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Zurik: Nursing school director says board member pressured school leaders for student’s admission

Updated: Aug. 25, 2021 at 10:00 PM CDT
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The health technology building at Louisiana State University-Eunice.
The health technology building at Louisiana State University-Eunice.(Cody Lillich/WVUE-TV)

EUNICE, La. (WVUE) - The head of a state nursing school says a board member pressured for a student’s admission on multiple occasions, despite the student falling below the cut-off for the program.

Text messages, obtained by FOX 8, reveal the board member -- LSU Board of Supervisors At-Large member Lee Mallett -- might be using his power inappropriately to influence admission.

“I don’t think any one person should exert additional power or control over something because of an appointed position,” Dr. Lisa Hawthorne, LSUE Nursing Program Director, said. Hawthorne said she worries about speaking out about Mallett, fearing it could impact her job.

“We need to do things right, and ethically, especially when it comes to nursing,” Hawthorne said.

The director of the nursing school in rural Louisiana said Mallett pressured her boss, LSU-Eunice Chancellor Dr. Nancee Sorenson to accept a student into the nursing school.

“I think we’ve had two attempts now to definitely ensure that that happens [to get the student enrolled],” she said. Hawthorne said the Chancellor took the brunt of the communication from Mallett, including multiple phone calls.

An e-mail from April 27 showed LSU-Eunice Chancellor Sorenson inquiring to Hawthorne about an applicant for the nursing school writing she “only needs information about her status in the process.”

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On May 13, the student received a letter alerting her she was not selected for admission. The next day, Chancellor Sorenson sent Mallett a message writing, “working on the situation.”

Mallett replied, “Ty [Thank you] very important need answer today.”

Later that day the Chancellor sent Mallet a text stating she spoke with the student. “Meeting with her personally next week and we will get this done. I did not guarantee Fall admission but we should be able to guarantee Spring.”

Lee Mallett, seen at a Louisiana State University Board of Supervisors meeting on March 20, 2019.
Lee Mallett, seen at a Louisiana State University Board of Supervisors meeting on March 20, 2019.(Jon Turnipseed, WVUE-TV | Jon Turnipseed, WVUE-TV)

On May 18, Mallett said via text message, “I need to see you Monday in Eunice.” and “Need time.” Later that day Chancellor Sorenson responded, “I absolutely appreciate your position and know you are fulfilling your responsibilities at every level as am I.”

Dr. Robert Collins, a political scientist at Dillard University, has been a university administrator. He said board members may write letters of recommendation, but getting further involved in the process is wrong.

“It is really not the job of a board of supervisors member to take part in review of applications of any university. They are not part of the admissions process at all. And any attempt to influence would be considered unethical,” Collins said.

Mallett, who was reappointed by Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards in 2018, is an at-large member of the Board of Supervisors with a term that runs until June 2024.

He declined our request for an interview, but said in an e-mail, “your allegations appear to be from a disgruntled employee and those allegations are incorrect.”

Mallett said the reason for his involvement was to attempt to correct what “I think was a potential error regarding admission. The student received a letter confirming she met minimum admission requirements.”

Mallett a copy of the letter with the student’s name on it. FOX 8 has chosen to redact the student’s name. The letter said she “met the minimum admission requirements” but added, “you were not selected for admission at this time.”

“Every university has a minimum number of seats in each incoming class that they can admit because of their resources,” Collins said. “So just because you meet the minimum requirements doesn’t mean that you will be admitted.”

At LSU-Eunice, 132 applicants met the minimum requirements, but the school only had space to accept sixty students. But Mallett interpreted the letter differently, telling us, “in this instance, the letter was very troubling. The letter stated that the applicant met all minimum entrance requirements but then was not accepted.”

Hawthorne said after she wouldn’t accept the student, Mallett then pushed LSU-Eunice to expand its nursing school. She said his request was to add twenty spots to the program.

Mallett does not dispute he is looking to expand the number of admissions and said the increased need of nurses is the reason why. Hawthorne said it takes years to add more students to the program because the school needs proper approval and staffing.

Mallett said he does not know or have any personal connection to the student. The student’s father is in the electrical business and Mallett owns a construction company, though we have been unable to find a link between the two.

Regardless, the communications between the board member and the chancellor left a nursing school director uncomfortable and outraged.

LSU-Eunice Chancellor Dr. Nancee Sorenson did not respond to our request for comment on this story.

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