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Is Teaching Ethics A Shady Business?

Teaching ethics can be a lucrative, albeit shady, profession, specifically if you are running for a U.S. Senate seat.

James M. Talent earned $90,000 a year teaching two ethics courses to 20 students per class at Washington University, a private school in St. Louis.

Equally surprising is the university’s justification of this arrangement. University Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton said Talent has “fulfilled my every expectation.”

Ironically, Talent and his wife, Brenda, “are ‘team teaching’ a course on congressional ethics called ‘Keeping the House Clean,'” according to the Washington Post.

A 1978 graduate of Washington University, Talent, a Republican, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1992. In 2000, he lost a gubernatorial bid in Missouri. The next year he became the university’s first Robert S. Brookings Fellow.

“Talent’s contract called for one class each semester of 20 students. And no heavy lifting,” a Kansas City Star editorial said.

Talent had told the university “how much he needed ‘to put food on the table,'” the editorial said. “With that kind of money, Talent’s table must offer quite a spread.”

The Star, which reported on Talent’s financial arrangement, noted, “The average salary for a full-time associate professor at the university is $67,000.”

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch calculated that Talent “earned $2,250 per student.”

Washington University’s student newspaper, Student Life, reported that 72 percent of the school’s board of trustees had made personal contributions to Talent’s senate campaign.

While faculty members were mum publicly about the university’s special treatment of Talent, others accused the school of circumventing campaign contribution laws.

In addition to Talent’s arrangement with the university, he earned $230,000 with a Washington-based lobbying firm. Such deals seem so commonplace for displaced politicians that few people even raised an eyebrow.

Talent’s real ethical quandary spins around the university situation. His teaching deal provides Americans with yet another reason to hate politics and loath politicians, in particular those who talk about ethics.

At the very best, Talent and Washington University are tone deaf to the nation’s hunger for ethical leadership by example. At the very worst, both parties are engaged in a cynical game that shelters political contributions from public scrutiny through a non-profit educational institution.

Either way the public loses. And ethics gets another black eye.

Robert Parham is BCE’s executive director.