Robert Harlan Puts the “I Owe” in Iowa!

SEPTEMBER 26, 2011 UPDATE! Drake University embezzler agrees to plead guilty after charges consolidated. This sad, sad story began in April…

Another week, another academic arrested for embezzling from an institution of higher learning. Ho-hum. The miscreant du jour is one Robert Harlan, late of Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. Iowa educators have been in the news a lot lately, what with UI Professor Ellen Lewin self-medicating with profanity to cope with these difficult times, and now light-fingered Bob, who in his position of director of student accounts, managed to spirit away some $600,000 over the last seven years.

According to the Des Moines Register, Harlan has admitted to the theft, and, unlike the ethics-challenged Professor Carmola of Middlebury, seems dimly aware that what he has done is wrong, although he thinks the $600,000 figure is inflated. He can only account for $470,000 of the loot so far.

Like Professor Carmola, however, his defense is that he had a good reason for taking what wasn’t his: says the Register, Harlan “told investigators he gave the money away to friends, family, the needy and a church.” There are unconfirmed reports that the offering to the church arrived in the form of plaque engraved with the Ten Commandments. Suspicions were aroused, though, when it was discovered that one of the commandments was missing from the engraving.

It's understandable Mr. Harlan took the cash; the church's social hall needed reburbishing.

What it is about campus culture that makes it so easy for some employees to steal? I’m not talking about an absence of financial controls, but rather an absence of character in those faculty and staff who seem to have no problem pocketing other people’s money. I have no clue as to whether embezzlement on college and university campuses is statistically in line with embezzlement rates in other industries, but at times I think that conditions on campus make it easier for some employees to confuse sticking it to the man with sticking their hands in the till.

Why do I think this? Well, first of all, the myth of the underpaid academic is embedded so deeply in our collective national psyche it’s no wonder that the occasional faculty or staffer is led astray. Faculty, in particular, are convinced that their wages are below poverty level, even though their value to society as intellectuals, agents of social change, and teachers hovers somewhere beyond the ether. Neither conceit, of course, is true, but the cognitive dissonance these thoughts engender is enough to send a handful of academics around the bend.

For staff who live day after day with the knowledge that they are second among equals (faculty always come first in the democratic society that is the academy), and who year after year put up with reminders of their lowly status–such as the eight-week maternity leave they are granted as opposed to the fourteen-week leave a faculty member scores for the same activity–it also comes as no surprise that a few find unorthodox ways of making up the difference.

A faculty member performs her annual self-evaluation.

None of this excuses Harlan’s behavior any more than it does Carmola’s or Pletz’s or Sainfort’s or Jacko’s or the Fishers’ or Hardin’s or Burnham’s or Thornton’s or Davis’s. But it does force one to wonder if rather than yet another workplace training on diversity the campus might be better served by holding a session on that missing commandment.

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