Globe/MSB ordered to pay fired dean in whistleblower suit

Globe University / Minnesota School of Business unjustly fired a former dean when she exposed misleading and unethical practices in for-profit chain of schools, a Washington County jury decided this morning.

The school must pay Heidi Weber approximately $400,000 in damages. Weber's attorney, Clayton Halunen, had asked jurors to award her $36 million.

Weber, who was fired in April 2011 after leading the company’s medical assistant program for about a year, says Globe misled students about things such as accreditation, externships and how a criminal record would affect their chances for employment.

She filed suit in April 2012.

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Weber said she hopes Globe changes its ways, and that students learn from the case:

"You know I just want them to know what they're getting into. I think that they're not always educated on what they're in for when they start ... at Globe and MSB."

Globe attorney Matthew Damon had claimed that the school was truthful, never broke any laws, and that any issues the school encountered were honest mistakes. He said no students actually suffered. Globe executives who took the stand included chief communications officer Jeff Myhre, Provost David Metzen and Chief Operating Officer Jeanne Herrmann.

Jurors took just over a day to reach a verdict after more than a week of testimony.

Damon said he's taking steps to appeal the decision:

"We feel very strongly that there was a lot of irrelevant and prejudicial evidence and argument put in front of them, and that had to taint their deliberations."

He says Globe's actions never harmed its students.

The schools are part of a closely held family business owned and operated by the family of Terry and Kathryn Myhre.  The Myhre family bought Globe in 1972 and the Minnesota School of Business in 1988.

Combined, the schools enroll more than 10,000 students in more than three dozen programs, among them health care, technology and business. They grant certificates, two- and four-year degrees, and some postgraduate degrees, including masters' and doctorate degrees in business.

Throughout the trial, Damon and Globe officials described Weber as a mediocre employee who began struggling on the job – and who played a role in some of the very problems she complained about. Damon claimed she was eventually fired for losing the trust of employees and fellow managers.

But Weber described Globe as an operation that put profits over the welfare of its students.

She described how the school, in an attempt to attract more students, inflated information about things such as job placement rates and starting salaries for its graduates. Another former dean and a former student also testified on such matters.

Juror Jake Mehsikomer, a 20-year-old mechanical engineering major at Minnesota State University – Mankato, said Globe’s statements to students about the transferability of Globe credits to other schools troubled him. Although Globe officials say they tell students it’s up to other colleges to decide how many Globe credits to accept, he said the company had worked out only a handful of agreements with other colleges.

“That was huge for me,” he said.

Mehsikomer also said "one of the biggest red flags"  was that Globe originally maintained Weber’s termination was not based on her performance, but switched its position in later testimony to say it was.

Weber said she opposed Globe’s decision to switch to a less rigorous accreditation agency. Students in those accredited programs, she said, had lower pass rates on board certification tests and a tougher time getting jobs.

Globe didn’t tell students about the switch until after it happened, she said. That led students to believe their education was more esteemed than it really was.

Globe also failed to give medical assistant students adequate warning that a felony conviction would prevent them from being hired. She said students had to undergo criminal background checks, but Globe only performed them toward the end of their studies – after they’d spent thousands on classes.

Weber also said the school continued to enroll students even when it knew it could not provide them with required externships in a timely manner.

Emails presented in court suggested Weber told Globe officials of her concerns, although Globe officials maintained she never warned of actual violations, and that she greatly overestimated any problems she saw.

Other emails showed Globe officials becoming increasingly upset over Weber’s questioning of management decisions.

Weeks before she was terminated, Weber had received a performance review that indicated she was performing her duties, and she received a pay raise.

But her attorney showed emails indicating Globe officials were “looking for dirt” in an attempt to build a case against her.

Weber has said the lawsuit and experience at Globe has kept her from ever working in higher education in the Twin Cities area. Still, she said she hopes one day to teach.

The trial may not be the end to scrutiny of Globe’s operations. It still faces a similar lawsuit by former business dean Jeanne St. Claire – which is also being handled by Halunen.

State Attorney General Lori Swanson has also said she is looking into allegations of deception among several for-profit colleges in the state. Weber and another former employee say officials from Swanson’s office have questioned her about the school.

Weber's allegations of deceptive practices aren't the first the schools have faced.

In 1983, according to court documents, a group of computer programming graduates from the Minnesota School of Business sued the school, claiming the school made misleading statements about graduates' job placement rates and starting pay. The school settled that claim for more than $150,000.

At the time of the suit, the school was owned by ITT Educational Services, of Carmel, Ind.

In 1997, another group of former students from the Minnesota School of Business sports medicine technician program sued the school, claiming it made false and misleading statements about that program. The school also settled that case for more than $150,000.