Heidi Weber challenged a for-profit school in a groundbreaking case that’s been described as David vs Goliath. The former dean turned whistleblower has been through a nightmarish experience, but has come out on the other side with no regrets and a fervent desire to educate and help others.
After 15 years as a medical assistant, Weber was approached by a college, asking her to consider teaching a class. Immediately, Weber knew that this was another great way to help patients, as well as a fun new career challenge. She was later offered a full-time job there. At the same time, Globe University (GU) – a large chain of career training schools — was building a new school, where Weber was also offered a full-time job. She chose GU, figuring she’d have more opportunities to grow.
Right away, Weber heard what the admissions reps were saying to potential students. Among other things, they were told that their credits would transfer and that it was up to the institution, but this was false information. Because the school was targeting people with low economic status and little education, they didn’t have the tools to question things. When they did ask questions, GU would glaze over the question and say they’d return to it later, only they never did. Admissions people were trained for four weeks nonstop in a boot-camp like program, whereas educators got maybe one day of in-service before teaching.
GU offered a private loan with rates similar to a credit card, which they encouraged students to take. Students were being put in huge financial debt. “So much of it was manipulating,” Weber says. “I thought maybe it was just related to a new campus startup and would improve. I also was teaching students who couldn’t read or do simple math, yet qualified for max federal (taxpayer supported) student loans and grants.”
She started casually mentioning this to her supervisors and even called the dean at the time. They all put her off and said they’d “look into it,” or scolded her and told her to worry about her own teaching position. Teachers at her level were segregated from talking to other programs or corporate.
When Weber was promoted to dean, she had to visit all the campuses, where she started hearing the same script at each one. Her concern grew. As she explained in an interview with Ella’s Whistleblower Heroes, for-profit schools like GU can have whatever admission standards they like. At GU, over 99 percent of people who took the admission test were admitted. The school was also looking for people who were ex-military, because this allowed them to comply with the 90/10 federal rule for funding. The admissions rep handbook, or the “sales handbook,” was all about finding the potential student’s pain and using it against them. “It’s like 100 pages of psychological manipulation to get them to enroll,” Weber said.
After her promotion, Weber talked to her corporate supervisors but was too swamped with administrative duties to take it any further. She was working 12-14 hours a day. The program had few educational standards and required a full curriculum rewrite. “I think that keeping me busy was their way of shutting me up,” Weber says. When she audited student files, she found that the statistics (grad rates, transfers, employment, etc.) being reported were off – some as much as by 23 percent.
A year later, Weber received a positive performance review and a raise. Then her father — who was a strong figure in her life — died of kidney cancer. He had been a deputy sheriff, so he had the utmost respect for the law and judicial system. He raised Weber to be the same. Yet GU made Weber leave her dad’s funeral to attend an accreditation conference. She calls this the longest day of her life. She had just lost one of the most important people in her life, yet she was sitting in the middle of the Atlanta airport crying her eyes out at 10 o’clock at night.
A stranger walked up to her and asked if she was ok. Immediately, she looked at him, sobbing, and started rattling off everything she’d seen at GU and what she was going through. He listened calmly to every word. At the end of her rant, she lamented, “I don’t know what to do.” The man gave her a reassuring half smile, and said, “Seems like you already know what you need to do.”
After thinking about it all night and the next day, Weber realized the man was right. She did know what she needed to do. “That’s when I made the decision that I was going to start really blowing the whistle and going up the chain of command internally to either fix all these problems or be a statistic like every other whistleblower,” she recalls.
As Weber moved up the chain of command, she got increasingly vocal because no one was listening. Her compliance officer ignored her and basically said she was making a big deal out of nothing. The provost was brand new; he yelled at Weber and threatened her. He told her if she didn’t learn to be quiet and shut her mouth, her job would be in jeopardy. Soon after that, she walked into the president’s office (who also happened to be the son of the owner). He was unaware of what was happening, and scheduled three weekly meetings. Every single leadership position attended these meetings. Four days after the third meeting, Weber was told they needed to take the program in a different direction and let her go, in April 2011.
After being depressed for a week, Weber got mad. She didn’t want to be a statistic. After trying unsuccessfully to find an attorney (several told her she wouldn’t win), she found Clayton Halunen. As Weber says, there was a lot she didn’t know about the legal process, which she wasn’t thinking about when she decided to blow the whistle. “I soon got an education,” she says.
Throughout the motions, discovery, depositions, and so forth, Weber was having difficulty finding a job. She’d have a great interview, but then once the employer found out who she was, she wouldn’t hear back. Finances were tight and Weber was raising three daughters with her husband. Then the intimidation began. The brake lines were cut on their truck, windows were shot out on their car, and one of her daughters got a threatening phone call. These incidents were reported to the police, but never solved. Weber was also followed. “You would think I was terrified with that, but as long as my girls and husband were ok, I remember thinking, ‘I’ve already been through so much. Bring it on, whoever you are,’” she says.
The trial began in August 2013. After jury selection, Weber was on the stand for two and a half full days of questions and back and forth testimony. At the first break, her attorney gave her a talking to. He said, “Heidi, this is the time you need to fight back; this is the time you need to tell your story. Tell them everything that happened and don’t hold back. All you have to do is just tell the truth.” After that break, she came out swinging.
After one day of deliberations, the jury came back with a unanimous verdict in her favor. The $395,000 award was modest – basically just her wages for the years of the case plus interest. Naturally, GU appealed the case as far as it could, all the way to the state Supreme court, which upheld the verdict. This was another 18 months after the trial.
The MN Attorney General combined much of Weber’s evidence with her own investigations, and took GU to trial. She won regarding fraud in the criminal justice program. All of the school’s state financial aid was halted; the government cut off that funding. Weber calls this a crippling blow to GU because they rely on this upwards of 90 percent or more. The family owns several “brands” of schools, of which GU is one. They also own MN School of Business, which has been closed, MN School of Cosmetology (open), a trucking school (open), and Broadview University. Broadview shares the same leadership, curriculum and policies as GU and MN School of Business, yet is still open.
As for Weber, she calls her job with GU the last paycheck she ever got in her field. Since the trial, she’s become friends with the forewoman, who told her that the jury thought the verdict would be enough and Weber would easily get another job. “Most whistleblowers end up giving up their careers and have to retrain, reeducate, and start over, and that’s if you can get past the PTSD-like symptoms that we all seem to experience from the stress and trauma of everything,” says Weber. “I was raised to be a ‘pull your bootstraps up’ kind of gal, and I was not going to ever give up on a career again.”
In 2014, Weber was invited to speak to Congress regarding for-profit colleges. Her story was featured on the finale of CBS Whistleblower in August 2018. Soon after, her LinkedIn account has since exploded; she had one connection last year, and after six months, she had almost 2,000. CBS has hired her as an associate producer and story consultant for Season Two. She’ll be speaking at the Whistleblower Summit on Capital Hill this coming July, and has other speaking engagements. She’s also a whistleblower advocate, helping others on this journey find new careers and regain their self esteem. She works with Whistleblowers of America in advocacy and training.
“I want to educate others on ethics, what whistleblowing really is and is not, and employment integrity,” says Weber. “I’m going to do everything I can to educate others on the reality of whistleblowers, and end the negative narrative that many have. I want to continue to motivate others to speak their truth and not be afraid to have ethics, standards, and a desire for justice.”