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Higher Ed’s Scrutiny Gap: Is Corruption Getting a Free Press?

As a University of Chicago Ph.D. candidate, I’ve not only undertaken investigative reporting of my home institution, the famed Obama library site and a college rankings powerhouse, but also used that odd opportunity to sort out consequences from causes and identify our higher ed system’s major problems.

Currently, higher ed’s greatest flaw is its pre-modern, pre-democratic institutional structure: although 99.9% of universities are permanently dependent on taxpayer-funded student loans and research grants, their ultimate authorities are either self-appointing or politically appointed and thus face inadequate checks-and-balances against corruption.

In other words, vital stakeholders like alumni and frontline mission fulfillers of educators and researchers can’t say “enough!” with a simple vote, even when “badmin” seek personal prestige through unduly hasty building campaign or counterproductive cover-ups, or they even go and start blatantly self-enriching through CEO salaries and crony contracts.

This fundamental problem, however, is compounded by a second, even less discussed problem, higher ed’s “scrutiny gap” – that is, the blind spot in press coverage that gives colleges too much free rein with our tax money.

What’s more newsworthy than 8 college administrators receiving $7.6 million through pay raises over 5 years, each getting $450,000 to $3.3 million as a result, and not only that, but in the middle of trustee contracts and even as the school heads toward a credit downgrade? And at the main Obama Library contender of the time, and eventual winner?

That was my striking and substantiated factoid, but publication was difficult even in this best case scenario of a “juicy story”, a situation that in its particulars opens up circumstances plaguing higher ed coverage as a whole.

First off, our country has not completely confronted how universities are legalized old boys clubs tapped into public coffers and set on silently bleeding us dry.

Unaware that pretty much all universities couldn’t function without massive infusions of taxpayer cash, many people I’ve met still give kneejerk reactions like “They’re private!” or “That’s their problem!” when faced with obscene administrative salaries or misbehavior at UChicago or elsewhere.

Accordingly, neither CEO salaries nor crony contracts are seen as symptoms of a single common problem, though similar actions at somewhere like the Environmental Protection Agency would hoist up red flags and maybe even lead to congressional investigations.

More than this, though, any given university out there experiences practically no consistent press scrutiny.

Thorough coverage of all our country’s colleges is beyond the capacity of trade publications like the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed.

Among geographically limited journalists who could conceivably provide local monitoring, institution-specific stories are infrequent and tend to focus on already-developing scandals of “public” institutions, likely due to the pernicious belief that so-called “private” institutions somehow don’t involve our tax money.

Furthermore, laudable exceptions like the Mercury Newscoverage of San Diego State crony contracts and the attention of Crain’s Chicago Business to University of Chicago finances show that reporters must have patience for and comfort-level with bureaucratic process and number-crunching.

That said, the numbers of such skilled journalists are rapidly thinning. Thus, the “in-house PR firms” of schools’ communications offices can run scrimmage even more effectively, a problem increased by the exemption of so-called “private” schools from sunlight laws like FOIA despite their receipt of tax money hand-over-fist.

Tellingly, I once met a reporter for a well-regarded alternative newspaper at an activist event,and started speaking about the third trustee contract I’d discovered at University of Chicago, to an Obama bundler for parking garage construction, perhaps with cost overruns.

“Oh,” she was like, glancing to somewhere else in the room. “Sounds complicated.”

Nevertheless, media skepticism exists towards freelance investigative reporters.

In my own case, freelancing a straight news piece did not meet with success despite multiple drafts and multiple submissions to higher ed and city news sites, even though some reporting has since resurfaced in places like Crain’s Chicago Business.

Fortunately, a tangential freelancing acquaintance mentored me and recommended that I fold original reporting into “big picture” think pieces in order to maximize chances at publication.

Doubly fortunately, known forums like Jacobin and CounterPunch took an interest and ultimately published that work.

All the same, despite its dearth and social necessity, such serious freelance reporting is very rare, given the required levels of charity and luck.

Beyond these forums, student newspapers seem even less prone to provide the needed scrutiny, sadly.

In addition to the entrance barriers that all reporters face, undergraduates can lack the life experience sometimes necessary to identify and properly frame issues, and their population turnover can militate against the collective memory needed to tease out scandals and sustain long-term series.

True, student newspapers associated with journalism programs and faculty journalist advisers seem to produce better coverage.

For example, the student newspaper of Chicago’s open-enrollment Columbia College admirably identifies and memorably conveys challenging process-and-budget stories. Last spring’s coverage was especially notable; it highlighted a sham of a community input process and the strange decision to simultaneously increase class size and add in high-level, high-earning administrators.

In comparison, the University of Chicago student newpaper’s coverage of a nationwide publicity-getting restrictive elevator policy failed to challenge the school’s president and clearly ask “Who started it?”, while a recent editorial on Aramark’s food, service and health and safety violations fails to mention how the Chairman of the Board of Trustees was a former CEO.

Still other stories read like puff piece press releases from the in-house PR firm of the school’s News Office.

“An organ of the state,” a Slavic Studies professor friend once cracked.

Anecdotally, too, the reporters know that they can’t ask certain questions about pay when granted interview with administrators, because otherwise they’d sacrifice the material that fills their pages.

Such uncertain reporters are also prone to manipulation by News Office personnel, word-on-the-street goes; brush-offs work, as do sly suggestions of “better angles” that derail investigations ultimately benefitting the institution but not its exploitative administrators. I myself have encountered such challenges in pressing simple inquiries on who began the restrictive elevator policy, only to meet with official communications from a then-News Office staffer and current Carnegie Mellon Vice President, who mocked “several false premises you are clinging to, despite our best efforts to help you understand.”

Ironically, then, our country values the students who could get attention with incisive stories but are unsure in confrontation with authority figures, while the less elite students who understand the situation and have the skills to communicate it don’t get much of our attention at all.

Even worse? When some well-known institutions like Butler do produce good papers, badmin are doing their best to gut them and avoid any oversight whatsoever, as Inside Higher Ed has importantly reported.

In sum, then, between public unawareness and sporadic, decreasing media attention at best, higher ed oligarchies can run rampant if they wish, to the degree that they can escape bad publicity and any ensuing public outcry.

Within current laws, however, hope rests in increased public awareness about the use of taxpayer investment, the ambitiousness of competent reporters, and the unionization efforts of precarious faculty, among whom increased security will foster exposure of abuses as well as better instruction.

More importantly, though, our country needs to tie receipt of public monies to better legal oversight that directly takes on badmin through reforms like mandatory sunlight laws, conversion to civil service pay scales, and most of all a ban on trustee contracts alongside opening up their positions to election.

Under such reforms, journalists would have increased tools like a more broadly applicable FOIA, but less material due to less corruption.

Could we be so lucky that higher ed muckrakers will have so much less work to do?

Yes, when we face the crisis around us and reform higher ed, deeply.

Waste of our resources may be festering now, but everyone out there knows that the current path of American higher ed is unsustainable, and that a day of reckoning is coming.

More articles by:

David Mihalyfy (@mihalyfy) is a Lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago. His work has appeared in Inside Higher EdJacobinReligion DispatchesSightings, and the jtr bulletin, and has received coverage in the Dish and blogs of the Chronicle of Higher Education and the National Review.

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