The University of Missouri finds itself stuck in an embarrassing ethical quagmire, thanks to that paragon of economic ethics, Kenneth Lay.

You remember Lay, the man who drove the Enron engine down the road to financial ruin -– ruin, that is, for everyone at the low end of the pyramid. Kenny Boy and his executive colleagues engineered for themselves a nice soft landing — right onto the heap of investors, shareholders, and employees who unknowingly were part of that giant sham operation. Not to mention the inflated energy prices the utility customers of California suffered thanks to Enron’s business practices. You have to go back to Guccione’s “Caligula” to find so many people getting screwed by one Lay.

Now, Ken Lay has donated $1.2 million to Mizzou to endow a Chair in International Economics that will bear his name.

The school must realize that this money came from those dubious — and possibly criminal — economic parlor tricks. Therefore, in the name of ethics, the University Of Missouri must give this tainted money back and refuse to name a prestigious spot on its faculty after Lay.

Lay’s contribution makes him a “very distinguished benefactor” at Mizzou (remember when “distinguished” meant more than “the check cleared”?). That’s why there’s a giant portrait of Kenny Boy in the Mizzou student counseling center. What’s that for, to inspire students to lower their personal scruples?

The school is conducting a search for a professor who would fill the Lay Chair. Several dozen people have applied for the job, apparently having no compunction about co-mingling their name with Lay’s.

There are economics professors at Mizzou who see nothing wrong with accepting this financial windfall and naming the chair after Sir Enron. Some have called him a creative and innovative business leader, which makes you wonder exactly what’s being taught in their economics classes. Then again, this is the University where Kenny not only got his undergraduate degree, but his master’s, too — they must be doing something right!

I’ve checked the curriculum that would be discussed in the classroom of the Kenneth L. Lay Professor of International Economics. The syllabus highlights include:
• How To Get Around Conflict Of Interest Rules
• Screwing Employees Out Of Their Retirement Money
• How To Hide Debts In Off Shore Accounts
• Inflating Profits, Propping Up The Stock Price, Cashing Out
• Your Most Vital Accounting Procedure: Shredding

Once the University gives the money back to Lay, he can use the cash to dab away the tears his wife, Linda, must still be spouting. Remember her proclamation on “The Today Show” that they were so broke they might have to sell some of their ten homes? It got so bad for the Lays that, on one trip to their resort home in Aspen, Linda was forced to actually talk to someone whose personal worth didn’t have two commas in it. Oh, the agony!

The supporters of the Lay endowment argue that he hasn’t been convicted of anything, as if that makes him Mr. Morality. OJ Simpson wasn’t convicted, either. Would they accept an endowment for an OJ Simpson Chair In Criminal Justice? OJ could personally conduct the search for the Real Professor.

The fact is that Lay’s business actions were highly questionable at best, but — yet again — money talks and morality walks. Principles and integrity go out the window when a huge check comes in.

So, what’s next at the University of Missouri?

• The Leona Helmsley Chair in Hotel Management.
• The Jeffrey Dahmer Foundation Chair in Nutritional Studies.
• The Father Geoghan Chair in Pediatric Studies.
• The Mike Tyson Chair in Sports Psychology (okay, Abnormal Psychology).

Since when did higher education come with such low standards?