Reforming Higher Ed #1: Stop Bribing Politicians?

For years, colleges and universities have pandered to politicians and government officials. Honorary degrees, named facilities, and administrators’ flattering remarks on public occasions provide the usual currency. Sweetheart employment contracts to family members and other benefits are sometimes conferred to assure access to and support from political officials. Occasionally, benefits are provided to an official directly. One such case came to light recently concerning Brevard Community College’s (BCC) concluding a lucrative book deal with Florida State Senator, Mike Haridopolos.

Mike Haridopolos

Sen. Mike Haridopolos

The Deal

According to the Associated Press (AP) as published in The Palm Beach Post, BCC’s former president, Thomas E. Gamble, offered a book contract in 2003 to newly elected Sen. Haridopolos who was then teaching history part-time at BCC. The contract called for Haridopolos to write “a publishable, textbook-quality look at the development of the Florida Legislature, state constitution, the governor’s office and judiciary from pre-statehood until present.” For that, he was to receive $38,166.36 annually for 4 years (= $152,665.44) in lieu of any teaching responsibilities while, simultaneously, serving in the Florida State Senate. Not bad, for a manuscript that remained unpublished!

Defending the book in 2005, President Gamble (who retired in 2006 and died of cancer shortly thereafter) wrote to the Trustees  that “[Haridopolos’s] roles in the Florida Legislature have provided unique access to both houses in Tallahassee” (emphasis added). Moreover, Gamble stated that the book would be distributed by a regular publisher and would make money for the school.

The Book

Alas, the deal never came to fruition. According to the AP, President Gamble  worried that Haridopolos had not submitted sufficient material or records of his work on the book. Haridopolos, who earned a master’s degree in history from the University of Arkansas, apparently did little research for the book. The current president, James A. Drake, claims that his predecessor gave permission for the focus of the book to shift to current politics, although the original contract was not modified.

For four years after Haridopolos submitted the manuscript in 2007, only one copy of the book existed, kept in a BCC administrative office. Brendan Farrington, the AP reporter who has examined the 175-page, double-spaced manuscript describes it thus:

Most of final 175-page double-spaced product, though, doesn’t show extensive research. It gives a brief description of Republicans coming to power in Tallahassee, 70 pages of simplistic advice on campaigning, a description of how state government works written for someone with no knowledge of government and brief histories of the state and Brevard County.

The book contains scintillating advice on how to lay out political yard signs (the candidate’s last name should be prominent), the benefits of having a cell phone, and this bit on the necessity of having a website: “Today, a candidate without a website will be viewed as either not credible or not ‘with it.”‘ Other excerpts reflect a book containing rather wooden, simplistic descriptions of state government for those who know nothing at all about it. Next to nothing of Haridopolos’s own political experiences appears.

President Drake defends the book, stating,

I thought that the book was a very fine piece of work as a primer in the political process, . . . I thought it was a fine contribution to the college.

Nevertheless, President Drake admits that the deal for the book was very unusual.

Mike Haridopolos, Florida Legislative History and ProcessesCurrently, BCC has made good on its promise to distribute the book more widely. It is now available as a Kindle book on Amazon.com for $9.99. (I’m saving my money.) BCC will realize 70% of proceeds from the sale of the book. There is no online information about the book—no table of contents, online excerpts, or other information. President Drake attests that the book will be used by students and that he is trying to make arrangements for Sen. Haridopolos to interact with students perhaps by videoconferencing.

The Question

President Drake and former colleagues of Sen. Haridopolos acknowledge that the deal between him and BCC was highly unusual. As reported communications from President Gamble attest, BCC administrators clearly hoped for untrammeled access to legislative policy making that Sen. Haridopolos could provide, not to mention possible revenue. By offering such a sweetheart deal, did BCC officials violate professional or ethical principles?

Sen. Haridopolos is now President of the Florida State Senate. In addition, he serves as a part-time lecturer at the University of Florida, while running for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senator from Florida. Is the University of Florida repeating BCC’s error, if it is one, of trying to gain undue or unfair access?

Indeed, details of the Haridopolos-BCC arrangement aside, what should be the limits on benefits conferred by higher education on active politicians, officeholders, or their relatives? In a time when higher education budgets are under duress, does anything go?

What do you think?
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