A Rogue’s Round-Up: College Presidents Plunge en masse into Hot Water

What a week it has been! So much graft, corruption, and financial chicanery taking place in the hushed halls of academic administration that I hardly know where to begin. One by one piggy presidents have overstayed their welcome at the trough of entitlements that make up their discretionary accounts.

Take, for example, President Allen Sessoms of the University of the District of Columbia, one of those large, diverse public universities Bill Gates finds so troubling. Never mind the UDC is the gateway to a better life for thousands of determined but likely under-prepared survivors of the District’s public schools—Bill Gates thinks it doesn’t do a good enough job. And insofar as the behavior of its CEO goes, on this point I would agree with Gates.

President Sessoms is a travelin’ man, and he likes to travel in style: a $1,443 flight to Boston, a $1,859 flight to California, a $2,229 flight San Antonio, and a $7,952 flight to Cairo. How much do you want to bet he does not donate his frequent flyer miles back to the University?

My university president flew to Cairo first-class and all I got was this commemorative tee-shirt.

And when he travels, he brings along his entourage; according to the Washington, DC Fox affiliate, “A car rental receipt lists an additional charge for a “child seat” for a conference in San Diego. UDC also shelled out thousands for the entire Sessoms family to fly to a conference in Jackson Hole, WY over the Fourth of July weekend.” Tacky, when you consider had the Mrs. stayed home to tend the Sessoms brood she could’ve tooled around the streets of DC in the university-provided Lincoln Navigator or just relaxed in the comfort of her $1.6 million home, also provided by the college.

Says President Sessoms of his high-flying habits: “the receipts used in the story were taken out of context.” Says the university spokesman, in a valiant attempt to explain where Sessoms’ travel funds went: “In instances where there is no receipt or request for reimbursement – or any other explanation – reimbursement was either not requested, or the documentation does not exist for reasons I cannot explain at this time.” This satisfying explanation pretty much speaks for itself.

President Sessoms house, car, and appropriate travel are quite rightly paid for by the university. His excesses are not, and they have occasioned a firestorm of adverse publicity that UDC can ill afford. Way to go, Al!

Sessoms isn’t the first university president to get tripped up by the seeming largesse of his travel budget. Take, for example, the president of Brookdale Community College in New Jersey. Peter F. Burnham was on “administrative leave” when he resigned this week. Meanwhile, Brookdale’s trustees are busily trying to figure out just how much of Burnham’s $680,000 office budget amounted to “significant expenses and reimbursements … [not] directly connected to Brookdale or are contrary to Brookdale’s adopted policies governing travel, mileage and expenses.”

What might those “significant expenses and reimbursements” be, you might well inquire. The Asbury Park Press has the answer: Burnham received

a country club membership, a $1,500 monthly housing allowance and a new vehicle “suitable to his office,” which most recently meant a 2010 Ford Expedition that the college purchased for $42,815.

Country Clubbin' President Burnham takes aim at his discretionary accounts.

Burnham’s contract also allows up to $40,000 annually in college tuition for his two children, for a total of $267,676 to private universities so far.

Not too shabby for the president of a two-year college with a mission to serve the students of Monmouth County. And I think we can all agree that a paid-up country club membership is a great example of “Integrity and Accountability,” the “value” Brookdale espouses on it website:

Brookdale Community College values fairness, openness, and honesty, engaging in continuous self-assessment to sustain excellence and demonstrate accountability.

About that “accountabilty“:

Burnham, a member of the Middle States Commission for Higher Education, attended a conference for the group in Puerto Rico in January. He flew business class at a cost of $1,524.60, but the commission would only pay the cost of coach — $1,229.60. Brookdale was billed for the $295 difference. He also submitted $242 bill for dinner for two at Morton’s Steakhouse….

A quick review of 2009 and 2010 country club expenditures show that the college paid about $25,000 each year for membership and monthly expenses at Navesink Country Club. Records show Burnham spent nearly $7,000 in 2009 and more than $15,000 in 2010 on golf, meals and entertainment for unnamed guests.

I am thinking that Sessoms and Burnham must share a travel agent.

And finally we come to this week’s guilty plea, from former Central Arkansas University President Lu Hardin, also the former–as of this week–president of Palm Beach Atlantic University–on federal charges of wire fraud and money laundering related to a scheme to deceive the school’s board of trustees into giving him nearly $200,000.

President Hardin practices his signature, and many others.

Arkansas Online continues:

Assistant U.S. Attorney Pat Harris said in court that Hardin’s criminal activity began in April 2008 when he forged a letter to the board of trustees suggesting it was legal for a $300,000 deferred compensation package to be paid to Hardin immediately. The letter purported to be signed by UCA officials, including its vice president and chief counsel, but it was actually written by Hardin without their knowledge.

In making his case to the judge, Hardin said he took “full responsibility” for his theft. He hasn’t been sentenced yet, but I for one hope for the best.

Slop talk: Sessoms, Burnham, and Hardin chew the fat while exchanging tips on falsifying receipts.

And, lest you think it’s only male academics who are corrupt, in this week’s bumper crop of miscreants, cast your eye on this excerpt from a March 9 press release from the US Attorney, Southern District of New York:

Marie E. Thornton, the former Vice President of Finance for Iona College, pled guilty today for embezzling more than $850,000 from the college. Thornton pled guilty before U.S. Magistrate Judge Kevin N. Fox.

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said: “This is a classic case of the fox guarding the hen house. Marie Thornton was entrusted with the financial well-being of Iona College, but instead, she abused her access to cook the books and line her own pockets.”

From 1999 up to May 2009, Thornton caused more than $850,000 belonging to Iona College to be diverted to her personal use by, among other things, submitting false vendor invoices for reimbursement to Iona College and submitting credit card bills for personal expenses to be paid by Iona College.

The sad coda to this story is that Ms. Thornton is in fact Sister Marie Thornton.

President Hardin and Sister Marie kick up their heels at the Felon's Ball.

Sickening, isn’t it? Especially when you consider that all of these fine examples of academic integrity, save Sister Marie, who presumably answers to a higher authority, were presidents of public universities and as such held the public trust, not to mention its money.

Do I think these sorry excuses for academics are the rule? No, of course not. But I do think that they are poster boys and girls for the slippery slope that college and universities administrators find themselves on when they begin to believe their own publicity. When they begin to believe that students are shareholders and therefore the college’s CEO needs to be “paid what he’s worth” just like the heads of Fortune 500 companies. Little by little, some–a few–presidents begin to think that what they are worth entitles them to those extra perks that after a while add up to 10-to-20 in the federal pen. Sometime between that extra martini at the 19th hole and the time the president lays his tired bones to rest on those 1000-count Egyptian cotton sheets it all goes to his head. My suggestion is that boards of trustees everywhere study these crooks when they draw up the next outlandish pay package to lure the candidate of their dreams to campus.

7 thoughts on “A Rogue’s Round-Up: College Presidents Plunge en masse into Hot Water

  1. College presidents should have their own private jets for junkets. That way they would not have the embarrassment of meeting graduates and alumni working at the airport as baggage handlers or at the snack bar, pouring coffee into paper cups. They already have limos to avoid cab driver alumni with doctorates.

    • You don’t have to worry about embarrassing run-ins with graduates if you’re a Wisconsin college president. The bus drivers can pull down as much as $159,000 per year. That makes the Mass. legislature look like a bunch of civic-minded pikers.

  2. Ha, I didn’t even have to ask my board for a raise. I’m getting and extra 45 cents per hour effective 7/1/11. Pretty sweet, huh? AND I got my eight dollar lunch for the bi-monthly regional managers meeting picked up by my employers to boot! Talk about the life of Riley. We’re goin’ crazy out here. Oh yeah, we dropped the tax rate a little and I never once used the word “investment” to describe the expenditure of public funds. Sorry, my bad.

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