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Monday, May 17, 2004


Another in a University Diaries Occasional Series

[For earlier Teaching Today entries, see UD, 2/3/04, 3/1/04, 3/16/04, 3/18/04, 3/25/04] ]

Like the professor of popular culture in Don DeLillo’s White Noise who offers courses devoted to the evolving technology of car crashes in American film, University of South Florida English professor Phillip Sipiora offers a summer course devoted to Rogue Filmmakers.

The word “rogue” in the course title is a come-on (the directors listed are almost all mainstream), as is the titillating “Forewarning“ (pretentious people use this redundant word -- “warning“ is all you need) Professor Sipiora includes on his syllabus:

FOREWARNING: Some of the films we will view contain graphic language, violence, and sexual behavior. If explicit works offend you, please investigate the film list to see whether this course suits you or not. A serious interest in film and an open mind are absolute prerequisites for this course.

Note how this ominous forewarning equates any form of squeamishness about filmed images with having a closed mind and a lack of seriousness. Getting college credit for spending the summer watching violent sexual films is a mark of seriousness; harboring moral qualms about the activity is a mark of triviality and close-mindedness.

Speaking of morality, Professor Sipiora also has an academic interest in the field of ethics. A typical recent paper of his is titled “ A Profession in Crisis: The Absence of Ethics in the English Classroom.”

Yet Sipiora’s own rogue ethics have landed him in all the Florida papers - quite an accomplishment for an English professor. From the April 23 St. Petersburg Times online:

Inside his home, Phillip Sipiora has a 65-inch high-definition television, two 36-inch televisions, 15 speakers, six remote controls and a variety of other audio-visual equipment worth $22,834.

He also has two computers and a laptop valued at $11,614.

Sipiora, an English professor, says the equipment helps him teach film classes at the University of South Florida.

But USF auditors say Sipiora bought the equipment with university funds [UD note: That would be state funds - USF is a state university] and placed it in his home for personal use.

The discrepancy cost Sipiora his post as chairman of the English department this week. He resigned on Tuesday but remains a professor at USF.

[UD note: FOREWARNING: Violent metaphor coming up.] "I feel like I've been hit over the head with a baseball bat," said the 58-year-old Sipiora, hired at USF in 1985 and named department chairman last year. "I haven't had a chance to tell my side."

University investigators also say Sipiora's wife, Cary, was paid at least $4,900 to cater department events, a conflict of interest, and that he selected a textbook from a publisher with whom he was negotiating a book contract in 1999.

Information about the monthslong investigation was disclosed Thursday when the university announced it was looking into allegations of problems within the English department.

"The university is taking aggressive steps to address problems in the department," said spokeswoman Michelle Carlyon, who would not elaborate.

According to the university, Sipiora's misdeeds date to 1999, when he was the director of freshman composition. He was responsible for selecting the textbook purchased by roughly 3,000 students each semester for composition classes, university officials said. Sipiora picked a book just before signing a contract to write a textbook for the same publishing company, according to the university. Shortly after, he signed another contract with the same publisher for a second textbook, the university said.
He received roughly $35,000 in advances and other fees for the books, the university said.

In a telephone interview Thursday, Sipiora said he was not in charge of selecting the textbook. He was on a committee of faculty members who recommended a well-known grammar book, Simon & Schuster's Handbook for Writers, to the department chairwoman, Sipiora said.

He said he did not pick a book to help himself.

"I didn't have the authority to decide on a book," he said.

Investigators could not find documents to support his claim. It was a clear conflict of interest, they said, prohibited by university policy.

But Sara Deats, another USF English professor who was department chairwoman at the time, said she selected the textbook and Sipiora was not in charge of the process. "I signed the contract," she said.

University auditors also investigated tens of thousands of dollars' worth of film equipment in Sipiora's home. He paid for the equipment with money he earned teaching extra courses. But the university says any such earnings must be used for department needs. Sipiora could have bought a desk for his office, new computers or film equipment, but he needed to use it in the department for work purposes, said spokeswoman Carlyon. He had the equipment for personal use, the university said.

Sipiora said he was, in fact, using the equipment to prepare for film classes.
"There isn't a piece of equipment in my home not directly related to my work," he said. "There are no stair climbers or massage machines. . . . If I wanted to spend the money on myself, I would have taken a vacation."

And about his wife's catering for department functions, Sipiora said other faculty members liked her food and arranged for her services. Professor Deats said she, not Sipiora, hired his wife. "She is the best caterer in the city of Tampa, and I would never have a party anywhere unless she catered it," Deats said. "He had nothing to do with it." Deats said she did not know that it was viewed as a conflict of interest to hire the spouse of a faculty member. "We had never been told that," she said.

The university is also investigating complaints that Sipiora discriminated against female faculty members. USF has asked its Diversity and Equal Opportunity office to review the situation within the English department.

Pondering this truly extensive, family-wide corruption, I find myself with a very clear picture of Mr. And Mrs. Sipiora cuddling on their couch of an evening and grinning at the thought of all the goodies they’ve gotten out of the good people of Florida…until… [FOREWARNING: graphic content] a university auditor sneaks up on them from behind with a baseball bat and…