Last month I received a strange e-mail at the end of a long chain of correspondence. The message was forwarded to me by a colleague at the University of Maine at Augusta, who in turn had received the message from a Maine nonprofit group, who in turn had received the message from an outfit with the neutral-sounding name of Net Impact.

Net Impact’s invitation was simple: they wanted to pay me, and other university faculty like me, some easy money.

Who doesn’t like getting e-mails from strange third parties promising easy money? Actually, most of us are sick of it. We remember when our mothers told us “there’s no such thing as a free lunch,” and after the 10th fake “Nigerian prince” scam, we started to believe it.

Why would Net Impact want to pay me money? There’s always a catch, and here it is: to receive that money, I’d have to insert Net Impact’s promotional material into a classroom lecture. The plans, as quoted in the e-mail I received, were as follows:

“15-minute classroom presentation about why fiscal policy matters and impacts of the national debt (PPT and talking points provided by Net Impact)

  • Hosting stipend: $50 (sign up by April 7th for this added hosting stipend)
  • Bonus stipend for engaging 100 students: $150
  • Ask students to take the Up to Us Pledges to tell their representatives that securing our fiscal future is an important priority for America’s next generation: $100”

“Connect fiscal policy to an existing classroom activity or campus event

  • Hosting stipend: $100 (sign up by April 7th for this added hosting stipend)
  • Bonus stipend for engaging 25 students: $150
  • Ask students to take the Up to Us Pledges to tell their representatives that securing our fiscal future is an important priority for America’s next generation: $100”

Attached to the e-mail was a copy of the faculty payment plan and a set of ready-made PowerPoint slides for professors like me to read aloud in our classrooms. Most of these slides feature, in type too small for audience members to see, the name of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation.

I encourage you to look up the record of Peter G. Peterson. He has used many of his billions of dollars in wealth to fund front groups — The Can Kicks Back being the most recently debunked version — that use students’ and faculty members’ names and faces to create the appearance that college communities support Peterson’s policy preferences of cutting “entitlement” spending programs like Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps and so on. On Net Impact’s website, you can find a handy price guide for students similar to the one I received as a faculty member, listing many different ways students can be paid in order to repeat Net Impact’s political talking points on campus. A student who follows all of Net Impact’s tips — including visits to members of Congress and staged appearances at public town halls — could rake in as much as $4,400 for the faked grassroots efforts.

It is concerning to see students’ idealism being put up for sale. I am even more concerned by the effort to pay faculty members cash to convince their students to take political acts, including making public signatures to a list of Peterson Foundation political supporters. Those students who sign themselves up, following the recommendation of their paid-off professors, will be added to a contact list for further messaging and recruitment efforts by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation.

Are your professors taking payments from a billionaire’s political group to parrot political talking points and to use their students as promotional tools? Are America’s university students selling their political ideals for cash payments? I’d like to think not; such actions would be a sad violation of trust.

Unfortunately, however, when I search the web for “up to us pledge” and “university,” I see a dispiriting 76,300 results.

If you encounter a student or a professor making an appeal with the “Net Impact” or “Up to Us” logo attached, the first question you ask them should be, “is this free speech, or is this paid?”

James Cook has been a professor of social science at the University of Maine at Augusta since 2011. Dr. Cook’s primary areas of interest in research and teaching are political organizations, social networks, and social media, specifically applying social network theory to social media in the Maine State Legislature.