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Southern Utah University has an unorthodox fast track that allows its international students to enroll as undergraduates without completing its unaccredited English as a Second Language (ESL) program or passing a proficiency exam. That opportunity has been a powerful recruiting tool, its former ESL director says.
But the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission has now banned Saudi students from entering the troubled program, citing both student complaints and its "oversaturation" with Saudi students.
Of the 182 students enrolled, 158 are Saudis, according to the mission, which is concerned that the lack of diversity negates the value of an international education.
The mission's ban comes as SUU is investigating allegations that its unaccredited ESL program tolerates plagiarism by students. Officials put an instructor on probation last month, and they have pledged to invite an accredited ESL program to review its performance.
"We take the plagiarism charge seriously because it affects people's perception of our academic integrity," said university spokesman Dean O'Driscoll. "They may find deficiencies we need to correct before we move to accreditation."
No other Utah universities allow international students who are learning English to enroll as undergraduates without passing an ESL program or a proficiency exam. It also appears to violate SUU's published policy.
And critics contend that creating such a fast track through an unaccredited program creates the risk that students will not have the English skills they need for university-level work.
SUU officials defend the practice, saying they take steps to ensure foreign students are ready to succeed. "We are comfortable because we're the ones with the most on the block here," O'Driscoll said. "If they don't do well, we lose."
Questioning the fast track • SUU started its ESL program last year, taking over instruction from an unaccredited private business called Internexus. SUU's first director, E. Roland Brown, was an Internexus executive who has since returned to the firm.
According to SUU policies for international admissions, students who enroll as undergraduates must meet minimum scores on the Test of English as a Foreign Language or the International English Language Testing System. Or they must complete an approved ESL program.
But under the school's so-called "half-half" plan, described in an ESL brochure, international students who complete two of its 12 four-week sessions with grades of A's and B's may start taking undergraduate classes along with their ESL courses. If they pass all courses for a single semester, they are eligible for full admission.
Brown conceded that the half-half program failed at first. SUU professors complained that many international students who advanced this way were not ready for college.
"We became more careful about what courses they could take. We picked classes that didn't need as much reading and writing … to ease them into university academics," said Brown, who now directs Internexus' Provo program. "By the time I left, there were fewer complaints."
SUU declined to renew Brown's one-year contract, which has left the program with an interim director since June 30. A new director is set to take over Jan. 7.
Brown contends half-half programs are common around the country.
While some universities waive the testing requirement, it is only considered appropriate for students who have completed accredited ESL programs, according to Utah State University ESL professor Frank Bacheller. He serves on the board of the Commission on English Language Program Accreditation.
Accredited programs use assessment tools that ensure certain grades reflect a level of competency, he said. Without that quality assurance, there is little guarantee that a B grade or better proves that a foreign student's language skills are sufficient, accrediting officials maintain.
USU, which runs an accredited ESL program, waives testing for its foreign students who complete all of its courses with A's and B's.
Like SUU, Snow College, a small junior college in Ephraim, has an unaccredited ESL program. But its students are not allowed into the college which grants only associate's degrees, versus the bachelor's and master's awarded at SUU until they complete ESL and pass proficiency tests.
Coping with plagiarism, oversaturation • Former ESL instructor Belinda Frost, who quit last month, raised the plagiarism allegations that SUU is now investigating. She contends administrators ignored her concerns and advanced students whom she had failed for cheating and poor performance.
She provided administrators and The Salt Lake Tribune with ESL student papers that contained both plagiarism and passing grades. Instructor Nina Hansen, listed as the teacher on at least one of the papers, has been placed on probation.
But Brown said that when he was directing the program, he praised Frost for failing students she caught cheating and, in response to her concerns, he developed a strict anti-plagiarism policy.
"I was more than happy to expel students for plagiarism," Brown said. "It wasn't like we were keeping them for the money."
Saudi Arabian students make up 87 percent of SUU's ESL students. The next largest group, as of last year, came from South Korea. Small numbers hailed from China, Colombia, France, Mexico, Afghanistan and Spain.
The Saudi government provides scholarships for its young citizens to study abroad. SUU officials say word-of-mouth endorsements have drawn Saudi students to its rural liberal arts campus.
Mashaell Abedy, a Saudi embassy staffer who handles placements at U.S. schools, said, "Students are supposed to come to us before they apply for a school, but sometimes they skip that step and apply on their own."
But the Saudi government wants its students to make up 35 percent or less of the students in any one program. "This policy encourages Saudi students to integrate into American life so that they may benefit both academically and socially," the Saudi cultural mission states on its website.
The government is barring its students from SUU, based on the oversaturation and on student complaints, Abedy said. She referred questions about the complaints to another staffer, who did not immediately return a call.
O'Driscoll said he believes the Saudi government has stopped sending students to SUU because the country is curtailing scholarships for business students. That happens to be a popular area of study for SUU's Saudi students, he said.
The Iron County Attorney's Office on Wednesday filed a misdemeanor count of "theft of lost property" in justice court against former Southern Utah University instructor Belinda Frost.
Frost, who resigned from SUU's English as a Second Language program on Nov. 14 , gave administrators copies of graded ESL papers that contained plagiarism and passing grades. She said she found the papers on her shelf in an office shared by ESL instructors.
At least one of the papers was labeled as an assignment for instructor Nina Hansen, who has since been placed on probation. Hansen has accused Frost of unlawfully photocopying the papers.
SUU police initially threatened Frost with arrest if she entered the Cedar City campus. They have amended that "trespass notice" to specify the ESL offices and teaching areas.