‘Moral Dry Rot in Higher Education’
“FOR the past 6 months a team of auditors has been scrutinising the accounts of 14 of the nation’s [U.S.A.] top universities, looking for expenses that have been ‘inadvertently’ charged against government funds. ‘We found that the 14 schools included about $20.4 million of unallowable costs’” the auditors were quoted as saying in a report published in the British magazine New Scientist of January 25, 1992.
The government’s auditors went sleuthing last year when it was discovered that Stanford University had helped itself to some $25 million of taxpayers’ money. Included were such expenditures as daily fresh flowers for the university president’s house, a wedding reception, depreciation on a yacht, country-club fees, and running a shopping center. Faced with these unsavory facts, Stanford’s president at the time, Donald Kennedy, said he would eliminate “expenses that are easily subject to public misunderstanding” and thereby “avoid any confusion that might result.” The Boston Herald, January 1, 1992, commenting on his answer, said: “In other words, the only problem was that the great unwashed masses beyond the campus might not be able to understand what the noble Olympians were doing in academe.”
It was after these revelations regarding Stanford that U.S. government auditors were sent on their more recent tour of the 14 universities and discovered the additional $20.4 million rip-off. Involved were such prestigious universities as the University of Michigan, Johns Hopkins, Yale, and Emory. Expenditures submitted by the 14 universities included such items as “expenses for airfare for presidents’ wives; airfare to Grand Canyon to attend a meeting of investors; numerous charges to attend football games; a storyteller at a Christmas party; and memberships in university athletic associations and various social clubs including a yacht club.”
When federal investigators announced that they were also going to M.I.T. and Harvard, big cutbacks were announced by these institutions. M.I.T. dropped $731,000 from its claims for research expenses; Harvard cut $500,000 from its expenses. Duke discovered “inadvertent errors” in what it was charging. Cal Tech decided it would no longer charge the government for its country-club memberships. The University of Pittsburgh would not take taxpayers’ money to pay for opera tickets or for airline tickets for its president and his wife to go to Grand Cayman Island.
“The moral dry rot,” The Boston Herald said, “goes far deeper than financial matters. That just happens to be where someone turned over a rock and let the public see what was crawling underneath. . . . The spending scandals at Stanford and other elite institutions are less important for the sums of money involved than as a symptom of a deeper moral failure. Only public outrage and institutional changes are likely to stem the tide.”