By Doug Cosper
August 5, 1998
State legislators and CU regents are questioning the university's ability to keep track of how much school time its professors spend on personal, for-profit work.
At the center of the controversy is a documentary film co-produced by University of Colorado journalism professor Michael Tracey that features an interview with John and Patsy Ramsey.
In violation of regents' rules, Tracey did not complete the paperwork designed to track the university time he spent making the film.
The subject of the film, which takes the media to task for its coverage of the JonBenet Ramsey murder case, is not at issue because it falls solidly within Tracey's field of study, everyone interviewed for this story agreed.
But the school's inability to say how much of Tracey's salaried time was spent on the film, from which he and his partners hope to profit personally, has raised some eyebrows at the state Capitol.
"If (professors) are going to spend X weeks on a project, higher education should be able to account for that," said State Sen. Jim Rizzuto, the longest-running member of the Joint Budget Committee. The committee is the legislative body that allocates the state budget, including funds for colleges and universities.
"That would be something I would be more than interested in bringing up at our next budget session in September," said Rizzuto, who co-sponsored a bill in 1994 that increased accountability standards: for state faculty sabbaticals. "This at least raises the question, that unless you have some accountability standards, it's eventually going to come up as a problem."
Joint Budget Committee Chairman Tony Grampsas called the issue an "accountability problem" and said: it's "the last thing CU needs in a tight budgetary season."
"I'm surprised the dean wouldn't be more cautious with that," said Grampsas, a Republican representative from Evergreen. "The budget's going to be stretched next year. The university doesn't want to be sitting here fighting another allegation that it is not paying attention to the details. That's people's jobs, for Christ's sake.
"Accountability is going to be at the core of a lot of questions asked next year again. The public is concerned about it," he added.
Tracey and Wick Rowland, dean of CU's School of Journalism and Mass Communication, acknowledged the paperwork omission. But both passionately defended the documentary project as a prime example of what university professors should be doing.
CU allows, even encourages, its full-time faculty to spend up to one-sixth of their time and energy on consultation or research projects related to, but outside of, their regular university duties. Regents' rules allow professors to continue to collect their regular state salaries while being paid for that outside work.
"The point of the one-sixth rule is to keep professors involved in the community and real world and bring that experience back to the classroom," said Fort Collins Regent Guy Kelley. In establishing : the rules, the Board of Regents resolved, "... that public office not be used for private gain, and that there be complete public confidence in the integrity of the university."
Regents' rules require professors to inform their deans or department chairs before they undertake outside work for pay, said Todd Gleeson, CU associate vice chancellor for academic affairs. The professor is required to complete an "application for approval of additional remuneration." No further formal accounting is required.
"It's fundamentally an honor system," Gleeson said.
The one-page remuneration form "is the only paper trail that I am aware of," to track time spent on outside work, Gleeson said. The form asks professors to describe proposed projects, how much time they intend to spend on them, and what university facilities would be used.
The one-sixth rule is common in universities across the United States, said Robert Kreiser, spokesman for the American Association of University Professors, a Washington, D.C., group dedicated to defending principles of academic freedom, tenure and professional ethics. And CU's method of tracking how much time is spent for outside pay is not unusual.
"It's generally lax, across the country," Kreiser said. "The main concern is that people don't get so involved in what they're doing as to compromise their carrying out of their normal academic duties. The problem comes up when people tend to take advantage of the laxity, or it is a high- profile case like (Tracey's)," he said.
Kreiser said the issue has seldom been raised with the AAUP, but added, "We're seeing a lot of intrusions by legislators who believe that academic administrators are not enforcing the rules strictly enough."
Work now, ask later
Tracey said of the approval form, "I didn't know it existed. There are so many bloody forms at CU." He added he was only "vaguely aware" of the one-sixth rule. Tracey pointed out that although he had hoped to make money on the documentary, so far, "I've not seen a dime."
Great Britain's Channel 4 paid about £200,000 ($320,000) for a 60-minute version of the documentary that aired there last month, Tracey said. That money, combined with proceeds of a local broadcast scheduled for Wednesday, Aug. 5, on KUSA Channel 9, only covered the costs of production. Tracey said he has received about $10,000 in expenses for the project, mostly spent for travel to London, where the piece was edited. If he is going to profit on the Ramsey film, he said, it will be through a hoped-for American network sale and a subsequent book advance.
"I wish I had made some bloody money. It's cost me a lot. It's been an absolute nightmare," Tracey : said of the project. Tracey receives a salary of $80,941 from CU for a nine-month contract, according to the university.
Like most full professors in the journalism school, he teaches two classes a semester. Last spring semester, during which he said he put in the most time on the project, Tracey taught one undergraduate class of about 30 students with the aid of a teacher's assistant, and one graduate seminar of four students.
Boulder Regent Bob Sievers, who also is a CU professor of chemistry, said both professor and dean share responsibility for the approval form's completion.
"The faculty member has the responsibility to report outside activities and ask permission in advance, and the dean has a responsibility to remind people to observe the policy. You're supposed to obtain permission before you do it, not do it and ask permission later," he said.
'I have no idea'
Dean Rowland said he advised his faculty to request written approval for paid outside work. He added that he believed "the responsibility for filling them out and determining whether they should do that falls with the faculty member."
In Tracey's case, he said, "He told me about (the Ramsey project). As I understand it, it's part of his scholarly work." Rowland said he had not viewed the documentary.
"(Professor Tracey's) behavior is not different in this respect than the vast number of my faculty members," Rowland said. "I don't know exactly what projects people are working on at any particular time."
Asked if Tracey crossed the line set by the one-sixth rule, Rowland, said, "I have no idea." But he said he was comfortable with the amount of time the professor spent working on it on the university's clock. He said he had no indication that Tracey was neglecting his teaching and other: regular university duties.
He defended the documentary project as "right down the pipe" of Tracey's academic specialty as a critic of U.S. media, and he pointed out that interpreting the one-sixth rule is not a simple task.
"My impression is that during this time he has worked far more than 40 hours a week at his collective duties: research, teaching and service. So if you're calculating his time under the one- sixth rule, you could be overlooking the amount of extra time he's putting into his regular duties as well as his extra duties," Rowland said. "How do you divide that up? No one keeps a clock on that."
Rowland said he believed questions of adherence to policy "detract us from the central issue, which is the quality of the press coverage of the Ramsey case and the critiques thereof."
Sievers acknowledged the importance of faculty outside work.
"I would rather see people being very active and out in the world and trying to do things, as long as they are getting their job done." But he had harsh words to describe the Tracey project's violation of policy, which he attributed to "sloppy deanship."
"I think we should scrupulously observe that policy. It gives everyone a black eye when a few people don't do what they're supposed to do," Sievers said. He added, "That dean's going to get a piece of my mind."
Littleton Regent Norwood Robb said he believed CU policy is sufficient to protect against abuses of the one-sixth rule.
"I think the board is precise on the policy," Robb said. If Dean Rowland doesn't know how much time was spent on Tracey's project, "He probably needs to look at how he's running his school."
Regent Kelley agreed.
"Absolutely they should be required to follow regents' rules. I would hope that the dean would look into it and make sure the time spent and the remuneration received fall within the policies of the university."
Rowland said accountability relies on more than just university policy.
"Accountability to the public in the university comes in many forms. It includes the quality of the teaching in the classroom and the merits of the research and creative work, as well as the value of the service that the faculty member renders to their profession and the community. And most of those things are measured in an informal way, on a day-to-day basis, in the ongoing professional practice of the faculty member," Rowland said.
The system's real checks and balances are found in "the quality of education the students are receiving and the quality of the discourse and public debate that the faculty member's research engenders."
'I've got nothing to hide'
Tracey said he did not know how much university time he spent on the project.
"A lot," he estimated. "It was a very complex project. I've been working 80 hours a week" on both the film and his regular CU duties. He pointed out that much of that work occurred in the summer and outside of his CU contract.
Tracey was quick to defend his work and his right to profit personally from it.
"I believe with a passion that this project is absolutely of the essence of what I do as a professor," he said. As for any profits he might earn from the project, he said, "If that's a problem for anyone, it's not a problem for me, and it's certainly not a problem for CU."
He lashed out at those who have speculated that, "We're going to make millions. That's absolute bulls--t," he said. The film was not made primarily for profit, he said.
"What I was trying to do was to use this documentary to stimulate the debate about what was happening to American journalism. That's my reason for doing this," he insisted.
He decried profiteering from the Christmas 1996 murder of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey, especially by those in the media whom he called the "Ramsey Stage Army," who "have made a living on every minuscule detail of the Ramsey story." It was ironic, he said, that those journalists were among the first to criticize him for attempting to profit on the Ramsey story.
In reply to a suggestion that he contribute any future profits from the film to the university or a local charity dedicated to helping the victims of child abuse, he shot back, "No way. You're crazy. Did (Thomas) Cech give his Nobel Prize?"
Gleeson said Tracey likely faces no serious disciplinary action for failing to complete the approval form.
"Similar breaches usually result in a sit-down talk with the dean or a written commentary on the evaluation," Gleeson said.
Tracey said he will complete the application for the project's approval retroactively.
"Yeah, sure. I've got nothing to hide," he said.
"If nothing else," he said of the project, "a lot more people know of CU now than they did before."
The documentary is slated to air, commercial-free, at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 5, on KUSA Channel 9. Tracey is scheduled to discuss the film with local journalists, including members of the "Ramsey Stage Army," following the broadcast.
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