June 13, 2023

When It Comes to Compliance, Keiser University Keeps Flunking

When It Comes to Compliance, Keiser University Keeps Flunking

Arthur Keiser is the ultra-wealthy Florida for-profit college owner who went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court trying, but failing, to block a landmark court settlement aimed at cancelling the student loan debt of hundreds of thousands of students who say they were deceived by their schools. His complaint was that his school, Keiser University, was, for purposes of the deal, unfairly placed by the U.S. Department of Education on a list of presumptively bad-acting colleges when, he insists, “There’s no evidence of misconduct.”

As we already have shown on this website, Keiser’s statement is just another deception. Keiser University, where Arthur Keiser is “Chancellor and CEO,” has repeatedly gotten in trouble with law enforcement, and settled claims, including with then-Florida attorney general Pam Bondi and with the U.S. Justice Department, over allegations of deceptive and unlawful recruiting practices. And recent staff members have told us about predatory behavior still happening at the school, including recruiting of low-income people seemingly unprepared for college programs and of people with insufficient English language skills to understand the course work. 

Senior Democrats in Congress, including senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) have called on the U.S. Department of Education to investigate Keiser’s schools, which have received billions in taxpayer-funded student financial aid. Last November, the Department determined that Keiser University’s accreditor, SACS, was out of compliance with numerous federal regulations and directed it to provide more information regarding its oversight of Keiser University and that school’s troubling conversion to non-profit status — a deal that gave the school the advantages of being a non-profit while allowing Arthur Keiser to keep making big money off the school. Keiser University admitted under congressional questioning in 2021 that the IRS imposed a penalty on the school for improperly steering profits to Arthur Keiser by entering into leases above fair market value with Keiser-related for-profit companies.

But even all of that is not the entire story of Keiser University’s misconduct and failure to comply with applicable rules and standards. 

Multiple programs at Keiser University are now either on probation with various accrediting agencies charged with monitoring educational quality, or are in the process of losing their accreditation entirely.

There also is strong evidence that Keiser University continues to abuse its nonprofit status in ways that could benefit Arthur Keiser and his family. 

Problems with overseers

Regarding accreditation, according to the Keiser University website:

    • Keiser’s Doctor of Chiropractic degree program is on probation with its programmatic accreditor, the Council on Chiropractic Education (CCE). That accreditor said in February that it put Keiser on probation “due to noncompliance concerns related to planning, program effectiveness, assessment of learning outcomes and curricular effectiveness, and quality patient care.” 
    • The occupational therapy assistant programs at Keiser University-Orlando and Keiser University-Melbourne were placed on Probationary Accreditation by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE) effective April 22,  because, as the Keiser website explains (which the accreditor required it to do), noncompliance related to the relevant certification exam pass rate at each campus “is so serious that the capability of the program to provide acceptable educational experiences for the students is threatened.” 
    • The Physical Therapist Assistant programs at Keiser University-Sarasota and Keiser University-West Palm Beach are, says the Keiser website, on probationary accreditation with the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). But that appears to understate the problems at these programs. In October 2022, CAPTE had placed the West Palm Beach program on “Show Cause,” requiring the school to submit evidence why accreditation should not be withdrawn. CAPTE said its decision was “based on clear evidence of continuing circumstances that jeopardize the ability of the institution to sustain an accredited program.” In April 2023, according to a CAPTE document, that accreditor withdrew accreditation from the West Palm Beach program at Keiser University’s request. And, according to another CAPTE document, the accreditor acted in October 2022 to withdraw accreditation from the Sarasota program, subject to appeal, a decision still pending in April 2023. The same document reports that the Keiser-Ft. Myers physical therapy program is on warning status with CAPTE, and the program at Keiser-Lakeland had just come off probation. 

Despite the accreditation failures at his schools, Arthur Keiser remains a member of the Department of Education’s National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI), a panel of outside experts that reviews the performance of accreditors and makes recommendations to the Department on renewing the status of accreditors to serve as gatekeepers for federal aid. At the most recent NACIQI meeting, in March, Keiser, who runs non-profit Everglades University in addition to Keiser University, and also owns, with his wife Belinda, for-profit Southeastern College, argued that Department officials were overdoing it in urging NACIQI members to recuse from review of specific accreditors where they might have an interest in the outcome of a vote on an accreditor. He said his schools have 29 accreditors overseeing them, and that while he didn’t mind leaving the room and doing other work while NACIQI judged those agencies, he would “prefer to stay in.” 

Keiser faced more challenges last month when he appeared before the Florida Commission on Independent Education (CIE) at their public meeting in Orlando. His for-profit school, Southeastern, was on CIE’s docket for renewal of its state license. The commission vice chair, Tra Williams, expressed pleasure at seeing Keiser, a giant in the Florida career college world, in person, but then he proceeded to grill Keiser on the school’s financial balance sheet, educational quality, and student success. Keiser blamed failures at Southeastern’s nursing program on a “program director issue ” and said that employee was replaced in January. He also blamed COVID-19.

In the end, the CIE directed Southeastern to submit a list of faculty and their credentials, a copy of a retention improvement plan that it provided to its accreditor ACCSC, and a progress report on increasing its NCLEX nursing licensing exam pass rate.

Keiser looked unhappy having to explain his school’s affairs and accept CIE’s orders. Until last year, Keiser’s top lieutenant, Peter Crocitto, was the chair of CIE, and Keiser could expect more cooperation. But a month after Republic Report showed that Florida’s nursing schools were last in the nation on NCLEX passage, Florida governor Ron DeSantis replaced the entire CIE membership with new people. Now Crocitto, who accompanied Keiser to the session, could only sit helplessly in the audience.

A troubling mix of for-profit, non-profit, and politics

How Keiser travelled to the Orlando CIE meeting raises one of several questions about his obligations to separate his for-profit business activities from Keiser University, the non-profit school he runs — a persistent problem for Arthur Keiser.

Flight records show that a private aircraft owned by a Keiser-owned company left a South Florida airport early in the morning on the day of the CIE meeting, May 25, flew to the Orlando area, and returned that afternoon. The plane, according to public records, is the property of ODIN 123 LLC, a company owned by Arthur Keiser and whose registered agent is James Waldman, the general counsel of Keiser University.

Did ODIN LLC bill Keiser’s for-profit company, BAR Education Inc., the owner of Southeastern, for that flight, or did a deal with non-profit Keiser University cover the cost?

As we have reported in the past, Keiser owned-Southeastern seems to rely extensively on Keiser-run non-profit Keiser University for various services: Highly-paid senior executives of Keiser University also serve as senior executives at Southeastern, and a former employee who was paid entirely by Keiser University told me she was directed to do significant work for Southeastern.  Also, open jobs at Southeastern are listed on a hiring website maintained by Keiser University. 

Perhaps Arthur Keiser and his lawyers have worked out arrangements for Southeastern to reimburse Keiser University for all these services at fair market rates. But how much overlap between the non-profit school that Keiser is supposed to run for the benefit of students, and the for-profit school he runs for his own benefit, should government authorities tolerate? 

And what would be Keiser University’s response to allegations by a former employee that school employees are directed to engage in fundraising for candidates for political office? 

The former employee told me that staff working under Belinda Keiser, who is Keiser University’s Vice Chancellor and oversees lobbying and media outreach, were told to contact prospective donors, many of them recipients of contracts with Keiser University, and solicit contributions to political campaigns, including those of Senator Rick Scott (R-FL),  Representative Mike Waltz (R-FL), and Florida state chief financial officer Jimmy Patronis. Staff also were directed to plan political fundraising events in Florida, including at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club. The staff were provided with Southeastern College email addresses and phones to do the fundraising, but they were Keiser University employees; at least some of the employees engaged in the political fundraising got their paychecks entirely from Keiser University, not Southeastern. The staff did their fundraising work from Keiser University offices, during business hours. (The former employee asked, out of concern for their career, not to be identified in this article.)

While a for-profit company, like the Keiser business that runs Southeastern College, is permitted under the law to participate in political fundraising, a non-profit organization with tax-exempt 501(c)(3) status, like the operator of Keiser University, clearly is not. The Internal Revenue Service stresses that 501(c)(3)s  “are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity.” The IRS warns, “Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.”

Filings with the IRS of Keiser University’s parent organization, Everglades College, Inc., report no political campaign activities.  

Keiser University did not respond to a request for comment on the IRS issue and other matters.

Beyond the allegation that Keiser University is engaged in political fundraising in violation of its tax-exempt status, the former employee gave poor marks to Belinda Keiser as a manager. “Every day was horrible,” the employee told me. “No person should be treated the way she treats her staff.” Ms. Keiser, according to the former staffer, yelled at school employees. “Everyone is so afraid to speak up and be in her presence,” the ex-employee says. Staff members were frequently in tears. One had a panic attack after an episode of yelling by Ms. Keiser and had to be removed by ambulance. Another suffered high blood pressure. “Working with her was the worst experience of my life,” says the former employee, who also reports, as do other former staff, that Ms. Keiser frequently goes on shopping trips when traveling on the company jet. 

A former Keiser University executive has told me that Belinda Keiser has gone through dozens of assistants over the years, because many couldn’t tolerate the job.

Belinda Keiser will be inaugurated into the Florida Association of Proprietary Schools and Colleges Hall of Fame at an event in August.

Public relations maneuvering

Belinda’s husband, Arthur Keiser, has been funding D.C. lobbyists, such as seasoned, respected, and genial Washington hand Mark Lindsay, seeking to defend his own reputation. Lindsay, who works at the lobby firm The Livingston Group, spoke during the public comments portion of a July 2o22 meeting of the Department of Education’s NACIQI advisory committee, at a time when Arthur Keiser was still the body’s chairman. In his remarks to NACIQI, Lindsay first touted his credentials — former senior official in the Clinton and Obama administrations and former senior aide to then-U.S. Representative Louis Stokes (D-OH), whom he noted was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus. He then said working with Stokes “informed me and educated me on the importance of supporting educational opportunities for all Americans.” He praised Keiser University as a school that performs that mission “very well.” He said he had visited a Keiser campus, and he touted the school’s “commitment to diverse education and a wide, diverse student body and focus on providing positive outcomes for its graduates….” Lindsay dismissed the criticisms of others that Keiser had abused its non-profit status as “centered around allegations that were made, frankly… over 11 years ago.”

While Lindsay concluded his remarks by saying that “we appreciate” the efforts of the Department and of Keiser University’s main accreditor, SACS, he didn’t explain who “we” was. He never actually mentioned that he had been hired by Keiser. It was a fact I knew, because Lindsay had previously reached out to me, but the general public did not know, and maybe some NACIQI members didn’t either. When I messaged Lindsay after his NACIQI statement and asked if I somehow missed the disclosure, he wrote back, “as you know, my representations are public knowledge that’s why I identified myself from The Livingston Group.” Lindsay was in fact listed on the meeting agenda with his affiliation being the Livingston Group — the Department requires commenters at these meetings to provide an affiliation — but he didn’t mention the Livingston Group in his actual remarks. Nor is there any lobbyist registration on file or other public confirmation that Lindsay represents Keiser. For all anyone listening to his testimony knew, Lindsay was just a big fan, and a highly-credentialed fan, of Keiser University. 

Other beneficiaries of Keiser largesse have rallied to his cause. Members of Congress, such as House Education and the Workforce committee chair and long-time Keiser ally Virginia Foxx (R-NC), a regular recipient of for-profit college industry campaign cash, continue to attack the student loan lawsuit settlement that has upset Keiser so greatly. 

Pro-Keiser testimonials also keeping popping up. At the latest NACIQI meeting, in March, a public commenter, Dr. Robert McClure, President and CEO of the Florida-based James Madison Institute, which describes itself as committed to “free markets, limited government, and economic liberty” (and whose recent Naples, Florida, dinner speaker was Tucker Carlson), lavishly praised Keiser, and then said politics had no place in higher education discussions. It was unclear what politics McClure was referencing. (A version of his comments was published on the website RealClear Policy.) 

A recent article in a Laurinburg, North Carolina, newspaper, authored by an “area political analyst” named Justice Early Zauber, addressed the controversy over Keiser gaining influence, as we first reported, over Laurinburg’s St. Andrews University. (The Keiser University employee who was somehow installed as St. Andrews‘s president abruptly resigned in January, and the school seems to have now shut down the satellite campuses it had created in Columbia and North Charleston, SC, and Charlotte, NC — all located, tellingly, at the same addresses as campuses of Keiser’s for-profit Southeastern College.)

This Keiser defender, Ms. Zauber, is apparently pictured here, from her Facebook page, beaming at the January 6, 2021, Donald Trump rally on the National Mall. 

In her article, Zauber criticized a group of concerned St. Andrews alumni, saying they “appear[ed] to be collecting their intel and taking battle cues from a political blogger who seems to have a longstanding, personal quarrel with Keiser University’s chancellor.” 

That comment echoes the words of Arthur Keiser himself, who has repeatedly claimed that criticisms of his schools are somehow personal, or else “political.” 

I guess, then, that Republican former Florida attorney general Bondi, the U.S. Justice Department, the Internal Revenue Service, the U.S. Department of Education, numerous members of Congress, and multiple accrediting agencies, all of whom have criticized or taken action against Keiser schools for shoddy or abusive practices that pose risks to students and taxpayers, also have a personal or political quarrel with Arthur Keiser?