Administrators at Sullivan University in Kentucky were trying to avoid an investigation, but they might regret how far they went to try to stop it – and in the process, they’ve earned themselves an additional investigation. It’s a long, complex story, but it illustrates just how far some for-profit schools will go to protect their business.
It all started this summer, when attorney general Jack Conway began a series of investigations into several for-profit schools in Kentucky (you may remember Conway from the 2010 senate race in Kentucky, where he lost to Rand Paul). One investigation for example, into Daymar College, is looking at whether the schools forced students to buy overpriced textbooks from the campus bookstore, misled students about whether their credits would transfer to other schools, and accepted students who did not meet Daymar’s minimum qualifications for admission.
Conway isn’t alone in investigating for-profit schools: nine other states have joined him in one investigation, and a different investigation (which Kentucky is not a part of) is being conducted by the attorneys general of California, Illinois, Indiana, and Florida, in addition to the US Department of Justice.
One school that Conway’s office is looking at is Spencerian College, part of the for-profit, Kentucky-based Sullivan University system. Specifically, the attorney general is looking into whether its recruitment practices broke consumer-fraud laws, and he subpoenaed documents from Spencerian late last year.
Sullivan’s response to the investigation could be politely described as “apoplectic.” A. R. Sullivan, the co-founder and chancellor of the school, wrote in an op-ed in the Lexington Herald-Leader that Conway’s “subpoenas were a re-election sham. In fact, it could be called a fishing expedition or a solution looking for a problem.” The errors in that op-ed are numerous enough for their own blog post, but the important point is, Sullivan was going to fight the investigation in any way he could.
Defending oneself and one’s business on a newspaper opinion page is perfectly legitimate. Unfortunately, the Sullivan University response didn’t stop with the op-ed page.
According to Spencerian admissions officer Kayla Porter, on August 2nd and 3rd, 2011 (about a month and a half after his op-ed appeared), A. R. Sullivan held a “training summit” for employees, during which he complained about Conway’s investigation and encouraged employees to support Conway’s opponent in the upcoming election for attorney general, Todd P’Pool. Porter resigned from Spencerian the next day, saying she felt uncomfortable with the pressure to support P’Pool.
If Porter’s claim is true, Sullivan may have been breaking state law 121.310, which makes it illegal for an employer to use “coercive action” to pressure employees to vote for certain candidates or parties. But it gets worse: according to Porter, Sullivan also asked employees to donate money to the P’Pool campaign. Porter recounts: “I was asked to raise my hand and say yes, I would send money to the campaign of Todd P’Pool. It was a group setting…I was one of maybe 10 people in the room to not raise my hand. It was conspicuous…But I was thinking, ‘I’ve never heard of this guy before, why would I send him money?’” Employees were asked to donate through a Sullivan University office, so that donations could be bundled together and given to P’Pool as a single contribution (separately, Sullivan and the other university executives have given $12,000 to the P’Pool campaign and held events for him).
Because this accusation involves his own re-election battle, Conway is recusing his office from investigating the case–last week, he appointed Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Crawford as a special prosecutor to look into the charge. Incredibly, the lawyer defending Sullivan University does not dispute the main claims of the case, admitting that the school asked employees to support P’Pool. He claims, however, that this does not rise to the level of “coercive” action.
Whether the pressure was “coercive” or not is exactly what Crawford will look into, and perhaps it will be decided by a judge at some point. But we don’t need to be judges ourselves to realize that, criminality aside, this behavior is unethical. The head of a business is in a position of immense power over his employees, and when he makes a “suggestion,” it could reasonably seen as a requirement. Even worse was that he didn’t just tell people to vote for or donate to P’Pool; he made everyone go around and promise to do so, in front of the group. In addition, one wonders why Sullivan wanted all the donations bundled together and coming from the institution. So that Sullivan would get more personal credit? So that the office collecting money could keep track of which employees donated? Or perhaps he wanted P’Pool to think of Sullivan U as a major source of potential donations—one that it would be better not to antagonize with an investigation.
I don’t know which of these it was. But there’s no reason I can think of that isn’t unethical in some way. Not only was the fund raising plan indefensible, it makes it more likely that an observer will conclude that A.R Sullivan was running Sullivan University unethically in general, which is what brought the original investigation in the first place.
That’s the sad conclusion about this story: instead of working with the state AG’s office to ensure that all of its practices were legal and in the best interests of Kentucky students, Sullivan University decided to go into attack mode.
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