Editorial: Ethics of Northwest Florida College should be questioned

Statewide budget cuts mean that Florida’s public colleges and universities are starved for money — a condition that’s already prompted hiring freezes and enrollment caps at some institutions, including USF, which is bracing for an additional 5 percent cut this spring, or $17 million.

One institution is finding a way to feed its coffers with legislative pork by hiring a prominent politician to bring home the bacon — a move that smacks of ethical laxness.

Northwest Florida State College (NWC), as reported by the St. Petersburg Times, asked the Legislature last year to grant the institution $1 million for a building. When Destin Republican Rep. Ray Sansom, “who controlled the House budget,” approved the grant, however, the money allotted swelled to $25 million.

The Times reported that Sansom and NWC President Bob Richburg had a meeting in December 2007 to discuss how to fast-track funding. Sansom has since brought allocations for things such as renovations and an extension center totaling around $31 million.

Though Sansom says he was merely doing his job, the Times revealed that he was granted a $110,000-per-year position as a vice president at NWC.

Such a move reeks of crude cronyism on the part of Sansom — a graduate of the institution and speaker of the House — and Richburg.

Perhaps there’s no way to prove that Sansom’s hiring is anything but coincidental, but the chronology of the events ought to raise eyebrows and prompt serious investigation on the part of other lawmakers.

That there was and is a potential conflict of interest for Sansom is obvious. Sansom was charged with overseeing the House budget and allowed a lot of the state’s money to go toward a minor college with which he had close ties amid a crippling budget crisis. After all of this, he will be paid by the college for what might be little more than a cushy administrative position.

Though disenchanting, such a move is not uncommon for Florida’s public higher-education institutions.

Florida State University hired the chairwoman of the Florida Senate’s Higher Education Committee — which wields control over State University System funds — for $120,000 in March, according to the Times. The University of Florida, meanwhile, hired the chairman of the Senate Finance and Tax Committee for $75,000 as a lecturer.

Unless intense scrutiny — perhaps orchestrated by an independent panel — is applied to such hires and they are determined to be ethically clean, universities and legislators must cease such potentially compromising arrangements.

As administrators struggle to prevent budget cuts from hurting the quality of education, they should make sure financial woes don’t prompt a degradation of universities’ morals.