- - Tuesday, April 9, 2019


PROVIDENCE — When Rhode Islanders heard that the women’s tennis coach of the state’s public university had been arrested in connection with the national bribery for admission scandal, many must have said, “Wait, what?” Students can get an excellent education at the University of Rhode Island, and it’s certainly an affordable option, but it isn’t exactly an institution for which the nation’s rich and famous would have to pay the sort of premium that might attract the FBI’s attention.

When they learned the details, locals’ reaction was probably something more like, “How very Rhode Island.” Residents of the Ocean State love stories about Rhode Islanders who’ve made it big, and we love to detail any direct connection our state has to national renown. Coach Gordon Ernst grew up in Cranston, Rhode Island, was a successful athlete at our Ivy League school, Brown, and had gone on not only to a storied career at Washington, D.C.’s elite Georgetown University, but to personal acquaintance with such luminaries as the Obamas, for whom he was a private coach.

Reportedly, while he was under investigation for the “admissions irregularities” for which he was ultimately asked to resign from Georgetown, Mr. Ernst applied for jobs with nearby prep schools. None hired him, though, perhaps questioning what his real motivation for the change of venues might be.

Well might URI have had similar apprehensions. A spokesperson recently told the Providence Journal that the university’s athletic director had personally called down to Georgetown and received a positive reference.

“There were absolutely no indications whatsoever of any personnel concerns, violations of admissions policies or any other issues related to coach Ernst.” Yup. For some reason, he’d simply decided to leave behind a successful gig at a top university for a (let’s say) lower-key engagement in the state of his childhood.

Why wouldn’t a coach of Mr. Ernst’s caliber be satisfied with a job paying $39,999.96 at one of our public schools? In the Rhode Island way of thinking, such coups are unexpected opportunities. This is the state that infamously jumped at the chance to sell $75 million in bonds with implicit public backing in order to ramp up the video game venture of Boston Red Sox legend Curt Schilling. Why shouldn’t we be able to borrow enough investor money to compete with our big brother state, Massachusetts?

Under Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo, we’ve brought in experts from the famed Brookings Institution to tell us how to redesign our government and economy to reclaim our long-lost heritage as a hub of economic activity. Our pitch for Amazon’s HQ2 imagined a wall of buildings surrounding our State House, each shimmering with the promise of public subsidies.

In order to swagger like the big players, Ms. Raimondo created the office of “innovation officer” — a six-figure cabinet position that she oddly placed within a private fund-raising foundation associated with the public Rhode Island College. In preparation for a failed rebranding of our state, the governor hired a “chief marking officer” whose innovative funding processes had raised some eyebrows during her time in the administration of Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. In an attempt to make something of our wallowing Obamacare health benefits exchange, Ms. Raimondo brought in a key player from Vermont’s much touted, but failed, overtures toward single-payer health care.

Why can’t we expect to hire the rising stars and leading lights of innovation?

Rhode Island’s leaders are like the parents who’ve bribed their children’s way into institutions of higher education that were well beyond their merit. Both cases exhibit an implicit insecurity and a desire for people under their care or authority to be something they’re not. In contrast, the initial questions that political leaders and parents ask should be: Who are you really, and how can you achieve your full potential, being who you are? With that more-human perspective as the starting point, parents might not set their children up for embarrassing failure (or criminal prosecution).

Similarly, people making financial or hiring decisions for branches of state government can avoid embarrassment, failure and scandal if they start with the character and interests of their people. Visiting the URI campus recently, a high school student of my acquaintance suggested that it looked a little dingy and patchwork, apparently owing to a good deal of debt-driven construction since my time there two decades ago.

A more-realistic assessment of the institution’s status and strengths might help it to refine rather than reconstitute, as well as to see warning signs when a potential new hire seems too good to be true. Who knows but that such refinement might make the University of Rhode Island the sort of school that out-of-state moguls really would bribe to gain their children’s admission. That scandal would definitely excite Rhode Islanders.

Justin Katz is the research director of the Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity and managing editor of OceanStateCurrent.com.

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