Daily Archives: March 24, 2009

Expense report

3.25.09 by Bill Richards, The Red and Black

3.25.09 by Bill Richards, The Red and Black

WSB has a strong and peculiar history of attacking the spending of colleges.   It plays into the hands of demagogue politicians who find seemingly-absurd instances of government-funded scientific research (“volcano monitoring,” say), then decry the waste of money.

Justin Farmer tapped into that journalistic / audience-pandering lineage with a report on March 5.  Farmer documented overseas travel by professors at Georgia State and the University of Georgia “to play the trumpet in Italy or study films in France.”  UGA objected, but not very strongly.   The script is very carefully written.  At first blush, it appears to be a clean hit on ridiculous college spending.

UGA’s protests got louder this week in a detailed story in the Red and Black.

In particular, the student newspaper reports that the two France-and-Italy professors were never contacted by WSB.  The trumpet-playing professor says a music festival in Italy paid his entire travel bill.  The film professor says he raised the travel money through endowments.  Both say they used no tax money for those trips.

Farmer’s story notes that much of the travel occurred in years past, and that UGA has significantly tightened its travel budget in light of the sour economy.  But then Farmer tries to have it both ways.  He uses Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle as his main  mouthpiece– a guy with gubernatorial ambitions and who won’t hesitate to talk on TV about seemingly-extravagent state spending.  Cagle happily takes Farmer’s bait, decrying specific trips in 2006 / 2007, and doing so in light of recent layoffs — disingenuously overlooking the fact that the trips and the layoffs occurred in different time periods.

And then in his script, Farmer reports that “all this travel comes as families are asked to pay more, students face new fees, possible tuition hikes and core class restrictions.”  UGA told Farmer that it had cut its travel by more than thirty percent.  This leads Farmer to tag his story thusly:  “We’ve confirmed that 69 percent of the travel budget it still intact.”  At this point, Farmer is implying that all academic travel is wasteful.

Though he didn’t talk with the professors involved, he spoke with their supervisors.   UGA wouldn’t release more recent records.  It’s legitimate to scrutinize all areas of state spending, including universities.  But Farmer’s piece carefully uses the facts he finds, and shapes them to suit his storyline.

Farmer’s sleight-of-hand combined past travel, current economic conditions and never-fully-explained sources of funding for specific, seemingly-outrageous trips.  It’s the type of story that makes educated people suspicious of TV news.  It’s also the type of story that draws cries of “huzzah!” from the cheap seats.  WSB knows its audience.

Farmer implied that the trips to Italy and France were state-funded.  Casey Cagle squawked about them as state-funded trips.  If they weren’t state funded, then Farmer has some ‘splaining to do.

It’s worth noting that WSB has removed the piece from its web site.  The Red and Black reports that Farmer told the newspaper the story disappeared because of “corporate policy.”  Perhaps WSB has a policy to remove pieces that are having trouble withstanding scrutiny.  The Red and Black found a copy and uploaded it to Youtube.

One can only imagine the kind of academic travel Casey Cagle would approve in advance:  None.  It’s worth noting that WSB’s main critic of “elite” academic spending never graduated from college.   Nothing wrong with that — but Cagle is spouting as an expert on academic spending.

Cagle probably watches local TV news every night.