The purpose of an audit is to assess an organization’s health with clear eyes and show, unsparingly, where attention is needed. Yet at Western Washington University, internal audit investigations have led to auditors’ forced departures and subsequent lawsuits. The Bellingham-based university’s administrators and trustees must reestablish a culture where trustworthy audits result in a strengthened university without retribution.
Western fired auditor Antonia Allen after she investigated bureaucratic chicanery that gave 20 students unearned credits for “ghost courses” to obtain financial aid and allowed 31 to take courses without registering. Allen has sued, claiming that exposing these wrongs and alerting federal regulators drew retaliation. The school is contesting the lawsuit. But the underlying issue remains that it must fix the credibility of its audit mechanism to ensure future investigations — and the State Auditor — can get credible information freely.
As at other state public universities, Western’s audits are supposed to show that the school is exercising good governance. Yet, as documented by the Times’ Asia Fields, troubles within the university’s audit office that extend for several years raise serious questions about whether the audit mechanism is being allowed to function properly.
Allen’s predecessor audited a former president’s travel claims, was allegedly forced out in 2015, then collected a $216,000 settlement in a misconduct suit. After Allen’s firing in November 2019, the school’s longtime registrar and its other internal auditor both left the university. That auditor described a “culture of fear” due to all the tumult.
Western must reestablish the credibility of its auditing process. After more than a year since Allen was fired, no replacement has been hired. A university spokesman said the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed the hiring process. The fact remains that Western has gone more than a year without a permanent leader of its internal watchdog office. The board of trustees, who are appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee, and Western administration must make correcting this lapse a priority.
Two other state agencies also should play key roles in setting Western right. One is the Attorney General’s office, which should work toward a culture that encourages institutions to fully address problems that an auditor flags, instead of casting doubt on their seriousness. As an independently elected state official, Attorney General Bob Ferguson and his assistants owe a duty to the public to fight for good governance, not shield a “client” agency from potential consequences.
State Auditor Pat McCarthy should also step up here. Until Western can reestablish an effective and trustworthy audit system, the state has a duty to conduct thorough investigations of Western’s administration. From the top down, the school must show that it is fully invested in strong oversight. It will take years to restore a healthy, constructive internal auditing culture within Western. Until then, the diligent watchdog work must come from the state level.