Former Clinton advisor Lanny Davis is used to coming under attack from colleagues on the left who support the Department of Education’s gainful employment rules.
But checking his e-mail Wednesday morning revealed what Davis considers to be a new low: Inside Higher Ed, a web-only news outlet that covers higher education in the U.S., had published a private e-mail exchange between Davis and the Rev. Al Sharpton. The story, titled “The Rev. Al Breaks Ranks,” suggested that Sharpton had rescinded his support for Davis’s campaign against gainful employment rules.
Sharpton has argued that for-profit schools are integral to raising low-income and minority Americans out of poverty. Both he and Davis oppose the scope and focus of the gainful employment regulations proposed by the Department of Education and Secretary Arne Duncan. The regulations would prohibit schools with high drop-out and student-loan default rates from accepting federal student aid.
The term “gainful employment” was coined to reflect the Education Department’s belief that career colleges like Kaplan, University of Phoenix, and DeVry habitually engage in deceptive marketing to low-income students by promising them unrealistic job prospects and not doing enough to keep them enrolled. Opponents of the regulations, like Davis and many leaders in the African American and Hispanic communities, believe that the high default and drop-out rates, as well as the problems many career college graduates face in finding decent-paying jobs, are obstacles that low-income Americans face regardless of the tax status of the institution they attend.
Davis, who lobbies for the for-profit college industry through his firm, Coalition for Educational Success, was even more surprised when he called Sharpton and learned that IHE didn’t get the exchange from Sharpton’s office, but from the Department of Education.
So how exactly did an e-mail exchange between Davis and Sharpton make its way first to Duncan’s office, and then to Inside Higher Ed? Davis says he contacted Sharpton early last month about appearing in a Washington Post ad alongside Jesse Jackson, Florida Democratic Rep. Alcee Hastings, and Harry Alford, president of the National Black Chamber of Commerce.
According to Davis, Sharpton was so concerned by Davis’s description of the gainful employment regulations that he agreed to appear in a Washington Post ad on the same day several Democratic House members were scheduled to discuss the regulations.
“The quotation that was contained in that ad from Jesse Jackson, Alford, and Rep. Hastings all came from their previous letters to the [Duncan],” Davis said. “The only person who had not previously written the secretary was Rev. Sharpton.”
So Davis offered to craft a letter on Sharpton’s behalf, based on the conversation they had in New York.
“I drafted a comment for him that was consistent with what he told the two of us over breakfast,” Davis said. “He sent me back an e-mail saying he did not want to be part of the ad based on a misunderstanding that we were not engaged in communication with the secretary and his senior staff. [Sharpton] also did not know that our coalition condemns fraud and deceipt that might occur, and that we’re all in favor of an across the board enforcement program to stop all abuses in higher education.”
According to Inside Higher Ed*, “[I]f Sharpton had, at some point, given Davis the impression that he opposed the administration’s regulatory approach, he sent a very different message last week as he rebuffed Davis’s request…to use a quotation and Sharpton’s name in an advertisement that Davis’s Coalition for Educational Success planned to run featuring Jackson and other black political leaders.”
Sharpton wrote in his e-mail to Davis, “To attack the Department rather than engage them is a bad strategy in my opinion. I think the President and Sec Duncan are not the enemies here. In fact I think they have done more for closing the education achievement gap than they have been given credit. I would like to seek a common ground to protect the services minority students need but not defend those who have manipulated those needs for ONLY personal gain.”
Originally, Inside Higher Ed reported that they had confirmed with Sharpton’s office that the e-mails were real. The publication later amended the story to read, “A spokeswoman for Sharpton said he could not be reached to confirm the legitimacy of the exchange.”
When asked if he had received the e-mail exchange from the Department of Education, Inside Higher Ed editor Doug Lederman wrote in an e-mail, “I can’t talk about my sources, just as I’m sure you wouldn’t.”
Davis confirmed to TheDC early Wednesday that the e-mail exchange was authentic. “[Sharpton] sent his e-mail over to Duncan, and he didn’t expect that somebody in Duncan’s office would exploit it,” Davis said. “When I called him this morning, he was one pissed off Al Sharpton.”
But what was really bothering Davis was the possibility that Sharpton, by sending the exchange to Duncan’s office, was “breaking rank,” per IHE’s headline.
“I sent Rev. Sharpton an e-mail asking him whether it was true that he had changed his mind,” Davis told TheDC. “His first words were, ‘That article was wrong, I never authorized it, or the [Education Department] to leak my e-mail. I am furious. I am going to have my public relations consultant call Inside Higher Ed.com to correct that I ever confirmed anything.'”
Davis said that Sharpton’s PR consultant then called him to say that the Rev. was “furious” with Duncan’s office for leaking the e-mail exchange.
“Let me be very clear: The Rev. Sharpton has been a long-time friend of mine. We have fought civil rights and other community battles side by side. I am not surprised that he has not changed his mind, and that he sees the danger of these regulations,” Davis added. “The secretary of education is showing signs of not recognizing who his friends are. Last time I looked, we’re all liberal democrats, and we’re all Barack Obama supporters. And we’re all being treated as if we’re enemies, and we can’t understand why.”
Neither Sharpton’s office nor the Department of Education returned requests for comment.
*An earlier version of this story mistakenly reported that IHE had not responded to a request for comment, when in fact editor Doug Lederman responded before we published. The Daily Caller regrets the error.