UPDATE: Donors pull support for U of M after professor spending scandal, call domestic abuse policy changes ‘overdue’
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Financial donors to the University of Minnesota are still holding back support more than a year after 5 INVESTIGATES first exposed the questionable spending of a former star professor.
A review of nearly 7,000 pages of internal university emails reveals administrators scrambled to contain the scandal in 2019, but a regent and donors have continued to criticize the university’s handling of the matter.
When 5 INVESTIGATES uncovered expense reports that showed Aaron Doering charged the university for tens of thousands of dollars in personal expenses and listed romantic partners as "consultants" on expensive trips around the world. U of M Regent Michael Hsu wanted to know what steps then-Provost Karen Hanson took after documents revealed she had been made aware of concerns about the professor’s spending as early as 2017.
"What are we talking about in terms of dollars and cents?" Hsu asked in July 2019. "What did Hanson know and what did she do?"
In a recent interview, Hsu said he never got all of the answers he was looking for and is not convinced enough is being done to address concerns about financial oversight at the state’s largest university.
"I believe a culture of non-compliance exists in the university, so I’m very alarmed," Hsu said.
Board of Regents Chairman Ken Powell, who declined repeated interview requests, adamantly disagreed with Hsu’s criticism.
"That charge is untrue and completely wrong. It ignores years of positive external and internal audit results and high-integrity work behind those results," Powell said in a statement.
Click here to read Powell’s full statement.
CHS demands payback
But 5 INVESTIGATES has confirmed the Doering scandal could have long-term consequences for the university’s reputation with donors, including a large corporation that has contributed millions of dollars over the past several years.
Internal emails show administrators determined some of Doering’s questionable spending involved money donated by the charitable arm of agribusiness cooperative CHS Inc.
"CHS… is a significant sponsor of research in Doering’s current college," Director of Public Relations Jake Ricker wrote to incoming president Joan Gabel.
CHS confirmed it discontinued support for Doering’s educational research project, called AgCultures, after it learned of the misspending.
"The misuse of funds by one individual is disappointing," a company spokesperson wrote in a statement. "We will continue to invest in ag education. Whether that’s with the College of Education and Human Development or with other partners has yet to be determined."
The University of Minnesota Foundation, an independent organization that fundraises on the university’s behalf, also confirmed it returned more than $143,000 to CHS in what it described as "unspent" funds earlier this year.
Hsu and others warn that potential loss of future support could be significant.
"It’s not only the amount of money related to the particular case, but it’s also the other donors who may not give money or may not feel comfortable giving the university money because of instances like this," Hsu said.
A U of M graduate and former employee stopped donating shortly after 5 INVESTIGATES reported on Doering’s spending.
"This is FRAUD," Chet Sievert wrote in one of the several angry emails sent to the university president’s office last year. "I am sick and tired of the fiscal irresponsibility at the U. As such, I will no longer be a financial contributor."
A year later, Sievert said his email was not an empty threat.
"I absolutely meant what I wrote," Sievert said. "That’s obviously the only way to get something done over there. They seem to react more strongly when it hits them in the pocketbook."
Catherine Rice, a certified fraud examiner and accounting professor at St. Mary’s University, said so-called occupational fraud, committed by employees, costs companies and institutions billions of dollars every year, but she also emphasized that it can be difficult to calculate the ultimate cost to the U of M.
"There are a lot of silent harms that end up happening as well," Rice said. "There’s potential reputation losses that occur."
Culture in question
Although Doering resigned his position and tenure in November 2019 amid a university investigation into his spending, he had already been on paid leave since his December 2018 arrest for the domestic assault of his fiancée in her Minneapolis apartment.
Internal emails show the university’s handling of that incident also prompted angry responses.
"The concern is the silence from leadership," wrote a fellow U of M professor in January 2019. "In the words of one former student, ‘even the NFL don’t screw up a response to domestic abuse this badly.’"
Doering remained on paid leave even after he pleaded guilty to the crime and was sentenced to six months in jail.
"It’s very disappointing to me," said Margaret Adamek.
The university alumna and former employee said four generations of her family attended and worked at the U of M, but they’ve now stopped donating to the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD).
"At no time did they really offer sympathy to the victim. At no time did they acknowledge this is a problem and at no time did they commit to do better when it comes to harboring an abuser on the faculty ranks," Adamek said. "I probably would have increased my support because, if they had handled it in an appropriate way, I would have been able to see the change that I’m looking for and that the university needs to make."
In July, the U of M Board of Regents approved changes to several policies, including tenure, which added a new section about discipline specific to sexual harassment, assault, stalking, and relationship violence. A spokesperson for the university said the reforms were not made in response to what happened with Doering, but were instead related to changes in federal Title IX guidance from the Department of Education.
Regardless of the motivation, alums and advocates called the changes important and "overdue." Violence Free Minnesota Policy Director Katie Kramer encouraged all institutions to do regular audits to identify areas where they can improve. She said high-profile cases also provide an opportunity to make lasting change.
"Community members, including those invested in the institution such as alumni, can really make a difference in changing responses to violence by putting that pressure on their employer… to ensure those policies are in place," Kramer said. "Domestic and sexual violence is a community issue that we all need to be involved in."
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