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Professor for Hire

April 11, 2008

Readers of The Washington Post were treated on Thursday to the latest salacious details of the "D.C. Madam" trial, a federal racketeering case in which prosecutors are attempting to prove that Deborah Jeane Palfrey's escort service was really an illegal, high-class prostitution ring. The proceedings, and the mythical list of clients she's dangled in front of the press, have already ensnared politicians and others far outside Washington's orbit. Now it's higher education's turn to get roped in.

In Wednesday's testimony, a former academic and university department chair took the stand and admitted to earning some extra income on the side: $250 per sexual encounter as an employee of Pamela Martin & Associates.

Until it became clear that she would have to testify in the case, Rhona Reiss, 63, had been the graduate program director of the Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions' transitional occupational therapy degree program. She earned a Ph.D. in higher education in 2000 and has some 35 years of experience as a clinical and academic instructor of occupational therapy since earning degrees in the field from the University of Florida and the University of Pennsylvania in the 1960s.

But not on her resume was her time as an escort for Palfrey's service, from about February 2001 to April 2002, while she was still teaching and, for part of the time, acting as a department chair, she said in an interview Thursday. During that time, she taught classes at Towson University in Maryland and was interim department chair of occupational therapy at Howard University. (Howard did not respond to an e-mailed request to confirm her time there.)

“I was unemployed at the time. I did it because I needed money, I was between jobs, I had just finished my Ph.D. and I was not working, and it takes a long time to get a position as the department chair.... I was running out of money," Reiss said.

She said that her financial troubles came at a tough period in her life: a just-completed doctorate, a parent who was ill, and a son she needed to raise. She had risen to a university administrative position and was pursuing the Ph.D., as many do in the field of higher education, as a credential for career development.

“Certainly at the time I had no indication that she was involved in any activities outside of her role as student and educator," said Ron Newsom, an associate professor of higher education who chaired Reiss's doctoral committee at the University of North Texas. (The title of her dissertation: A Comparison of the Leadership Styles of Occupational Therapy Education Program Directors and Clinic Administrators.) Newsom also called her a "competent student, rational, logical; she did good work. "

But after earning the degree, an adjunct faculty salary was far from enough to live on. "I did what I had to do, and you know, I grew up in an era when sex ... was recreation. I grew up in the '60s and '70s and I didn’t think it was such a horrible thing. I came from the era of free love, and I needed money, and that’s what I did," she said.

In 1995, before completing her doctorate but after she'd done her coursework, Reiss was named director of education at the American Occupational Therapy Association -- "a dream job," she called it, a visible leadership position in her field. As part of her work there, she helped to elevate occupational therapy as a field from a bachelor's to a master's degree level. But she eventually resigned so she could work full time to finish her dissertation.

“I’m ashamed because I don’t want to discredit my profession or any of the universities I worked for, because I have a good record, and now it just ruins my reputation … that the public knows that I did this.”

While studying at North Texas, she also served as an assistant dean in occupational therapy at Texas Woman's University. Now she's been able to retire, something she noted wasn't possible for Palfrey's escorts in their 30s and 40s.

She noted, bitterly: "What other industry than academia would [take] somebody with 35 years’ experience who had held the highest ... position in the profession ... and would pay me an entry-level salary?"

 

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