Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Conflicts, Cover-ups and Corruption

June 26, 2007, 7:40 a.m. [times reflect additions to the entry -- for the benefit of those few individuals who check back occasionally during the day -- as well as reflecting the fact that what is called "life" occasionally interrupts blogging]

I'm going to try to attend Governor Bill "What Makes You Think You Can Be President?" Richardson's event this morning (10:30, Iowa City Public Library, Meeting Room A), and if blogger John Deeth is not there to cover it (in which case he will leave nothing more to be said about it) provide you a little commentary. He stopped by the Register's editorial board yesterday and received for his efforts what I would consider a very upbeat, favorable column. See, Andie Dominick, "Richardson packs jokes, thick resumé," Des Moines Register, June 26, 2007

Meanwhile . . .

Greed, Conflicts, Cover-ups and Corruption Yesterday I used a movie line in describing the central Iowa campaign to increase the sales tax -- and use the revenue to lower the property taxes of businesses and other property owners: "Greed is good." Nicholas Johnson, "'Greed Is Good' - Poverty? 'Yes, It's Your Destiny,'" June 25, 2007. It was a commentary addressing, I guess one would have to say, the morality of the wealthy using their economic and political power to shift the cost of government services (many of which benefit them disproportionately anyway, e.g., infrastructure, TIFs, tax forgiveness and other incentives) from themselves onto the backs of those least able to pay. Note, not incidentally, that an increase in sales taxes from 6 cents to 7 cents is not a "one penny" increase; it's a nearly 17% increase -- being advocated by the very folks who are usually supporting candidates who campaign on "cutting taxes" (by cutting programs not benefiting the wealthy).

Yesterday the comments on the Register's story included those complaining that the paper had become an advocate for the tax hike and that its "news" stories ought to be on the opinion page. No one will be saying that today. [There are 12 comments as of 8:00 a.m. One of the better, earlier comments, has for some reason been removed. None supports the tax-hike-shift proposal.] See, Jeff Eckhoff, "Woman denies she touted 'Destiny'; I don't even pay property taxes, Urbandale senior asserts," Des Moines Register, June 26, 2007. The story details efforts of the tax-hike-and-shift backers to misrepresent the proposal (mentioning that it will cut property taxes without mentioning it will increase sales taxes), and in the main story in the piece, using the photo of an 82-year-old woman who has long lived in apartments and pays no property taxes, along with a "quote" she never uttered, to advance their campaign.

(Wondering what State29 thinks about all of this? I'll be you can guess. State29, "The Project Destiny Scam," June 26, 2007.)

The story illustrates another problem with greed. Once money becomes the sole coin of the realm, and the need for profits is replaced with ever-increasing pressure for ever-increasing profits, conflicts of interest become ever more difficult to resolve ethically.

Years ago magazines aimed at women said little to nothing about the fact that the number of women dying from lung cancer was increasing, ultimately surpassing the number dying from breast cancer. Editors knew the story, they knew lung cancer's relationship to increased cigarette consumption by women, they knew manufacturers were targeting women -- and doing so in significant measure with the ads the companies were running in their magazines. But they needed the advertising revenue and, well, "women probably aren't interested in reading those stories anyway."

The NCAA wants to distance itself from sports gambling, and the gambling industry generally, in every way possible. It expressly forbids association with gambling casinos at NCAA events or in its advertising. It highly recommends that NCAA schools follow the same practice. It has written the UI athletic program with regard to its partnership with the Riverside Gambling Casino. And yet our football program tries to rationalize the gambling partnership while refusing to do anything about it.

This morning's Daily Iowan reports, Ashton Shurson, "Mason, Barta Set to Work Together," The Daily Iowan, June 26, 2007, that our new president has paid proper respect to the athletics program and its director. The story quotes Interim President Fethke as saying, "You have to respect the athletics director's opinion and point of view and trust that person."

Fethke's "respect" was so substantial that he's never (so far as I know) said anything critical in public regarding the NCAA's slap in our face about our gambling partnership with the Riverside Casino. Will the leadership that Mason brings include the ethical, moral and legal issues this relationship raises -- or will she continue the deafening silence from Jessup Hall on the issue because, after all, the athletic program is increasingly responsible for raising its own money, they have to get it where they can, and a university president must show "respect" to the athletic director?

Universities are not immune from the pressures that in corporate American can produce an Enron, or the political pressures that produce a U.S. Congress that simply can't "afford" to stand up to the pharmaceutical industry. Mason has been advised that as much as one-third of her time should be spent in fund raising. Clearly it's a major part of what she has been hired to do, a major part of the "performance" that can produce an extra $50,000 a year under her contract.

As such, she -- like every other big university's president -- will be subjected to similar pressures as the editor who must decide whether s/he can "afford" to run an essential story that will cause a loss of advertising revenue, an athletic director who must weigh the advice (and standards) of the NCAA against the revenue that can come from the gambling industry, or a politician in need of campaign contributions deciding how to vote on a measure that will clearly help her constituents but cause a special interest group to cut off her funding.

How will she decide whether to accept a major contribution from a donor who wants a faculty member fired (or hired), or a program established that is antithetical to the university's mission?

We've already stopped naming colleges and buildings for scholars and started naming them for donors. Are there any limits? The CEO of Home Depot gave $200 million to the Atlanta museum. Would we, for an equivalent amount, become "The Home Depot University of Iowa"? What if Larry Flynt would offer $300 million if we'd change the name to "Flynt University"? (After all there's a "Stanford University" and a "Duke University" -- named for a guy who made his money from tobacco.) Why not a "Flynt University"? We need his money as much as Barta needs the gambling industry's money.

What about a corporation that is willing to underwrite a multi-million-dollar research program -- so long as it gets a disproportionate share of the benefits from what it produces?

How candid should she be about, or should she even acknowledge at all, a potential scandal that could deal a blow to fund raising?

The question is not whether she will confront such conflicts. Of course she will. It goes with the territory in an age in which what used to be educational institutions with public support have developed more in common with for-profit corporations. The question is how she will respond to them. These conflicts often involve shades of gray. The more profitable choice can often be rationalized in some way -- as Barta tries to do with gambling money.

How many bars are there within walking distance of the campus -- 40? They are so profitable -- and therefore so politically powerful -- that the City Council seems incapable of doing anything meaningful to curb students binge drinking. Well, who are these customers anyway? They are students. The University's students. Our students. At a time when the University is in need of every source of income it can find, when it issues lucrative monopoly contracts to Coca Cola (so it can raise its prices) notwithstanding the product's health impact on students, why just wink at the profits from binge drinking when the University could be sharing in them? With a little ingenuity I think the University could be pulling in the lion's share of that money with its own entertainment venues. Something to think about.

I imagine that even President Mason cannot now imagine the choices -- the potential conflicts, cover-ups and corruption -- she will have to confront or how she will resolve them.

This morning's Register story illustrates how "just a little harmless doctoring of the promotional literature" is not only morally wrong, but can backfire. If those putting comments on that Register story represent the majority they may be, that may just be "all she wrote" on the sales tax for the wealthy.

The University's story? That's yet to be written.

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[Note: If you're new to this blog, and interested in the whole UI President Search story . . .

This blog began in June 2006 and has addressed, and continues to addresses, a number of public policy, political, media, education, economic development, and other issues -- not just the UI presidential search. But that is the subject to which most attention has been focused in blog entries between November 2006 and June 2007.

The presidential search blog entries begin with Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search I," November 18, 2006. They end with Nicholas Johnson, "UI Held Hostage Day 505 - Next (Now This) Week," June 10, 2007 (100-plus pages printed; a single blog entry for the events of June 10-21 ("Day 516"), plus over 150 attached comments from readers), and Nicholas Johnson, "UI Hostages Free At Last -- Habemas Mamam!," June 22, 2007.

Wondering where the "UI Held Hostage" came from? Click here. (As of January 25 the count has run from January 21, 2006, rather than last November.)

For any given entry, links to the prior 10 will be found in the left-most column. Going directly to FromDC2Iowa.Blogspot.com will take you to the latest. Each entry related to the UI presidential search contains links to the full text of virtually all known, non-repetitive media stories and commentary, including mine, since the last blog entry. Together they represent what The Chronicle of Higher Education has called "one of the most comprehensive analyses of the controversy." The last time there was an entry containing the summary of prior entries' commentary (with the heading "This Blog's Focus on Regents' Presidential Search") is Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search XIII -- Last Week," December 11, 2006.

My early proposed solution to the conflict is provided in Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search VII: The Answer," November 26, 2006.

Searching: the fullest collection of basic documents related to the search is contained in Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search - Dec. 21-25," December 21, 2006 (and updated thereafter), at the bottom of that blog entry under "References." A Blog Index of entries on all subjects since June 2006 is also available. And note that if you know (or can guess at) a word to search on, the "Blogger" bar near the top of your browser has a blank, followed by "SEARCH THIS BLOG," that enables you to search all entries in this Blog since June 2006.]

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