Wayward presidents risk college integrity

January 14, 2000


"Presidential scandal" in the United States no longer applies only to the man in the White House as a growing number of university presidents are caught in compromising positions.

Last November the president of a conservative private college resigned after allegations, which he denied, that he had an affair with his daughter-in-law, who had committed suicide.

Other university presidents have been accused of sexual harassment, misuse of government grants, embezzlement, lying on their resumes and lavish, unauthorised spending.

"We expect honesty and truthfulness from students. And we expect the same from scholars, professors and administrators," said Brian Schrag, executive secretary of the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics. "Otherwise, it undercuts credibility."

Dr Schrag said university presidents may also have become caught in a raging national debate about ethical standards that apply to the leaders of all organisations, including government and business.

"One question that comes up is whether they're being held to a higher standard than other people or previous generations, at least by the media," he said. Public records law also makes more information available, said Dr Schrag, a member of the faculty of the Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions at Indiana University.

"There has been a movement in the US over the past 30 years to be more conscious about ethical responsibilities of professionals," he said. "There has been a growth of ethics centres, most of them at universities. What you're seeing in higher education is probably a natural outgrowth of that."

The case of Hillsdale College president George C. Roche III came to public attention when his daughter-in-law committed suicide in October, shortly after Mr Roche remarried.

He had divorced his wife of 44 years three months earlier. Police confirmed that she had alleged the affair.

Mr Roche resigned without addressing the allegations, but the scandal drew charges of hypo-crisy. Hillsdale prides itself on its conservative values and integrity.

But the case is not the only example. University of Colorado president John Buechner has resigned amid charges that, among other things, he gave a lucrative contract to a woman with no higher educational credentials and with whom he was allegedly romantically involved.

Adelphi University president Peter Diamondopoulos had to step down when it was disclosed that he was taking nearly $1 million a year in salary and benefits - including use of a Mercedes-Benz and an apartment in Manhattan - as enrolment fell and tuition fees skyrocketed.

Illinois College of Optometry president Boyd Banwell was sacked and forced to repay $600,000 when it turned out he had channelled contributions to the state senate president in return for state funding, even as the privately operated school was amassing a substantial surplus.

Vivian Blevins, chancellor of St Louis Community College, was ousted after barely 16 months when an audit found "frivolous and imprudent" spending, including thousands of dollars on gifts, parties and extravagant expenses.

In a criminal case against the chief financial officer at Mount Ida College, it was disclosed that the college was paying for the private school tuition of its president's children and his household groceries, and that it had bought his house at a vastly inflated price but had allowed him to continue living there rent-free.

One of the earliest cases was that of Stanford University president Donald Kennedy, who was forced to resign after it was found the university had overcharged the federal government for overheads relating to research grants. Stanford was forced to repay millions of dollars to the government. Dr Kennedy remained on the faculty and today he teaches future university administrators how to handle ethical questions.

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