Letter from the Editor

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Golden Parachute and Iowa Central

There are two schools of thought when it comes to Bob Paxton, the former president of Iowa Central Community College.

One says Paxton, the 52-year-old appearing in a much-circulated photo taken on Lake Okoboji on the Fourth of July, has shown poor ethical judgement and reflected terribly on the educational institution. The photo shows Paxton on a boat with a bevy of bikini-clad young women, appearing to hold a small beer keg over the head of one woman pouring beer down her throat (he denies that), as another woman looks to be pouring a bottle of vodka into the mouth of a third. Also on the boat was his teenage son, who Paxton says was not drinking, but was arrested the next day for a second OWI. The photo was obtained and printed by the Des Moines Register. By now, every camel herder in Kazakhstan has seen it on the 'net.

There is a second school of thought. It says that while Paxton may have carried his partying too far, it's his private life and has nothing to do with his job, and that his career was basically sabotaged by his detractors.

One group says he should have been immediately canned without pay. The other that it isn't a big deal to be celebrating on a party boat on a holiday, and that he should still be at ICCC, where he effected a big gain in student numbers and impressive developments including a new bio science center project.

There is little point in speculation about Paxton's behavior now - he isn't talking, and that's probably part of the deal. It's over.

What is worth talking about is the way that ICCC chose to end it.

They paid Paxton off to walk away. To the tune of $400,000 in Iowa taxpayers' money. That's cash that could have paid scholarships for a lot of young people to start off their higher education.

Why? I suppose the trustees would explain that it is standard for highly placed executives to collect generous severence packages - a smaller version of the kind of so-called golden parachutes that have been so controversial of late in the finance industry. They might say that by resigning for the sake of ICCC, Paxton may have willingly himself unemployable by any college short of Kalahari Bushman U.

Indeed. Especially since he reportedly tried to lie about it, telling a reporter initially that he "had no idea what you're talking about" when questioned about the incident, and saying he hadn't been aboard a boat with any young people. He apparently only admitted it when he found out the newspaper had the photo. Explaining that would be harder that writing off the partying.

Perhaps trustees would say that they just want to put the incident behind them as quickly as possible and are willing to pay what it takes.

In reality, it is probably a much more practical decision. For a $400,000 deal and health care for the next 13 years until he is on Medicare, Paxton signs off that he will take no action against ICCC. That is more than a footnote to this saga.

Trustees are well aware that there is no proof or even allegation that Paxton did anything that is illegal, or even anything that applied directly to his responsibilities at the college, a hundred miles from that lake. If he were to sue them and claim wrongful firing, it could have been a long, drawn out - and very expensive - proposition the college had no assurance of winning.

For many it is going to be tough to swallow the fact that for his Administrators Gone Wild behavior, Paxton profits by hundreds of thousands of dollars that should rightfully go toward the education of Iowa students.

It will be hard to understand how he managed to negotiate a deal where he will be paid salary for two years that he won't work - in fact that ICCC will pay doubly, carrying the salary of its next president as well as its former one, into 2010.

Some may question how the chairman of the trustees held a closed-door meeting with Paxton after the photo was printed, where a parting of the ways was apparently worked out. Iowa Open Meetings law allows personnel matters to be kept secret, but there's nothing private about this particular case.

It is hard for people who work a normal job to understand why executives are paid so richly - for quitting.

Of course, no one would wish the troubles Paxton's family faces on anyone, and no amount of money can make up for the mud his name is now being drug through as a result of one casual photo that somehow made its way to the media, and has now been on the Today show and been used to ridicule and crucify the man on thousands of websites around the world.

It certainly will be a blow to the hundred college presidents around the country who are calling for the legal drinking age to be lowered. While they claim their opinion is based on safety factors, some will begin to wonder if it isn't to cut down on the embarassments to the schools when underage drinkers are caught in wild partying or drunken crimes.

The debate over Paxton's payoff will rage on for a time, as will the rumors, and the public has four hundred thousand good reasons to be angry. But, it is over.

A lot of people are paying a price for a Coors Light-fueled holiday joyride at the Lakes. All Iowans, in fact.

The area's community college has work to do. It's been a costly blow, but it's time to move on.