The absolute worst time to call a journalist, aside from a few minutes before deadline, has to be a quarter after four on a Friday. By then, those of us in the profession who are given to a drink now and then are a beer deep into happy hour. If you call to argue the merits of our reporting, you are likely to incite a lively debate, and this especially goes for Washington insiders who phone to intimidate us from covering a developing story.
We were sitting on the patio in the sun. The angle had changed weeks ago with the arrival of autumn, though we’d all been too busy to notice. The talk at our table involved how our jobs had changed since the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) introduced its "gainful employment" rule push targeting "for-profit" colleges. The hours had gotten longer and our work more intense, but our magazine was playing a substantial role, we thought, in helping the sector find its voice.
We all expected to be well into another quiet Friday night in Middle America in another hour or so, where high school football games and the high lights that surround them seem to be the only glow on the prairie. But my phone rang and against my better judgment, I answered it.
The caller was a woman. She was polite at first. She told me she’d "come across my website” and began asking me some general questions about our publication that could be easily found online. The call was breaking up, so I asked for her number and called her back from inside the adjoining restaurant. I thought she said her name was Barbara, so I asked for her by that name, but I was immediately corrected. She told me her name was actually Diane … Diane Schulman. This innocent mistake didn’t impress her, but however offended she might have been didn’t make matters any worse. She was ready to argue.
The more she talked, the more I could sense a tone. She’d intentionally not mentioned the organization she represented, which was a tip off that she was somehow involved in what she was asking me. The pieces finally fell together when she told me she read my piece from earlier in the week announcing that the Keiser University’s open records case information that had been posted on our website.
I told her that we had posted a repository that can be perused by our fellow journalists who are researching this story and by our readers, who we thought would be as intrigued as we are by this extraordinary case. Keiser took legal action against Florida State College Jacksonville, alleging that leaders of the community college were developing a plot to slander the university and other for-profit institutions in the state. The materials we posted show communication between community college leaders and elected officials, members of the Department of Education, and individuals called to testify before the Senate.
The conversation didn’t last long. She insisted that our magazine was in some way affiliated with the Career College Association (now the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities,) which is how we must have acquired the open records information. We “must be astro-turfing,” for CCA, she said, which was a term I’d never heard but gathered it meant that we were a cover for our industry’s largest member organization.
My work then became her focus. She said my piece announcing the repository wasn’t journalism. She told me it included “all of the industry’s talking points,” and I reminded her that since we follow the career education sector, it was likely that it might contain some counter-points to the traditional media’s argument (I actually used her phrase, “talking points,” but clarified for her that I’d used air quotes when I made that statement.)
From there, our talk devolved into what I thought the open records information actually showed. I told her to buy a copy of the November issue to find out, and the fact that anyone would pay for our magazine seemed particularly offensive to her (which was offensive to me.) So I encouraged her to surf our site and to contact me if she still had any more questions. After all, I’d been polite enough to take her call during time with my staff and then call her back when the connection was bad.
This was an odd call, to say the least, and unexpected. I was interested in Ms. Schulman, so my research didn’t end when the phone call did. After a simple web search, I found Ms. Schulman represents a research group that has been working in collaboration with short sellers. Her name also appears in the open records material. Ms. Schulman’s was trying to back us off of the Keiser University story, but her move was ill advised and poorly played.
In the last six to eight months, there have been countless negative news stories that pummeled career education, from specials on PBS to articles in Good Housekeeping, not to mention side-show Senate hearings that have presented student anecdotes and one-sided statistics. The career college sector has taken it in stride, fighting back with its own offensive in Washington, by gathering students at a rally on Capitol Hill, by writing thousands and thousands of letters to comment on the proposed gainful employment rule, and by sharing the stories of successful career college graduates.
These efforts seem strikingly naïve to me now. And what I wrote about Keiser’s legal steps was a simple rain drop of opposition that fell into an ocean of sweeping negativity and accusation.
The fact that Ms. Schulman cared enough to call about our piece reveals how much the open records information shows. Her interest proves how damaging this information can be. The bottom line is that my article described what the records showed, and the journalism was accurate. You can read for yourself the exchanges between president Steven Wallace, vice president Susan Lehr, and others who clearly want to drive Keiser and other for-profit schools from the state. Lehr intentionally sought out the worst of the worst stories from students attending her schools that failed at career colleges in order to trumpet those everywhere. You can also read her email exchange with Steve Eisman, just as we noted. You remember Eisman – he was the short seller who was called to testify before the Senate though his interests were purely financial. Granted, the exchange was brief, but it establishes a connection.
This call has become yet another part of this story. There are a lot of people out there who feel passionate about the gainful employment issue and this situation in Florida. We all believe we have the correct answers. But, in this case, those of us familiar with the career college sector know we do.