of Information Act, many military instructors are mismatched with their teaching assignments. The documents, among those collected by the Rand researchers, show dozens of examples, such as: a person with a degree in exercise physiology, teaching mathematics; one with a masters in business, teaching Arabic; one with a law degree, teaching Spanish, and one with degrees in economics and management, teaching Chinese.

As one instructor commented to Rand officials in a written survey, "Recruited as an Arabic instructor, but currently teaching primarliy [sic] German due to short-manning in Franco-German division."

The honor code

The academy referred questions to the Pentagon, where they were fielded by Maj. Joel Harper, who cited the pending investigation in declining to discuss the matter. But he said such investigations normally span 120 days — longer if they're complex and involve a number of subjects and claims.

In the Inspector General's letter to the complainants, Col. John R. Taylor, director of Senior Official Inquiries, notes that a complaint analysis has been conducted into the allegations. A complaint analysis is a preliminary review of assertions and evidence to determine the potential validity of the assertion and how, or whether, to proceed.

"As a result of that analysis," Taylor writes, "the Inspector General has directed a formal investigation into your case..."

The Higher Learning Commission "is currently awaiting the findings of the IG's investigation to evaluate whether or not there are any potential implications regarding the institution's ability to meet our Criteria for Accreditation," commission spokesman John Hausaman writes in an e-mail.

It's too early to say what the fallout could be, but even a slap on the wrist would be embarrassing if based on senior leaders violating the legendary honor code imposed on cadets — to not lie, cheat or steal or tolerate anyone who does.

"As an Air Force officer and graduate of the Air Force Academy," one of the complainants says, "I refuse to stand by while the legitimacy of my education is called into question by the potential unethical acts of senior officers at the academy. The academy belongs to the citizens of the United States. As such, the citizens have a right to expect the highest level of integrity with the way the place is run."

Neither the U.S. Naval Academy nor the U.S. Military Academy have had any issues with accreditation, spokespersons for those schools say.

Both are accredited by the Philadelphia-based Commission on Higher Education of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools.

zubeck@csindy.com

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