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First, the good news.

UND made a good decision last fall when it ended its two-decade practice of inflating enrollments by counting phantom students who registered but never showed up for class.

Both UND President Kendall Baker and members of the state Board of Higher Education justly have found themselves in trouble for being less than open with the public on a range of issues, notably UND's questionable accounting practices and closed meetings held by the board to discuss Baker's future. Baker's decision to come clean on UND student head counts is a step in the right direction.

But it's only a first step. The second step will depend upon the board and North Dakota University System Chancellor Larry Isaak. In a story in Tuesday's Herald, staff writer Steve Schmidt reported admissions personnel at most of the state-run campuses do not count phantom students who don't show up for class in their fall enrollment (Farewell to phantom students). But Isaak, in a Nov. 14, 1996, memo, said his office had been informed some campuses were including students who had not shown up for class in official enrollment counts.

In that same memo, Isaak didn't name any of the campuses. We now know one was UND. Were there others? Isaak's memo seemed to imply that. More important, are any campuses still beefing up their enrollment numbers by counting students who aren't in class?

If any are, the board needs to end that practice. It's dishonest, it won't win higher education any friends at the Legislature and the false head counts could be used by a school to get more funding from the state. (It should be pointed out here that there's no evidence UND benefited financially from its practice. The only benefits were in marketing the campus to the state and region.)

If it's history, North Dakotans still deserve to know how widespread phantom counting was. UND and Baker informed the board last fall they were ending the practice, and when asked by a reporter about its history at the school, Baker and former President Thomas Clifford came clean. The board should ensure any other school counting phantom students does the same.

Now, the bad news. UND was counting phantoms for nearly 20 years. That is disappointing. Sure, the false head counting is of arguable significance. What isn't debatable is that the disclosure will tarnish the reputations of two school administrations a bit around the state, especially in light of other controversies surrounding UND.

Both of Clifford's explanations to the Herald - that his administration let registrars do what registrars do and we weren't trying to pull the wool over anybody's eyes, - are the words of a wise, experienced politician. And at the time, Baker's decision to gradually phase out the practice over five years probably was politically wise, too.

But today, UND supporters, including the Herald, can't help wishing Clifford's administration never started counting phantoms, and that Baker's had put an immediate end to a practice it knew wasn't a good idea.

Source: Grand Forks Herald, March 12, 1998

Click Here To View The State Auditor's Report