Criminal Justice Scandal at the University of Texas – Dallas

by Dave Boucher

The criminology professor was on the trail of a possible fraud. Even more troubling, it was happening inside his own school.

The first clue: A student told him he had permission to skip classes yet still get credit. Then, when the professor tried to verify the story with his bosses, they bristled.

“You need to be careful what questions you ask,’’ said one.

“It sounds like you’ve been stirring s—,’’ said the other.

Those encounters, described in an investigative report, led the professor at the University of Texas at Dallas to blow the whistle on what the school provost said may amount to academic fraud.

Over the last eight years, a handful of faculty members in the university’s criminology department awarded top grades to students in courses they never took, according to the May 2018 report by the UT System and other records obtained by The Dallas Morning News.

For years, UT-Dallas instructors told officers to skip class — and the cops got A’s. How did it go on so long?

The students were mostly police officers enrolled in a special master’s degree program designed to help them move up the ranks of law enforcement. They were told they would receive credit for non-college training courses they took outside the university. But the way the instructors awarded that credit was a big problem.

“Students were instructed to formally enroll in UT Dallas courses, with the proviso that they need not attend class or submit any class material, but would be given a grade of ‘A’ in the class,’’ an administrator wrote in a letter to three faculty members putting them on notice that the university is seeking to fire them.   

The unusual practices cast a pall over degrees given to dozens of graduates entrusted with law enforcement jobs in the Dallas area and across Texas.

Turmoil has roiled the school since the problem was discovered in late 2017. UTD is no longer accepting students for the program. It has returned thousands of dollars in tuition to students. And it was forced to create new policies in defending its program to accreditors.

The situation also raises questions about how effectively UTD administrators oversee faculty members. The practices persisted for several years despite red flags, documents show.

The News pieced together what happened through multiple documents obtained under the Texas open records law. School officials refused to release the investigative report, citing education privacy laws. But The Newsobtained a copy.  

The university’s president and other top officials declined interviews. Three days after The News published this story, UTD President Richard Benson issued a roughly 1,300-wordstatement. It said university leaders took necessary steps to ensure they responded appropriately when they learned of the issue. 

In previous correspondence with some faculty, school leaders said the program’s practices were well hidden from them.

“This incident has been a painful reminder to us of the necessity of constant vigilance in monitoring our processes closely,’’ Benson wrote in a letter to the school’s accreditors, who led their own inquiry into the problems in recent months.

The faculty members at the center of the scandal — Robert Taylor, the initial leader of the program; John Worrall, the most recent leader; and Galia Cohen, the program’s former associate director — denied wrongdoing through their lawyer. They declined to be interviewed.

‘Unlimited economic potential’

It was an attractive offer: Students could boost their law enforcement careers by earning a special master’s degree in the evenings or on weekends.

Since UTD launched the Justice Administration and Leadership program nine years ago, dozens jumped at the chance to enroll.

Some went on to become supervisors at the U.S. Marshal’s Service and other agencies. Three became police chiefs in the Dallas-area suburbs of Prosper, Justin and Lake Dallas, The News found.

The program, consisting of 30 credit hours, was an example of the university’s focus on rapid growth. The Richardson-based university, known for its engineering and business schools, has seen enrollment nearly double over the last decade. At more than 28,700 students last fall, it ranks among the fastest-growing public universities in Texas.

This master’s program was expected to make money. Unlike traditional master’s programs, it would be funded solely by tuition, not state dollars. And working professionals represented a promising and untapped market of tuition payers that could generate “unlimited economic potential,’’ according to school documents.

Taylor and Worrall, the longtime criminology professors who developed the program, created its policies and procedures in 2012, records show. Also approving them was James Marquart, a dean over the criminology department. He left the university in 2015 and is now provost of Lamar University in Beaumont. Marquart did not comment for this story.

It's unclear how many students in the special master's program received inappropriate credit. University of Texas at Dallas officials say the school is no longer accepting students for the program and created new policies to address future transfer credit issues. (Rose Baca/Staff Photographer)

The two professors have built national reputations as experts in criminology. Taylor and Worrall are routinely cited by media organizations, including The Washington PostUSA TodayThe News and others, in the coverage of crimes such as the 2018 Austin bombings and the police shooting death of Botham Jean in Dallas.

Taylor helped found The Caruth Police Institute of Dallas, a leadership development and officer training program affiliated with the Dallas Police Department. He also has taught at the Institute for Law Enforcement Administration in Plano.

Those connections gave him an inside track to recruit students for the UTD master’s program. The program’s policies he helped create allowed students at both institutes to swap work there for up to nine hours of credit at UTD; the idea was that the coursework was virtually equivalent. Worrall also had worked for Caruth. Cohen has worked at the Plano institute since 2016.

Taylor’s and Worrall’s policies also gave them and other faculty members financial incentives to keep the program running. In addition to their salaries, instructors could get stipends of up to $8,000 for each course they taught. And 20 percent of the program’s revenue would be split between Taylor’s and Marquart’s offices “to be used at their discretion,’’ the policies said.

The policies made no mention of how grades would be assigned.

It’s unclear whether UTD administrators examined the instructors’ ties to the institutes or even knew about them. A school spokesman said they do not comment on individual employees. 

“We specifically asked why it wasn’t a conflict of interest, and it was never answered,” said Nadine Connell, an associate professor within the criminology department who had concerns about the issues.

Cohen told students from Caruth and the Plano institute that for certain criminology classes at UTD, they wouldn’t need to do any work but would still receive credit and top grades, UT System investigators found.

UTD says its top administrators and a dean who is required to approve such credit transfers knew nothing of the arrangement.

At least four graduates told The News they were told they would receive credit even if they did not attend classes because they completed work at one of the two institutes.

Lake Dallas Police Chief Dan Carolla acknowledged receiving the credit, but stressed he found the overall program challenging and rewarding. Asked whether he thought it was strange that students would receive A’s as part of the credit transfer process, Carolla declined to comment.

Cohen told investigators the credit transfers were the main recruiting tool for the degree, according to the report. Over the years, the degree program brought in more than $1.8 million at about $22,000 per student, according to records the university provided The News.

Taylor earned $39,000 in “stipend/supplement” pay, and Worrall earned $75,461, according to budget records. Cohen did not receive any stipend or supplemental pay, at times drawing her salary directly from the program, according to the records.

Experts say school programs sharply focused on revenue growth can be vulnerable to abuses, particularly those solely funded with tuition dollars.  

“Any program that is exclusively tuition driven, and you’re trying to attract as many students as possible, then clearly that is potentially corrupting,’’ said Gary Pavela, a lawyer and past president of the International Association of Academic Integrity. “It’s very tempting to be willfully ignorant about the kind of judgment that we’re seeing here.”

‘Fictional classes’

The improper practices continued for years, but university officials missed or overlooked clues.

For example, a university lawyer had approved the 2012 policy describing the credit transfers, records show. That lawyer no longer works for UTD and could not be reached for comment.

When Marquart left for a better UTD position a few weeks after approving the program, his successor Denis Deancorrected financial issues associated with it, according to the investigative report. The report does not describe those issues. Dean did not respond to emailed questions, and phone numbers listed for him were disconnected.

University officials also didn’t provide details. A spokeswoman said the 20 percent share of program revenue designated for Marquart and Taylor was discontinued in 2013, saying it was “unnecessary.’’

Dean told investigators he was not aware of the practices until university administrators discovered them in late 2017. He described them as akin to holding “fictional classes’’ and in retrospect, acknowledged there were red flags.

In 2015, another clue surfaced. Worrall tried to go through proper channels to authorize part of the credit-transfer process for the program, according to investigators.

A senior administrator rejected his idea, saying the students must earn all their credits from UTD, according to the investigative report.

“This stinks, but I understand their position and will live with it,’’ Worrall said in an email to Taylor and Cohen cited in the report. “I say we continue with the current practice with which we are familiar.’’

Police officers enrolled in the special master's program took some classes in this building on the Richardson-based campus of the University of Texas at Dallas. Investigators found that some students were told they would receive A's in some courses despite not needing to attend any classes. (Rose Baca/Staff Photographer)

‘Everyone makes money’

By late 2017, another faculty member learned of the issue, the investigative report shows, and would soon blow the whistle.

The criminology professor first approached Taylor to find out why a student was allowed to skip class.

Taylor became “suspicious and coercive,” the professor told investigators, cautioning him to discuss the issue with only Worrall or Cohen.

Soon after, the professor asked Worrall for documentation showing that the university authorized the credit transfers.

“I don’t need to produce anything for you because nobody is going to care about this,’’ Worrall told the professor, according to investigators. “Because everyone makes money.’’

Worrall also told him not to run his mouth because other UTD programs would be jealous, according to the report.

The professor described the encounter to investigators as “the worst ass-chewing” he’d ever received.

Contacted by The News, the professor asked not to be named for fear of professional reprisals. He otherwise declined to comment for this story.

By December 2017, UTD leaders finally learned of the improper practices.

Provost Inga Musselman launched an investigation. Soon after, the UT System, the governing body of the university, began its own inquiry, according to a system spokeswoman.

The group that accredits UTD, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, also began a review.

UTD and its governing system faced serious questions.

Who was involved? How many students received the questionable credits and grades? Would the school need to reimburse students, or even yank their degrees?

Damage control

When Addison police Capt. Mike Vincent received an email in February 2018 from UTD, he was confused.

He’d just finished the program, and didn’t expect any problems.

However, the email included a letter stating the university could not grant his degree because “academic credit was improperly awarded.”

Vincent was frustrated and upset. He soon discovered that other students had received similar notices. Some considered filing lawsuits and asked whether he would consider joining, he said. He declined, saying he wanted to give the university time to find a solution.

“I get why they had to lock everything down and investigate this,’’ Vincent said. But “it was difficult to be caught in the crossfire.”

Vincent said he was surprised to discover that he received A’s in the UTD courses he was told not to attend.

“I didn’t realize that it had occurred until I received my final grade report at the end of the first semester, and I thought it a little odd,” he said. “But since letter grades aren’t nearly as important in graduate school as they are in undergraduate, I assumed that was just how they did it and didn’t think much more about it.”

University leaders knew accreditors were coming to campus last March. School leaders told faculty they reviewed course material from the outside institutions and noted that other universities had granted credit for work done at these programs.

In his letter to the university after the publication of this story, Benson noted accreditors determined university leaders “provided unfettered access to relevant individuals and documentation.” However, school officials also told The News no one provided the accreditors with the findings of the UT System investigative report.