HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana Tech's chancellor said Tuesday that he did not conspire to fly students involved in a grade-changing scandal out of the U.S., despite recently published Saudi Embassy memos saying he suggested removing them from the country to avoid deportation or arrest.
Chancellor Donald Blackketter said in a statement to The Associated Press that he met in 2012 with Saudi sponsors of the students caught up in the cheating scandal to inform the sponsors of impending academic sanctions. The sanctions would terminate the students' exchange-program status, and the sponsors would be required to arrange their return home almost immediately, he said.
It would have been negligent of Montana Tech not to tell the Saudi officials of the pending sanctions, Blackketter said.
"Innuendos or accusations that Montana Tech conspired to fly students out of the United States are false," he said. "To the contrary, everything in the management of this situation was singularly focused to treat these students as any Montana Tech student would be treated, regardless of national origin."
A Montana Tech investigation found a group of more than 30 students gave gifts to an employee of the college in Butte in exchange for changing their transcripts. The investigation was made public in 2012, but the memos showed for the first time that the students were almost all Saudis and their government flew them out of the United States at the suggestion of Blackketter.
Saudi Embassy memos published recently by Wikileaks described a meeting taking place in Washington between Saudi diplomats, Blackketter and Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs Douglas Abbott just before the scandal broke in January 2012. The memo said a diplomat later issued travel tickets to the students so they wouldn't face jail or deportation by the American authorities.
Blackketter said he kept federal authorities and law enforcement apprised of the investigation in 2011, but authorities ultimately concluded no crime had been committed.
Montana University System spokesman Kevin McRae said Blackketter handled the situation responsibly and effectively, though he said he does not recall whether Blackketter told the state commissioner of higher education about his recommendation to the Saudi officials.
"We don't recall being consulted about that, nor would we expect to be consulted about that, because we knew Chancellor Blackketter was managing the situation," McRae said. "He acted appropriately and took appropriate measures."
Academic sanctions were imposed on students involved in the cheating, and the employee was fired. Eighteen students were expelled in the scandal, seven returned to the school, and some of the others who had already graduated had their degrees revoked.
Neither the school nor its foundation has received any money or gifts from any entities associated with the students, and the school did not pay for their transportation or any other costs associated with their return, Blackketter said.
Students from Saudi Arabia represent the second-largest foreign contingent at Montana Tech, next to students from Canada. A 2010 Montana Tech study found there were 80 students from Saudi Arabia enrolled in 2009, up from 13 in 2004.
International students at Montana Tech pay an estimated $33,000 a year in tuition, fees and other costs, compared with about $18,700 for students who are Montana residents.
The higher tuition coming from international and out-of-state students has helped shore up the loss from a university-wide decline in in-state student enrollment, though their real value is in the culture and diversity they bring to campus, McRae said.