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A Deal with the Devil?

May 27, 2010

The University of Alabama in Huntsville recently dissolved a contract with a self-styled business guru -- who had a history of fraudulent business practices -- to help develop a piece of teaching technology. But some observers are wondering why it took the university six months to terminate the relationship after unsavory details of the entrepreneur’s past came to light -- and why due diligence did not stop the university from signing the contract in the first place.

The university went into business in 2007 with Bernard Dohrmann -- an entrepreneur who has a long history of run-ins with federal watchdogs, including two convictions -- to help monetize a tool called Super Teaching. It entered into a contract in December of that year with a company called Life Success Academy, headed by Dohrmann and his wife, as well as another company called Monte Sano Associates, to help test and improve the Super Teaching hardware.

Super Teaching is a system of teaching purportedly designed to harness the short attention spans of today’s students. It does this by projecting images onto three screens at the front of the classroom, and rotating slides related to the lesson with various unrelated images so as to stimulate the brain into a state of optimal receptivity, according to promotional materials.

In return for studying and improving the Super Teaching system, Alabama-Huntsville would collect a share of the revenue once the system, which was projected to cost at least tens of thousands of dollars per classroom, was turned into a commercial product, according to a copy of the contract that the university provided to Inside Higher Ed.

Things never made it that far. The university dissolved its relationship with Life Success Academy and Monte Sano Associates two months ago, without Super Teaching ever being sold as a product. According to Kannan Grant, the director of technology commercialization at the university and one of the signatories of the contract, the university backed out because “there was no market for it.” (Dohrmann maintains that Monte Sano Associates dissolved the contract. This parenthetical and others in this article reflect additions after publication, made when Dohrmann, who did not respond in time for the original publication, provided his perspectives on some of the issues raised in the article.) (This paragraph has been updated since publication.)

In the end, nobody made a buck from the deal, including the university. Alabama-Huntsville officials say that, since Dohrmann set up the equipment for free, the university didn't lose any money, either -- except, perhaps, for the labor hours of university employees charged with improving the system.

Palling Around With a Convicted 'Con Man'

Still, some observers believe that Alabama-Huntsville should have ended its deal with the Dohrmanns much earlier, and for different reasons. Six months earlier Brian LeCompte, an engineer and Huntsville alumnus who runs a political blog called Flashpoint, wrote a lengthy post enumerating Dohrmann’s history of shady dealings and sharply criticizing the university for legitimating the work of a “huckster” whom “most reputable institutions wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole.” The student newspaper at Huntsville followed up a month and a half later with an article headlined “Learning at the Speed of Con.”

Both accounts referred to a 2002 San Francisco Chronicle article outlining the history of legal troubles surrounding Dohrmann's moneymaking ventures. The article, written after Dohrmann reemerged as an organizer of expensive business seminars in Los Angeles, reported that he had been convicted for activities related to his business practices twice -- once in 1975, for securities fraud, and in 1995, for violating an injunction barring him from providing investors with incorrect information. (Dohrman maintains that he did not knowingly provide incorrect information in these instances.) The Securities and Exchange Commission also charged Dohrmann with deceptive sales practices in 1982, in connection with his work for an investment diamond retailer, but he settled out of court. After his 1995 conviction, a U.S. attorney called Dohrmann a “very dangerous con man.” (This paragraph has been updated since publication.)

Attempts to reach Dohrmann at Life Success Academy were unsuccessful, as the company is no longer listed at the address indicated by the contract with the university. Dohrmann did not reply to multiple e-mail and Facebook messages seeking comment until after publication.

The Chronicle article quotes Dohrmann’s wife, Lynn, as saying she and her husband hoped to “get Super Teaching classrooms into schools all across America.”

At the beginning of the university’s partnership with the Dohrmanns, the campus leadership appeared to share this vision. In a video posted a year ago to YouTube, purportedly from a university source, David B. Williams, the university’s president, is heard in a voiceover saying, “We are perhaps better suited than any other university in this country to be the lead in helping to bring Super Teaching to the rest of the world."

Pleading Ignorance

Several Alabama-Huntsville officials close to the 2007 deal with Life Success Academy told Inside Higher Ed that they were not aware of Dohrmann’s history of legal indiscretions before signing the Super Teaching contract. (Dohrmann says that he did make them aware and that he has talked openly of his past legal difficulties.) (This paragraph has been updated since publication.)

“That’s totally immaterial,” said Wilson Luquire, CIO and dean of the library at the university. “People are not vetted for their past, that’s not our normal process here.”

Luquire was the one to whom Dohrmann originally pitched the idea of having the Huntsville campus act as a proving ground for the Super Teaching system, according to a university spokesman. “I’m a big proponent of a venture that would make the university money,” Luquire said. “We all have to be in these budget times.” He refused to answer further questions.

The contract empowered the university to terminate the agreement at any time, for any reason.

As for the time that elapsed after Dohrmann's legal history came to light and before the contract was terminated: “Could it have been shorter? Maybe, maybe not,” said Grant, the director of technology commercialization. “It just took six months. And I think that’s because the product -- there was no market for it.”

Asked why the university did not hastily end its relationship with Dohrmann’s company once his checkered past came to light, a university spokesman, Ray Garner, said its officials were too distracted by other issues, such as budget cuts and the Amy Bishop shootings, which occurred in February, to worry about it.

“Our campus has experienced some very real challenges in recent months, and while some may view this issue as important, we have had to deal with other, more pressing matters,” Garner said. He did not elaborate on why fallout from the shootings would affect any technology commercialization contracts.

One person who does view the issue as important is Betty Peters, a member of the Alabama School Board. Peters says Dohrmann’s history of defrauding clients does not inspire much confidence that Super Teaching would be a good investment for any school that might have bought it, and was disturbed by the idea that if the system had been successfully packaged as a commercial product, the University of Alabama in Huntsville would profit from sales of the units to taxpayer-supported primary and secondary schools and community colleges.

“UAH is known as an engineering school,” Peters said in an interview. “They have strong ties with NASA.... If they’re going to be selling something for our schools that’s a waste of money,” that would be unbecoming to a public university at best, she said. Williams, who before coming to Huntsville was vice provost for research at Lehigh University, “should know better” than to affiliate the university with such “funny business,” Peters said.

“We didn’t necessarily think it was a fraudulent product,” Grant says. In fact, another video, posted to YouTube by the same purportedly university-affiliated source as the one bearing Williams’s ringing endorsement, shows Luquire, the Huntsville CIO and library dean, announcing that the university had redesigned the Super Teaching hardware unit to be more compact. In the video, Luquire says the improvements would reduce the projected per-classroom retail price of $200,000 by two-thirds.

The contract holds the university harmless from any lawsuits levied against the purveyors of the new-age system by dissatisfied customers.

Jury Still Out On Effectiveness

Super Teaching’s most outspoken champion in academe is Lee Pulos, a member of the American Psychology Association who “has conducted over 200 corporate seminars for Fortune 500 companies on Qualities of High Performance Persons, The Power of Visualization, and The Role of Intuition in Decision Making,” according to his Web site.

Pulos has vouched for the scientific merits of Super Teaching. In one paper, he cites past studies where the brains of rats and primates showed measurable cell growth when exposed to “hyperstimulation,” one of the bedrock concepts behind Dohrmann’s system.

Still, there is little available experimental data on the system’s effectiveness. In 2002, at least two institutions -- an elementary school in Michigan and Salt Lake Community College in Utah -- ran Super Teaching pilots. Officials at the school in Michigan said they could not track down anyone with direct knowledge of that pilot or any data that might have come out of it, citing personnel turnover.

Kurt Shirkey, the director of media services and electronic classrooms at Salt Lake Community College, was originally hired in 2002 to oversee the Super Teaching system there. During the four years the college used the system -- before deeming it obsolescent and abandoning it in 2006 -- Shirkey collected survey data on student and faculty opinions about the technology. He says faculty thought it was “OK,” though some were irked by having to learn how to use it, and that students generally liked it -- particularly the music and videos that the system played as they were entering and leaving the classroom. However, according to Shirkey, Salt Lake never formally studied the effect of Super Teaching on learning outcomes.

The impact of the Super Teaching system on student performance was being studied by a graduate student at the University of Alabama in Huntsville -- and in fact still is, according to a source at the university who asked not to be named. The data from that student’s research has been collected, said the source, but the analysis has yet to be approved.

None of the student’s findings have been published, leaving the question of pedagogical merit -- the question that lies at the heart of the debate over Super Teaching in Huntsville -- unanswered. For now, that is.

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