What has the higher ed adviser been up to?

August 11, 2014

Just about everyone who works in a white-collar job that carries some authority or responsibility leaves behind a lengthy trail that demonstrates what they’ve done with their days – email messages sent and received, appointments and obligations jotted down in day planners, phone calls made, and, in the end, usually something tangible to show for their exertions.

That has not been the case, however, with Ron Tomalis, Pennsylvania’s former education secretary and, more recently, a special adviser on higher education to Gov. Tom Corbett. Though Tomalis is continuing to draw a $139,000 annual salary, the same amount as when he was in Corbett’s cabinet, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette did some spadework a couple of weeks ago and found little evidence that Tomalis has accomplished much of anything since starting in the role one year ago.

After combing through records obtained through the state’s Right-to-Know Law, the newspaper found that there were long stretches where Tomalis had no appointments on his calendar. In the course of a whole year, he sent only seven email messages in his capacity as higher education adviser, two of which the Post-Gazette were not allowed to see. Of the remaining five, two of them involved registering for a conference. He averaged only about one phone call per day, and many of those lasted two minutes or less.

Perhaps most puzzling was the fact that officials from Penn State University and the University of Pittsburgh, two of the largest schools in the commonwealth, have had no contact with Tomalis since he became Corbett’s higher education adviser, and neither have key legislators in Harrisburg who deal directly with the state’s colleges and universities. Nor has Tomalis asked for any travel reimbursement for any jaunts he has taken. If your bailiwick includes the state’s colleges and universities, you’d think showing your face at these institutions every once in a while would enhance your understanding of them.

There was no job description drawn up before Tomalis landed in the advisory post, and Acting Education Secretary Carol Dumaresq explained some additional duties related to primary and secondary education had fallen into Tomalis’ lap. But shouldn’t the state Education Department, and the governor himself, be able to point to something Tomalis has done to justify his salary, particularly at a juncture when education budgets have been pared and tuition and property taxes keep creeping skyward?

Things became even more “passing strange,” to use Shakespeare’s terminology, when the news broke that a nameplate bearing Tomalis’ name was only added to his office door a couple of days after the Post-Gazette story. He may or may not frequently haunt the building’s halls, but Corbett denied Tomalis was a “ghost employee.” To determine whether or not that label is appropriate, an investigation should be undertaken to determine precisely how Tomalis has spent the last year.

Also, if Corbett is elected to a second term, or his successor decides to keep a higher education adviser on the payroll, a job description should be drawn up, outlining in precise terms the duties of this individual and the expectations they must meet.

Of course, if stories like these keep blowing up, it seems likely that Tomalis will be out of a job come January. And so will his boss.



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