UVM ‘Ticketgate’

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(Host) Commentator Allen Gilbert thinks that “Ticketgate” at the University of Vermont touches on a serious public policy issue.

(Gilbert) The distribution of free tickets to a University of Vermont basketball game has created quite a stir. University President Dan Fogel handed out a passel of tickets to state politicians and other influential people, from the governor to the editorial page editor of the Burlington Free Press. The purpose, Fogel said, was to build “good will” for the university. Each ticket was worth about $25.

But cost wasn’t the issue. Availability was. A ticket to the end-of-season game was virtually impossible to come by. Students camped out overnight to get tickets. Folks who got President Fogel’s tickets didn’t have to stand in line. They just had to be in an important position of power.

Some of the people who received free tickets have sent in checks to pay for them. That’s a nice gesture. But it hides the central issue behind what one political wag has called “ticketgate.” The central issue of ticketgate is using power and favors to influence decisions that affect the public. It’s not a small matter.

It’s particularly not a small matter because of the politics that swirl around higher education. After the Fletcher Allen “Renaissance Project” debacle, it’s clear that UVM desperately needs to build good will. But perhaps more important to the university than repairing bridges is building new ones.

President Fogel is a president-on-the-move, a man with a vision to expand the university’s presence and reach. He is reminiscent of past-president Coor. Both presidents saw the need to “sell” the university. Highlighting successful sports programs builds school support and boosts alumni giving. Constructing a huge new sports arena and conference center would further that goal. Creating an honors program within the college is a tool to boost academic quality.

It will take many friends in high places to help the university reach these goals. The challenge for the politicians who took advantage of the free basketball tickets is whether they can make unbiased, independent judgments that are in the public interest when the university’s expansion plans are reviewed.

The politicians face a heavy burden. While they may be honorable men and women, their acceptance of gifts and favors from the university creates the appearance of a conflict of interest. And in the public’s eye, appearance is often all that matters in creating a feeling of mistrust about whose interests are being advanced.

A while ago I clipped a news story about an interesting flap in Norway. The prime minister had just gotten a new car, loaded with all sorts of features. But the car was 88 pounds over the weight limit for Norwegian highways. The country’s motor vehicles department refused to register it. The head of motor vehicles explained, “The law is the same for all, there can be no dispensation.”

Norway is famous for this sort of strict adherence to egalitarianism. Its former king, Olav, often rode public streetcars. I wonder if he stood in line for tickets to championship ski races.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert is a writer active in civil liberties and education issues.

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