Dene Kay Thomas and ethics

Fort Lewis College President Dene Kay Thomas, like all in her position, must dedicate a healthy portion of her time to fundraising on the college’s behalf. That is nothing new, nor is the practice of meeting with alumni who are interested in supporting their alma maters. Given the long-established tradition of colleges – and their presidents – seeking support from their former students, Thomas’ visit to the United Arab Emirates to meet with Sheik Adel Aujan was rote, and an ethics complaint about Thomas’ trip turned out to be much ado about nothing new. The state’s process revealed it as such.

Thomas, with approval and funding from FLC’s Board of Trustees, traveled with her husband to the Arab country in February, attending a swanky dinner and meeting with Aujan to establish a fundraising relationship. This is all par for the presidential course that colleges follow, and Thomas was right to seek and secure clearance from FLC’s trustees before taking the trip. Everything was above board.

The trip, though, spurred an ethics complaint from a somewhat shadowy corporation – Lark’s Wing LLC – formed by a former student who had a tumultuous relationship with the college. Nevertheless, the complaints – which alleged that Thomas was in violation of the state constitution’s amendment guiding the ethics of elected and appointed officials, as well as FLC’s fiscal rules – were taken seriously enough to prompt consideration by the state ethics commission. As uncomfortable as this was for Thomas and the college, it was the proper protocol for reviewing – and dismissing – the complaints.

Allegations that a high-profile public official such as a college president has misused public time and money must be taken seriously, and given the distance – geographical and cultural – that Thomas’ trip to the United Arab Emirates spanned, the complaint was worth examining. The state ethics commission – itself a somewhat shadowy body that operates mostly behind closed doors – is tasked with sorting out what is legitimate.

It did so effectively in this case. The commission considered the facts, evaluated them in terms of Colorado law and found no reason to pursue further action. There was no formal hearing deemed necessary; Thomas and FLC were wholly cleared of any wrongdoing.

In the offing, much more was revealed about Lark’s Wing and its creator, Rose M. Daniel, a former FLC student who withdrew from the school in 2011 after campus police investigated her for allegedly distributing marijuana-laced baked goods to unsuspecting recipients on campus. There are certain to be hard feelings remaining from that incident – perhaps on all sides – and it is not difficult to piece together the path that led to the ethics complaint.

Thomas and the college were justified in their frustration about the distraction caused by defending against the complaint, but whatever its motivation, Lark’s Wing followed the proper procedural course in bringing the allegations and the college had to endure the process – and all that accompanied it. John Wells, chairman of FLC’s Board of Trustees, recognized this, and the discomfort it created, despite the college’s certainty that Thomas’ actions were appropriate. “That’s what we all knew, but sometimes you have to go through these processes,” Wells said.

That is true, and at the end of this one, Fort Lewis College and its president have been appropriately cleared of any wrongdoing.

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