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Convicted faculty should return paid leave earnings

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | MARCH 04, 2011 7:20 AM

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When professors commit crimes, taxpayers often pay extra.

Publicly funded universities and community colleges may soon be able to recoup some of their losses in paid leave to educators convicted of felony or misdemeanors if a bill in the Iowa House of Representatives is passed.

House File 139, sponsored by state Rep. Jeff Kaufmann, R-Wilton, would require professors convicted of aggravated misdemeanors, serious misdemeanors, and felonies to repay any salary accrued during the time of their absence and investigation. The bill was supposedly prompted after Toshiki Itoh, a UI assistant professor who was under investigation for nearly two-and-a-half years, collected his yearly salary of $93,000 during the time of investigation and resigned from the university upon its conclusion.

While the current bill on file is worryingly vague, and there are some obvious issues with enforcement, the bill’s heart is in the right place: Universities should have the ability to reclaim salary spent on professors convicted of crimes.

Typically, faculty members faced with investigations are placed on paid leave until the resolution of those investigations. The DI Editorial Board has written before about the need for faculty, even faculty on paid leave, to be considered innocent until proven guilty.

While the preservation of due process may be costly, said preservation is crucial to maintaining our justice system’s integrity.

State Board of Regents’ President David Miles agrees. “The notion is reasonable,” he said. “But it’s important that we provide due process to any employees and continue their salaries” until proven guilty.

The bill’s consequences, he said, “seem like a fair trade if they’re convicted.” If professors are found guilty, the months they spent living off university dole would be recompensed.

This bill would also go a long way in discouraging an artificial lengthening of the investigation period. By including only serious crimes, it ensures that only egregious actions would warrant salary return. (For example, it would not require that Professor Malik Juweid, currently on paid leave for sending a number of “inflammatory” e-mails and at risk of having his tenure revoked, return the funds he is receiving.)

At the same time, there is little mention made of the method by which institutions would reclaim the funds, and the blanket requirement to recoup paid leave expenditures doesn’t leave room for the inevitable gray areas. Universities would still be unable to recall wages paid by groups other than taxpayers, which puts scandal-beset UI Professor Gary Hunninghake’s salary outside the regents’ reach. While Kaufmann has said he’s amenable to altering the bill to address more cases, it’s worth questioning where the line should be drawn.

Notably, and rightfully, the bill does not stipulate whether universities or colleges must fire or demote professors; only that their pay during leave be returned upon conviction. The resolution of such stickier issues should be at the sole discretion of each separate school, not up for consideration by the state Legislature. Salaries earned simply by being under investigation, though, should be fair game.

Of course, HF139 is by no means the most pressing issue for members of the Legislature. The state of the state’s economy, budget, and unemployment rates should be given front-row seats in the House.

“It is a bill that I agree with, but by no means is it a top priority for this session,” said Rep. David Jacoby, D-Coralville, the lone Democratic cosponsor of the bill. He noted that other legislation affecting regent universities — such as the proposed budget cuts for the regents’ funding — is his biggest concern at the moment.

While HF139 may not be as pressing as attempting to restore some of the regents’ state funding, it could have positive ramifications for public universities and community colleges. The bill demonstrates a clear, cost-effective way of cutting back on spending (even just a little bit) without damaging the quality of Iowa’s schools or committing major judicial folly.

Given some refinement, it’s a decent step toward making recipients of paid leave accountable — and eliminating waste in the university system.


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