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Questions on Professionalism and Personal Gain

Scholar who is popular speaker nationwide is ousted from center directorship and resigns faculty job at Ohio State, amid allegations of misconduct.

June 20, 2017
 
Terrell Strayhorn

Terrell Strayhorn made a name for himself by writing about college students, belonging and race. He is a popular speaker at campuses around the country, drawing audiences with his knowledge, charisma and obvious passion for his subject matter.

The combination of expertise and ability to engage with the public eventually won Strayhorn the directorship of the Center for Higher Education Enterprise at Ohio State University, where he was already a professor of higher education. The job, described in part to Strayhorn in a 2014 offer letter as “promoting Ohio State’s leadership in this area” and “contributing to policy proposals that genuinely benefit both students and society,” seemed a great match.

Three years later, Strayhorn is out at Ohio State. Terminated as center director for financial misconduct and managerial concerns, he also resigned from his professorship after being put on indefinite leave in the face of possible disciplinary action.

Strayhorn denies deliberate wrongdoing, attributing any missteps to a lack of training for his administrative role. But the university says his ignorance defense is thin, since he was allegedly warned multiple times to adhere to campus policy.

At the center of Ohio State’s case against Strayhorn is how he handled paid external speaking and consulting jobs -- at least tens of thousands of dollars’ worth, and up to $200,000 within two and a half years, according to university estimates. He was also found by the university to have neglected his professorial duties in using the center’s name to pursue personal gain, and to have engaged in inappropriate conduct concerning a center employee. Complaints about Strayhorn were supported by center staff members who complained of a poor climate, according to university documents obtained through an open-records request.

Strayhorn denies that finding, too, saying that he put his ideals into practice as a center director -- one who traveled frequently and trusted that things were handled well in his absence.

“We operated like a family,” Strayhorn said. “It did take time to get there, but I reject the idea that people did not feel cared for and supported and a sense of collegiality.”

Promising Start

Strayhorn came to Ohio State in 2010 and became its youngest full professor in 2014, helped by such publications as College Students’ Sense of Belonging: A Key to Educational Success for All Students. In 2014, after he started to gain acclaim for his talks on ensuring success for underserved students, Ohio State asked him to lead its three-year-old Center for Higher Education Enterprise on a half-time appointment. The group works to improve academic access, affordability and engagement for all students, toward its lofty stated goal of becoming the nation’s “pre-eminent higher education research center, solving issues of national significance.”

Strayhorn said yes to the four-year gig, agreeing to the following job responsibilities, among others: developing affiliations with academic units on campus in order to become a central think tank for solving higher education challenges; working closely with faculty advisers and others to put strategy proposals in place at the state and national levels; and defining the land-grant tradition in today’s world, “specifically how public universities can be leaders of outreach and engagement efforts that strengthen communities and economies.”

Strayhorn retained his professorship at half time. With the pay for leading the center, he earned a total starting salary of approximately $172,100 in fall 2014, and seemingly performed well through last summer. In awarding Strayhorn a 2 percent raise in August, Michael Boehm, vice provost for academic and strategic planning, included a handwritten note, saying, “Terrell, thanks for your leadership. Mike.”

Then things changed. Strayhorn was notified in the fall that he was the subject of an internal audit, based on administrative concerns about his speaking engagements on behalf of the center and the frequency of his travels. By January, the university says, he’d formally been told not to accept honoraria for center-related activities and to submit business travel requests through a new supervisory channel.

In February, auditors who investigated one year’s worth of travel found that while Strayhorn’s trips were “properly supported and approved,” he routinely accepted honoraria that he did not submit or disclose, including on conflict-of-interest forms -- potentially in violation of university policies and Ohio ethics law. The audit report noted that Strayhorn said he was confused about payment protocols for faculty members versus center directors, and it recommended new oversight measures for center-related travel requests and formalized training for all faculty members moving into administrative roles.

To Strayhorn, the February audit report is the key document in his case, since it found, in his words, that “perceived concern was the result of a misunderstanding.”

“I want to be clear, for the years in which I traveled for invited speaking engagements and received honorarium, all of my travel was properly disclosed though the channels designated and outlined in policy by the university,” he wrote in a follow-up email to Inside Higher Ed. “Each travel request included an attachment of my itinerary and contract for the speaking engagement and the amount of compensation. Not only were the travel and honorarium approved every time I submitted -- it went through a multitiered approval process with as many as four levels of sign-offs.”

A Damning Review

A March administrative follow-up to the audit -- which the university says contextualizes the earlier report and so holds more weight -- is much more damning, however. Noting that center staff reported Strayhorn had removed files from his office and the full audit was thus incomplete, it enumerated more than $51,000 in speaking fees Strayhorn had negotiated and accepted since January alone. That’s after he’d already twice been warned not to accept any more honoraria as center director, according to the university.

Strayhorn, meanwhile, noted he was told not to accept honoraria as a center director. That didn't preclude him from paid speaking engagements altogether, in his view.

“I was not told to stop all speaking at that point,” he said. “I was instructed not to collect honoraria ‘in my role as [center] director,’ which I made clear was not the case. I had been speaking as a faculty member since joining Ohio State in 2010 and the vast majority of my speaking was based on my faculty research,” not center work.

Most sponsoring organizations for talks early this year were other universities and community colleges, though Strayhorn had also agreed on terms with the Higher Learning Commission ($2,500) and Achieving the Dream ($2,500), among others. An email from Strayhorn negotiating payment terms with the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay, for example, said, “Typically I receive $7,500 for a full day visit that includes a keynote/campus address, plus 2-3 smaller group sessions … Of course, we have no hard and fast numbers and can always negotiate by adjusting the number of talks/sessions …”

Strayhorn’s executive assistants at the center did much of the legwork in arranging his appearances and affixed the center logo to related memos through February, when Strayhorn took over such duties. A related report says that Strayhorn later established an LLC for his consulting but still provided a center assistant with a credit card bearing the new business’s name, presumably to continue to arrange speaking engagements for him.

As of March, according to the university, Strayhorn hadn’t sought permission for the compensated events or provided any evidence that he declined an honorarium or asked that payments be made to Ohio State. The audit follow-up also says that Strayhorn’s self-identification as center director during paid talks and engagements raises conflict-of-interest policy and ethics law compliance issues. Strayhorn completed required conflict-of-interest training as recently as 2015, the report says, but failed to disclose a $15,000 agreement to consult for EducationPlus, a professional development organization, for example.

Administrators also found that Strayhorn violated the university’s travel policy by not disclosing numerous paid speaking trips within the previous year and by completing trips that had already been rejected by supervisors for various reasons. Strayhorn maintains that he was transparent and thorough in his travel reports to the university.

He was also allegedly away from campus much more than what’s considered appropriate by the university’s external consulting policy of about one day per week. Between January and March, for instance, Strayhorn was off campus for 22 of 42 working days, 19 of which included paid speaking engagements, according to the university follow-up report. Students allegedly noticed and remarked on his absences, which the university said amounted to an apparent “conflict of commitment” to his teaching duties, as well, Ohio documents state.

Strayhorn was terminated as center director the day the audit follow-up was released. He was also placed on indefinite leave and notified that he faced possible disciplinary action as a faculty member. Several university documents show that Strayhorn continued to use his center affiliation in emails even after he was terminated as center director, and was asked to stop.

On May 3, in a short memo, Strayhorn resigned his faculty position.

“At some point in consultation with my attorney and as a man of faith I began to ask myself, ‘Do I spend my time trying to figure out what is behind this?’” he said recently, arguing that he performed his duties the same way for years until something suddenly changed. “I likely will never know the answer, but it’s probably not one single factor, and I have to respond and manage the situation.”

Strayhorn emphasized that his resignation as a faculty member was voluntary, and that ultimately he has nothing but good things to say about his time at Ohio State. Simply, he reiterated, the university told him to stop collecting honoraria as a center director, and he proceeded to collect as he had previously done, in his capacity as a faculty member presenting what was largely his own research.

“Once the interpretation of policy was brought to my attention in a way that would no longer allow for the work I do in speaking with groups around the country from my research in ways that ensure all students to succeed,” he said, “I chose to remove myself from teaching and the work I loved very much at Ohio State to be able to make an impact on a larger scale.”

In resigning, however, Strayhorn signed a release agreement saying he’d pay Ohio State approximately $29,000 as “restitution for issues identified in the course of his employment.” The agreement releases Strayhorn from future causes of action by Ohio State, but the university specifically reserves the right to make “any criminal or ethics law reports, complaints, and shall not be prohibited from cooperating with any related federal, state, local or other governmental agency investigation or proceeding.”

Further, the agreement says, nothing prevents Ohio State from “investigating and taking appropriate action for any allegations of research misconduct or other misconduct relating to or arising out of research” Strayhorn conducted while working on campus. Strayhorn also reserves the right to challenge such charges, according to the document.

Strayhorn did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the release agreement, which the university released soon before publication in response to a follow-up open-records request.

Questions About Leadership

A day after his resignation, the university published one more report pertaining to additional allegations of behavioral misconduct against Strayhorn. An investigation involving interviews with 10 center employees cited consistent reports of favoritism toward one subordinate, a former doctoral student of Strayhorn’s, to the detriment of the office as a whole.

“The witnesses reported feeling fearful of retaliation if they were to be in opposition with [the employee] and, as a result, this caused most of the employees to avoid contact” with both him and Strayhorn, the report reads. Center staff members complained that the two seemed unusually close, sometimes sharing hotel rooms when they traveled together, and that personal conflict between them was apparent and awkward for those around them when it happened.

The university found insufficient evidence to support a prohibited romantic or sexual relationship between Strayhorn and his employee, which they both denied to the investigator. But Ohio State concluded that Strayhorn engaged in inappropriate conduct through the appearance of favoritism and possible conflict of interest related to the student. It also noted that Strayhorn seemed to have placed the subordinate, who has since left the center, in a difficult position with his co-workers.

Strayhorn said he and the former student are great friends and that their relationship says something about his calling as a teacher. So it hurts him to think that his students are most affected by his departure, he said.

“All of them are impacted,” he said. “This just doesn’t seem necessary. Why didn’t they just say, ‘Hey, let’s train you, let’s figure out a new way to do this differently here and there’? … Nothing’s going to stop me from meeting people at a coffee shop or using my research tools or being on committees. Me doing those things was not just about Ohio State -- it’s deeper than a contractual relationship.”

Strayhorn noted that Ohio State actually encourages professors, including those with administrative appointments, to engage in extracurricular consulting via its Faculty Paid External Consulting policy.

“Participation by faculty members [in] activities of government, in industry and in other private institutions generally serves the academic interests of the university,” reads the policy. “As a result of such activities, the people of Ohio benefit from the dissemination of knowledge and technology developed within the university and students benefit from experiences faculty bring to the classroom. Moreover, the professional experience and recognition that such participation brings to the faculty member is shared indirectly by the university.”

Yet the policy also stresses prior approval and says that faculty members should “avoid any conflict or appearance of conflict between consulting and university responsibilities.” The disruption of formal instructional activities because of consulting, in particular, must be avoided. Faculty members also may not use university letterhead in connection with paid external consulting, “nor may they use university facilities and other resources to support consulting” unless permission is obtained and the university is appropriately compensated.

A university spokesperson said that Ohio State had additional concerns about Strayhorn promoting himself as holding an M.S.L. degree in an academic bio and in his promotion process to full professor. Strayhorn had previously been enrolled in a master of law program at Ohio State, he said, but did not finish. Strayhorn did not respond to a request to waive his federal student rights to privacy for Inside Higher Ed to obtain documents related to his departure from the program.

Some of his past speaking bios still online include the law degree, and the university provided additional internal documents suggesting misrepresentation: a screenshot of Strayhorn's credentials from the center website and a CV provided to an external reviewer in the promotions process. Both mention the master's degree with no indication that it was in progress. Strayhorn adamantly denies claims that he misrepresented his credentials, however, saying he always indicated that the law degree was in progress and that any confusion is attributable to staff members or other third parties. He forwarded a CV he said was automatically generated by the university, which listed the M.S.L. under the degrees section.

The university challenged that account and provided a 2014 memo to Strayhorn documenting that he had been asked to address the problem. “As is the case at every other university, at Ohio State all faculty members are individually responsible for the accuracy of their CVs and making sure they don't list degrees that they have not earned,” said Chris Davey, a spokesperson for the university.

As for the alleged financial misconduct, Ohio State does allow professors in some cases to accept preapproved “nominal honoraria” for speaking. But Davey said that Strayhorn’s administrative role “was to be a resource and advocate in higher education policy, and he was out doing that job and receiving supplemental compensation for it. That’s totally impermissible.”

It’s any public employee’s responsibility to know Ohio ethics law, Davey added, and opportunities for administrative training are available. Again, conflict-of-interest training is required of faculty members every four years.

Hans-Joerg Tiede, associate secretary for academic freedom, tenure and governance at the American Association of University Professors, said the group doesn’t have a formal policy for or against honoraria but recommends that universities adopt conflict-of-interest policies that require faculty members to disclose such payments if they exceed a certain limit. AAUP cites $5,000 in the context of health fields and generally for consulting contracts, he said.

Keeping Things ‘Clean’

Mary Beth Gasman, the Judy and Howard Berkowitz Professor of Education at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions, is a friend of Strayhorn’s and admirer of his scholarly work. She described him as a “highly productive scholar who has championed ideas around sense of belonging on college campuses through his empirical research, articles, books and public lectures.” He is an “excellent speaker” who has mentored many young scholars, especially students of color, she added.

Gasman, who also does some external consulting and public speaking when she has the time, said Strayhorn’s story is an interesting case study but noted that her situation is very different from his. She founded her center while retaining a full-time faculty appointment, for example, and supports the Penn center through grants; it would cease to exist if she could no longer do so, she said.

As a rule, Penn’s center does not charge minority-serving institutions for its programs, but Gasman sometimes accepts honoraria from other kinds of colleges and universities, or does small consulting projects if time permits. Not necessarily because she has to, but to keep things neat, Gasman said she does not run her individual talks through her center and arranges travel and files related paperwork herself.

“Keep in mind that I could easily have my assistant process these items, as all my talks pertain to minority-serving institutions,” she said, “but I choose not to in order to keep a clean line between things I do as a faculty member and things I do for our center.”

Penn encourages professors to share their research with others through talks and consulting, and “understands that the institution benefits from our national exposure,” she said. Yet Penn also communicates that outside work can’t “overshadow our work as a faculty member,” through clear policies.

At the same time, Gasman noted she has crucial experience as an administrator and has worked in fields including fund-raising and nonprofits. So she worries about faculty members with none of that experience leading centers. That’s because the job is “an enormous amount of work if you do it well,” she said. Saying that it can’t just be “a mere extension of your research agenda,” Gasman explained that directors must care for staff, plan, budget and raise funds, plus hire an operations person to understand campus policies, for example.

“Universities need to provide training and help faculty understand what is allowable and what is not,” Gasman added. “These kinds of discussions are not part of faculty on-boarding at most institutions. I have told many faculty to think twice before starting a center given the enormous commitment, and I think the faculty should have to go through some kind of administrative training to ensure that they understand policies.”

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