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Ed Dept. sued over lack of transparency in fining Christian university $37.7 million

The Goldwater Institute has filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration for levying a fine on Grand Canyon University for nearly $40 million over allegedly unclear syllabi.

The U.S. Department of Education first announced the fine against the largest Christian university in the nation on Oct. 31, 2023, claiming its leaders lied to students and alumni about the cost of its Ph.D. programs for several years.

The Education Department said in its news release at the time that “as far back as 2017, GCU was not fully informing students about the cost of its doctoral programs. GCU stated that those doctoral programs cost between $40,000 and $49,000.”

The fine is exponentially larger than what Penn State and Michigan State have had to pay in the past for sexual assault scandals. These schools paid $2.4 million and $4.5 million, respectively.

On Feb. 14, the Goldwater Institute filed a lawsuit against the DOE after it failed to provide public records under the Freedom of Information Act. Goldwater sought the contents of correspondence between department officials and other agencies discussing the reasons behind the fine.

“We’re not representing GCU, but we are on the side of transparency,” Stacy Skankey, an attorney at the center-right nonprofit institute, told The College Fix in an interview.

“This is really about what the public deserves to know,” she said. “They deserve to know why [the DOE] is looking into GCU and fine them such an amount when no one has come forward saying how harmed they were.”

The Goldwater Institute submitted the FOIA request on Dec. 4, 2023, and the department did not provide a sufficient response within 20 business days.

If a federal agency does not reply to a FOIA request within this time frame, the requester has grounds to appeal to the court to compel the disclosure of the documents requested.

“Transparency is vitally important with government institutions, and they’re not above the law,” Skankey added. “They need to be held accountable.”

The Department of Education told The College Fix it does not comment on pending litigation.

For Skankey, she said a big concern with the fine is that there are no students or employees filing formal complaints to justify such a gargantuan fee, or at least none that are made explicit by the DOE.

“It’s a victimless crime,” she said. “There’s no complaint cited in this announcement for this giant fine. So we don’t know that there are student’s actually being harmed here.”

The institute is currently awaiting a response from the department concerning the lawsuit.

Bob Romantic, executive director of communications at Grand Canyon University, told The College Fix the Education Department’s grievances are difficult to understand.

“The Education Department’s claim [is not] based on student complaints but rather those agencies’ subjective opinions of our disclosures,” he said. “We make very clear in numerous places including our Degree Program Calculator that additional courses are needed to continue enrollment to complete a dissertation, which is common in higher education doctoral programs.”

“The federal government agencies apparently believe that our most experienced and advanced students – those pursuing a doctorate – are not capable of reading a simple enrollment agreement,” he added.

This is not the first time that GCU has been challenged on a legal basis. Donrich Young accused the university of intentional misrepresentation for doctorate students. In Young v. GCU, an appeals court in 2023 handed down a mixed ruling.

GCU’s accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission, described the school’s resources and information as “robust and thorough, providing prospective students a clear picture of their academic and financial path toward a degree at GCU.”

The Biden administration has been accused of an anti-Christian bias in higher education, especially after it filed a different complaint against GCU earlier this year.

The Dec. 27 complaint from the Federal Trade Commission alleges GCU’s for-profit marketing arm engaged in deceptive advertising, “abusive telemarketing practices,” and other violations.

Skankey told The Fix the school may be targeted because of its success.

“GCU is a private institution that is very different from the surrounding schools,” Skankey said. “They’re not indoctrinating students, they don’t have DEI programs, and they have successful graduates.”

MORE: FTC lawsuit prompts GCU to accuse Biden administration of extreme anti-Christian bias

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About the Author
College Fix contributor Rafael Oliveira is a fellow at the Falls Church Anglican. A graduate of The King’s College, he studied politics, philosophy and economics. His work has appeared in the Empire State Tribune and Empire State Magazine.