Colorado State Sued over Accreditation

Students seek tuition reimbursement and other costs.

By Zach Mortice

Image courtesy of Colorado State University.

Twelve Colorado State University Master of Landscape Architecture graduates are suing the school for promising to become an accredited degree program and failing to follow through, even seven years after the program began.

The lawsuit alleges that the school promised to pursue accreditation after an initial class had graduated, as Landscape Architectural Accreditation Board (LAAB) regulations require. Shelley Don, of Don, Galleher & Associates in Denver, is the attorney for all 12 plaintiffs. “The students understood that they were not getting into an accredited program,” Don said, “but were made to understand that the school was applying for accreditation, and that their role was going to be a necessary component of the accreditation process.”

E-mails transcribed in the formal complaint, and first reported by the Coloradoan, show that Brad Goetz, a Colorado State landscape architecture professor and the director of the MLA program, repeatedly assured the plaintiffs that the school was indeed seeking MLA accreditation.

After Goetz told one plaintiff, Scott Preston, via e-mail that the university was working toward accreditation in October 2014, Preston replied that the only reason he had chosen to attend CSU was because the school had promised to become accredited. “I’m staring at a mountain of debt from attending the program, and really just want to know if there is a commitment to this goal,” Preston wrote, according to the complaint. Preston, who graduated in May 2013 and lives in Illinois, even offered to travel back to Colorado to meet with the accreditation board.

Goetz responded: “Yes, we still hope to be evaluated to become an accredited MLA program. The process takes some time, and there are many different entities involved. I wish I could tell you more than that, but I’m unable to do so.”

Later, in November 2016, Goetz e-mailed another plaintiff, Bethani Puzo, to say the school was still sorting out “departmental goals and objectives” on the path to accreditation, six years after the program began.

The LAAB has no record of the school’s ever having begun an accreditation process, said Kristopher Pritchard, ASLA’s accreditation and education programs manager. The accreditation board is an autonomous entity within ASLA.

Colorado State officials declined to comment, citing pending legal action.

The former students, who graduated between 2012 and 2017, are suing to recover tuition and other costs associated with wage and career disruption, which they assert they suffered when the credential they signed up to work toward never materialized. “Each one of them has special, independent, and individual damages that they’ve sustained,” Don said. “Some involve lost wages. Some involve lost opportunities. Some involve tuition and all of the other collateral expenses of going to a program. Some of them uprooted to move here from different states. Some of them left careers in other areas; some of them were in this area, and wanted to improve their credentials.”

Don declined to comment on any specific reasons the university provided for why it did not become accredited.

In spring of last year, according to the Coloradoan, the head of the Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture program, Jessica Davis, e-mailed students to tell them the MLA program had been put on hold, seven years after its launch. From the Coloradoan: “The finances available to run the MLA program are not sufficient to sustain it. Therefore, we will not be accepting any new students in Fall 2017 or beyond, and we are not seeking accreditation of the MLA.”

Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist who focuses on landscape architecture and architecture. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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