Complaint may hamper FLC alumni outreach
Although Fort Lewis College President Dene Kay Thomas was vindicated in the ethics complaint over her trip to Dubai, the case may have done lasting harm to the college’s new outreach efforts to foreign alumni.
Thomas’ February trip raised the ire of a former student, who saw it as a junket that violated the state constitution’s ban on gifts to public employees.
But Fort Lewis leaders say it’s part of a strategy they have been pursuing for a few years to reach out to alumni across the globe.
The state Independent Ethics Commission dismissed the complaint Tuesday, with commissioners saying they didn’t think Thomas broke any rules when she and her husband attended a dinner reception hosted by an alumnus at the Burj al Arab, a world-renowned hotel in Dubai.
But the ethics case, and its coverage in The Durango Herald, cast Fort Lewis’ alumni outreach efforts in a poor light, said Margie Deane Gray, executive director of the Fort Lewis College Foundation.
Prior to the trip, Fort Lewis officials traded several friendly emails with Sheikh Adel Aujan personally. That has changed since the ethics case was filed.
“It made it sound like we had no heart, no soul, and we were just going after him in callous ways. He stopped corresponding with us,” Deane Gray said. “It could have hurt us in a serious way.”
Aujan, a Saudi Arabian citizen, is no ordinary alumnus. A 1968 graduate of Fort Lewis, he has become one of the richest men in the Middle East after turning his family’s small soft drink company into a multinational force with products that are more popular than Coca Cola in the Persian Gulf. The website arabianbusiness.com dubbed him “the Mideast’s king of pop.”
While attending Fort Lewis, Aujan worked for the late Art Isgar, a prominent rancher. He has returned to Durango to visit the Isgar family, Deane Gray said.
Aujan could be “vital” to the college’s future, said Michelle Merz-Hutchinson, a first assistant attorney general who argued Thomas’ case at the ethics commission.
“A donor with this kind of financial means, I can’t overstate how important such a contact would be,” Merz-Hutchinson said at the hearing Tuesday.
Thomas’ trip to Dubai was meant to re-engage Aujan and several other alumni in the Middle East with the college – not to ask for a handout. That’s standard practice when talking to alumni no matter how much money they have, Deane Gray said.
Thomas and Aujan talked about recruiting new students for Fort Lewis from the Middle East. The college used to have many students from the region, Deane Gray said.
After the ethics panel dismissed the complaint, Mitch Davis, the college’s spokesman, said Fort Lewis officials plan to send Thomas abroad again.
“We were waiting until this got out of the way before we moved on any of those plans,” Davis said.
Thomas has been to Japan already, and college officials are looking at a trip to Europe to meet alumni, Deane Gray said.
Colorado’s public colleges have endured substantial cuts the past five years, and other state colleges were watching the ethics case closely, worried about its effect on their ability to raise funds, said Deputy Attorney General Bernie Beuscher, who helped represent Fort Lewis at the hearing.
One member of the ethics commission, Bob Bacon, said that instead of being punished, Fort Lewis should be praised for its international fundraising.
“This method of outreach to donors from abroad might be a model to other colleges and universities,” said Bacon, a former state legislator who was chairman of the Senate Education Committee.