Whose Ethics? What’s Really at Stake in the For-profit Colleges Fight
Lanny Davis, a key lobbyist for the for-profit college industry, has spent hours this fall claiming that Campus Progress acted unethically in publishing a blog post questioning his conduct without calling him for comment in advance. But Davis, in his own published pieces on the for-profits controversy, appears not to meet his own standard. And while the debate over journalism practices in the blog age is an important one, it should not obscure the underlying, urgent dispute, which arises from troubling behavior by some for-profit schools.
Kay Steiger, the editor of CampusProgress.org, and I, have explained CampusProgress.org’s policy to Davis—we will seek comment prior to publication if our piece contains new reporting and alleges siginificant new facts, but we won't generally seek advance comment if a piece instead relies on facts already established in reputable publications, as was the case with the item we published about Davis. (We did contact Davis a few waking hours after publication to get his response.) Davis has continued to criticize Campus Progress's conduct in not calling him in advance, including last week, apparently, in comments to a reporter for The Daily Caller, which the reporter conveyed to us (but ultimately did not include in his piece on the matter).
Remarkably, Davis' own articles about the for-profits controversy don’t seem to meet the standard he demands of others. Davis has acknowledged to me that he published his piece in The Hill last summer attacking the conduct of investor Steven Eisman, a critic of for-profit schools, without calling Eisman for comment. Davis was later hired to represent a group of for-profit colleges and is now seeking to block proposed Department of Education rules that would place requirements on for-profit programs in order to maintain eligibility for federal student financial aid. Now Davis has published a Huffington Post piece alleging that last April 26, Eisman "met secretly" with Deputy Under Secretary of Education Robert Shireman. Davis adds "presumably, Mr. Shireman made lots of money." Presumably, Davis meant that Eisman, not Shireman, made lots of money, since Eisman is the investor who allegedly has bet on the decline of for-profit stocks.
But that error aside, did Davis contact Shireman for comment before claiming that a secret meeting had occurred? Not according to Shireman, who is a friend of mine. Shireman also told me that he has never met Eisman in person, "secretly" or otherwise. A Fortune article, cited by Davis as evidence, reported, accurately, that Shireman phoned in to a presentation Eisman was making to another Education Department official. In any case, Department officials have met with numerous parties interested in for-profit issues (including me and Angela Peoples, Campus Progress's policy and advocacy manager). Davis does not explain what he means by the phrase "met secretly."
I don't doubt that Lanny Davis has deeply-felt, sincere views on journalist, government, and corporate ethics—even if, with respect to the journalism issues he keeps raising, he seems to fall short of his own standards. (Longtime ethics watchdog Melanie Sloan, whose organization, CREW, also criticized Eisman last summer, has announced plans to soon join Davis' practice.) But what should not be drowned out by Davis' ethics complaints is the extremely disturbing behavior of some actors in the for-profit higher education industry, conduct which, according to multiple investigations, has included deceptive recruiting practices; phony reporting on job placement; low-quality programs that leave taxpayers footing much of the bill; and heartbroken low-income students who drop out in large numbers or obtain sometimes worthless degrees—and often end up in heavy debt.
There are good programs in the for-profit sector, and the standards set by the proposed Department of Education regulation will not halt those. The regulation asks the right two questions about higher education programs, focusing on the costs and benefits for students: (1) Is a program burying students in overwhelming debt? (2) Is it training students to earn a living? Programs that don’t meet these minimal standards absolutely should not be getting scarce taxpayer resources, and federal policy should not be encouraging students to sign up for these programs.
The proposed rule does not represent the government entering a new field and regulating it; government is already involved, because government grants help pay for these programs. The question is whether government policy should help students sign up for programs that fail students, or instead should help students succeed in programs that work. Ensuring that taxpayer resources do not go to programs that fail their students—avoiding wasteful spending—should be an issue that appeals to Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.
The scores of lobbyists and consultants hired by the for-profit industry, not to mention the significant campaign contributions provided by the for-profit industry to Members of Congress, are a testament to how the for-profit education industry has thrived under the current system—and suggest how much it likes the status quo. But the Obama Administration and leaders in Congress like Senator Tom Harkin are right to stand up instead for a system that will better serve taxpayers and students.
David is the founder and former director of Campus Progress.
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