Adventures of a Visa Mill — Moving From Virginia to South Dakota

By David North on February 18, 2014

The University of Northern Virginia (UNV), a small operation and apparently a visa mill, once shuttered by both the Commonwealth of Virginia and (belatedly) by ICE, has popped up again, this time in South Dakota.

In earlier blogs, we have narrated the adventures of UNV: how it was raided by ICE and suspended by ICE, but later allowed to stay in business until it was closed by (usually pretty passive) Virginia authorities on the grounds that no accreditation agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education would accredit it.

Under the bizarre and overly permissive American immigration system, a non-accredited educational institution may cause foreign students to enter the country legally; but Virginia has stronger regulations than the nation.

Following, and as a direct result of the Virginia closure, ICE subsequently removed it from its list of institutions certified to cause the issuance of F-1 visas to foreign students, something it should have done long ago. See, for instance, here and here.

UNV also picked up negative press coverage because of the practices of its now-departed chancellor. As the Daily Mail, a London tabloid, put it in a headline: "University chancellor, 64, exposed as sadomasochistic, suburban sex-dungeon master".

UNV, a for-profit institution, is said to be owned by a U.S. resident who also owns three Chinese grocery stores. It happens to be located in Annandale, Va., a few miles from my home.

The other day, after doing some shopping, I decided to look in on its "campus", which consists of part of the ground floor of a low-rise office building, maybe 10 miles from the Capitol. I wondered if — despite the Commonwealth of Virginia and ICE — it would be still operating. I had been there before, and found that it had all of four classrooms, mostly involved in English as a Second Language instruction.

I found a UNV sign on the door, but the classrooms were empty and the administrative offices were now condensed to a single 12-by-20-foot room. Posing as would-be student — saying I wanted an introductory accounting class, something UNV had offered in the past — I spoke to one of the two UNV employees in the room. The answer was that they were conducting no classes in Virginia, only in South Dakota.

Being of a suspicious nature, I asked "Why, if you have no classes here, do you maintain this office?"

The answer was "to serve the needs of our former students." Although the response seemed remarkable for such an entity, I could not really ask more questions, but I wondered what conceivable motive a closed, for-profit educational institution could have for such an operation.

UNV's South Dakota Operation. I had noticed on the Internet weeks earlier that UNV had a website announcing its classes in South Dakota, complete with what probably is a misleading photo of the new "campus". I checked that site again on February 17 and it was still there.

The website says "University of Northern Virginia is authorized by the State of South Dakota to provide higher educational programs." It lists several currently offered on-line courses and four weekends only, on-location classes like "Statistics for Manager".

I decided to check with the South Dakota state government to see if UNV was, indeed, "authorized by the State of South Dakota" and found myself in one of those wonderful, warm, open, citizen-government relationships that are more often found away from the nation's capital.

After consulting with Google, I decided the best place to start was the South Dakota Board of Regents, which runs the state's universities. Maybe that entity also regulated the non-public educational entities.

I dialed the number. A real human being answered the phone, asked me a couple of pertinent questions, and then connected me with a ranking BoR official. He answered his phone, too, and I told him where I was calling from and that I had some whistle-blower information for his agency.

"Are you calling about the University of Northern Virginia?" he asked. He was not only accessible, articulate, and knowledgeable, was a mind-reader, too? I gave him a quick summary of the situation, none of which seemed new to him, until I mentioned my recent visit to the old UNV campus and their statement that they had classes in South Dakota.

That intrigued him, and he said that he was not quite the right one to talk to; I should talk to the Board's general counsel, but he was on the phone at the moment. I was told that he would call me within the next 24 hours.

General Counsel James Shekleton did just that. He explained that under South Dakota law a non-governmental institution of higher learning must either be accredited by a DoE-accepted accreditation agency, or, alternatively, meet two other requirements. These were that the entity had applied to the South Dakota Secretary of State and had worked out an arrangement with an accredited institution that would provide degrees to the applying entity's students. UNV had either not applied or its sought-after link with another institution had been rejected by the second entity, but, in any case, it was in trouble because it was apparently offering classes when it was not licensed. He said that the Attorney General's Office of Consumer Affairs handled enforcement and that he would be happy to forward anything I had on the subject to the appropriate Assistant Attorney General.

UNV may not be getting a warm welcome in South Dakota.

I should add that the South Dakota Board of Regents has nothing to do with the on-going EB-5 scandals in that state; for the most recent blog on that subject see here.