Florida International University (FIU) in Miami has a starring role in a plot twist involving the ongoing saga between the hotel industry and home-sharing companies like Airbnb.
FIU, a state university that gets some of its funding from Florida taxpayers, had been selected for a grant worth over $68,000 from the American Hotel & Lodging Educational Foundation (AHLEF). The grant would have been used to study the safety and security of short-term rentals like Airbnb.
The Checks and Balances Project (CBP), a government watchdog blog, says the hotel industry was ready to pay FIU for biased research that would show short-term rentals are harmful to consumers and communities. The blog cites a document from an industry board meeting last year as evidence.
But the grant was withdrawn before FIU received any money.
“It appears that Florida International University is the first university dropped by the hotel [industry] in this pay to play academic scheme,” says CBP executive director Scott Peterson. “That all came about when we started asking for records of the communications between FIU and the hotel lobby regarding grants, contracts and research proposals.”
The hotel industry disputes Peterson’s assertion that it’s pursuing universities, including several outside of Florida, for the purpose of garnering research that can be used against home-sharing companies.
“We have a commitment to and responsibility to fund public policy research about the lodging industry. We don't predetermine the outcome of any of the research that we sponsor,” says Troy Flanagan, vice president of state and local affairs for the American Hotel & Lodging Association. “The association agreed to fund FIU's study because we strongly and the foundation strongly believe the research would show short-term rentals such as those operated through Airbnb are not safe - but not because it's manipulating the data.”
As for why the deal between FIU and the hotel industry fell apart, Flanagan says the foundation withdrew its support because the two sides couldn't agree on a contract. Mike Hampton, dean of FIU’s Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, is more specific.
“Unless otherwise agreed, the university retains all rights to the intellectual property generated through our research,” Hampton says. “FIU would not agree to assign copyright nor free use of the research results, so AHLEF informed us that they would no longer proceed with discussions concerning awarding the grant… It wasn’t about whether the outcome was what they may have wanted or not.”
Ultimately, Peterson says he’s concerned about transparency in academic research – especially when it comes to corporate interests. “What's most important here is the transparency. It's the ethics standards that are involved,” Peterson says. “Rutgers put out a discrimination report, and it had to do with the lack of accessible short-term rentals for those with disabilities….They've done it right. They appear to be transparent, and they paid for it out of their own university research fund.”
Hampton says FIU has never accepted money for research that would provide a certain outcome. “We don't do that. That's not what higher education is about. It's to learn and to find out what the facts are and to share those facts.”
Hampton says universities have a variety of resources to fund research – endowments, federal and private grants, donors – so FIU will try to find a different funding source for its study.
While CBP says it “seeks to hold government officials, lobbyists and corporate management accountable to the public,” it receives donations for its work. In a blog post last October, CBP announced that it had accepted Airbnb’s offer of public funding to investigate efforts by the hotel industry to thwart home-sharing businesses.
“We state at the bottom of every blog post that we receive private and public funding from sustainable energy donors,” Peterson says. He says after some deliberation about whether Airbnb fit into that niche, CBP accepted the company’s donation. “As in all of our work, we decide the course of our investigations and editorial. So we've been very upfront in all of our conversations with the media about our relationship.”