University chief information officers are seldom in the media spotlight, but that's where Liberty University’s CIO landed recently when reports about his outside work for Donald Trump made national headlines.
Despite reports that John Gauger, the CIO, accepted cash to rig online polls for Trump before he became president, university administrators are standing by Gauger and ignoring questions about the appropriateness of an employee promoting the political interests of a presidential candidate for profit.
Gauger, who runs a small IT consultancy firm unaffiliated with Liberty, was reportedly paid thousands of dollars in 2015 to manipulate two online opinion polls in favor of Trump, who announced his candidacy later that year, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Michael Cohen, Trump's personal attorney at the time, offered Gauger $50,000 to influence the poll results to help Trump look good ahead of the launch of his campaign, the Journal article said. Cohen allegedly also promised Gauger more work as the campaign took off.
Gauger ended up only receiving about $13,000 in payment and did not receive more work from the Trump campaign, according to the article. His actions have nonetheless raised questions about conflicts of interest and whether his personal and business ethics -- specifically his willingness to use his private business to rig poll results -- reflect badly on Liberty, a private nonprofit institution whose president has been a staunch supporter of Trump.
Gauger did not respond to request for comments, but Liberty University released a written statement last week supporting him.
"Liberty University, like many other educational institutions, has permitted its employees for many years to engage in business, consulting and other side work that does not interfere with their employment obligations to the University," it states. "Also, like other organizations, Liberty recognizes the strong demand for highly skilled IT professionals creates special challenges in recruiting and retaining talented employees with those skills and experience. The opportunity for Liberty’s IT employees to develop businesses and products is particularly important to attracting and maintaining Liberty’s IT talent. John Gauger is one example among many outstanding LU employees who have made great contributions in their official roles and also enjoyed success as independent entrepreneurs, allowing them to enhance their capabilities and generate more revenue for their families while allowing the University to retain them on our team."
The university's response surprised outside observers.
“It seems strange that a university would praise an employee for helping to rig online opinion polls,” said Tom Davenport, professor of information technology and management at Babson College, a private business school in Wellesley, Mass. “But Liberty University seems to me not a typical university in many respects -- it is mostly an advocacy organization for evangelical conservatives and, more recently, Donald Trump.”
Davenport described the incident as “highly irregular on many fronts,” not only because of Liberty's response but because Gauger was running a business on the side.
“That the CIO had a separate company is unusual in my experience, said Davenport. “Most CIOs in universities and elsewhere are plenty busy with their primary jobs and don’t have time to freelance even if their employers would allow it."
At the time of his business dealings with Cohen, Gauger was deputy CIO of Liberty and CEO of Redfinch Solutions, his IT consultancy, which conducted the work for Cohen.
Gauger was ultimately unsuccessful in meaningfully manipulating the polls. (One was a CNBC poll of the country’s top businessmen in which Trump did not place in the top 100, the other a Drudge Report popularity poll of possible Republican candidates in which Trump secured just 5 percent of votes.) Still, his attempts to change the outcomes of the polls would normally pose reputational challenges for a university, especially one that stresses "value-driven behavior" and commitment to "personal integrity" and "social responsibility" in its official mission statement.
Andy Brantley, president and CEO of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, said most colleges and universities have policies that “specify that employees should avoid outside activities, including additional work, that could cause an actual or apparent conflict of interest with their role at the institution.”
“Many institutions, particularly public institutions, have a formal or informal process for review and authorization before the external work begins to ensure no conflict exists and that the employee’s primary position responsibilities will not be impacted.”
These policies are typically outlined in employee handbooks, said Brantley.
Liberty University’s employee handbook spells out workers' responsibility to “be constantly aware of the importance of ethical conduct” and to ask themselves questions such as: “Is the action legal, does it meet full disclosure standards of the university’s mission?”, “Does the action compromise personal ethics?” and “How would the action look in the newspaper or on television?”
“Deceptive or dishonest practices like manipulating an online poll, is certainly unethical by most, if not all, ethical standards,” said Andrew Geronimo, director of the IP Venture Clinic at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law.
The public should be “troubled by this kind of deceit,” he said. “We should be especially vigilant about vetting research methods and questioning motives in our current internet age."
If he were an administrator at Liberty University, Geronimo said he would "certainly be concerned" by Gauger's actions. "Especially if his work involved ethics, research methods, or any of the other issues this raises."
Liberty University officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment on whether the institution considered Gauger to have breached its guidelines, nor whether it would be investigating his conduct.
Vicki Tambellini, CEO and founder of the Tambellini Group, a higher ed IT consultancy firm, said it is very common for CIOs to engage in business activities outside of their normal work.
“Most report the activity to their president and are cleared for the outside activity. Some have contractual agreements that provide for some percentage of their time to be spent on engagements other than their work for the institution,” she said.
Melissa Woo, senior vice president for technology at Stony Brook University, said she knew of some CIOs with side businesses, particularly in consulting.
“Allowing CIOs to have outside businesses that don’t constitute a conflict of interest or conflict of commitment can be a good thing,” said Woo. “Some of the skill sets could translate well to the university environment and make for a better CIO.”
The rules for CIOs at private institutions can be “very different” than rules for CIOs at public institutions, said Tambellini.
“Even so, every CIO I know avoids the appearance of a conflict of interest.”