STAR TRIBUNE: Globe U whistleblower collects as school battles Minnesota AG, falling enrollment

Career College Central Summary:

  • In the four years since she was fired, Heidi Weber has become something of a celebrity.
  • She’s told her story in the halls of Congress. On the radio. At a national conference.
  • But mostly, she says, she’s been waiting for vindication.
  • In 2013, Weber won nearly $400,000 in a lawsuit against her former employer, Globe University, which she accused of firing her as a college dean for complaining about unethical practices.
  • It was, experts say, one of the first whistleblower cases in the country to result in a jury award against a for-profit college. But the case has lingered on appeal, until now.
  • In March, the Minnesota Supreme Court rejected Globe’s final appeal, clearing the way for Weber to get her check — and a chance to celebrate. “It’s almost surreal,” said Weber, 46, who lives in Prescott, Wis.. “You don’t often hear a story about the little guy winning.”
  • For Globe, a chain of career schools based in Woodbury, the court ruling was the latest in a string of setbacks — including a lawsuit by Minnesota’s Attorney General — that have battered its reputation and contributed to a 60 percent drop in enrollment since 2010.
  • Even now, Globe officials are unapologetic about their actions. They reject the implication at the heart of Weber’s case — that they will do or say anything to lure students into questionable programs.
  • “We felt the need to defend ourselves,” said Jeanne Herrmann, Globe’s chief operating officer. “Because we so strenuously, vigorously believe that we did the right thing.”
  • Before its clash with Weber, Globe was enjoying unprecedented success. Since 2003, it opened 16 new campuses, and enrollment had more than tripled to nearly 12,000.
  • Unlike many for-profit colleges, Globe had a long history — it was founded in 1885 as a business school in St. Paul — and is still “mom and pop owned,” as Herrmann put it. It had about 100 students when it was bought in 1972 by businessman Terry Myhre and his family, who built it into a multistate corporation with 19 campuses and a mix of academic degrees, online and career programs, including one for medical assistants.
  • Weber, a medical assistant herself, had just started dabbling in teaching when she joined Globe in 2008 as a part-time instructor. Sixteen months later, she was promoted to dean of its medical assistant program, with 1,800 students on multiple campuses.
  • The first red flag, she says, were the conversations she overheard with prospective students. “My office was right next to the admissions representatives,” said Weber. “I don’t want to use the word lying. It was definitely spinning … saying anything to make the student enroll.” In her program, a two-year degree cost $44,000.
  • “The thing that troubled me about that is that medical assistants typically make anywhere between $10 and $14 an hour,” she said.
  • At first, she said, she was hesitant to complain. “You’re in a new job, so you don’t want to create too many waves.” But before long, Weber said, students were peppering her with their own complaints. She became concerned, court records show, that Globe was using deceptive job-placement rates for its graduates, and giving false assurances that its credits would transfer to other colleges.
  • A supervisor told her not to put anything negative in writing, she says. But by early 2011, her first anniversary on the job, Weber was sending e-mails up the chain of command. “[I] told them everything: ‘This is wrong, this is unethical, you’re going to get sued,’ ” she said. At one point, she says, she was told point blank: “You better learn to be quiet if you want to make sure you still have a job.” 
  • In April, just days after meeting with top executives to review her concerns, she was fired.

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