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Ethical Blindness Run Amok

The recent ethical lapses at colleges and universities across the U.S. raise questions about their “Ethics GPS”. Do the ethical systems in place provide accurate data about where these institutions are and where they are going to ensure their operating systems are working as intended and all violations are being reported and properly dealt with? The list of ethical failings is long and getting longer. This article reviews recent history and makes suggestions to improve those systems.

Back in 2011, we learned that Jerry Sandusky, the former assistant football coach under legendary coach Joe Paterno at Penn State University, had molested young boys, an offense for which Sandusky is serving a 30-60 year sentence. Others knew about the abuse but did nothing to stop it. Why didn’t they act? There was a blind spot where ethics was concerned. Those with the authority to do something failed to act, not realizing the damage being done to the abused.

Fast forward to 2014 when we learned that 3,100 student-athletes at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill were essentially allowed to take classes without attending classes and given grades good enough to keep them eligible to play men’s football and basketball. For 18 years, these students at UNC took fake "paper classes," and advisers funneled athletes into the program to keep them eligible.

Moving on to November 2017, former Michigan State University official, Dr. Larry Nassar, pleaded guilty to sexually abusing seven Olympic gymnasts who he gave physical examinations to or treated for medical ailments. This event sparked outrage in the sports world and beyond, leading to the resignation of the chairman and several board members of the U.S. Olympic Committee. Political pressure at Michigan State led to the resignation of the university’s president.

In July 2018, we learned that Temple University intentionally submitted doctored data to US News & World Report for its online MBA program and five other programs to raise their ranking. The university gave false information about standardized testing, student debt, grade point averages of admitted students, student-faculty ratios and more.

The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) is investigating whether Temple was in compliance with its requirements. The association moved up its scheduled re-accreditation review of the Fox Business School by more than one year. If Temple is found to have violated standards, the question will be what to do about it. Losing accreditation would be a slap in the face. Inside Higher Ed reports that only five-percent of the world’s business schools are accredited; an award that the Fox School has maintained continuously since 1934.

Given that the falsified data was provided by the business school, the AACSB is looking at whether the Fox school met the requirement that a business school “must encourage and support ethical behavior by students, faculty, administrators, and professional staff”. The assessment is based on whether requisite systems, policies, and procedures are in place that reflect the school’s support for and importance of ethical behavior.

Just days before the start of the 2019 March Madness we learned that LSU basketball coach, Will Wade, had been indefinitely suspended in the wake of a report that he discussed an offer for a recruit with a convicted middleman. According to The Advocate, Wade was recorded by the FBI discussing what he called a “hell of an offer” for a recruit with a middleman who has been the focus of an FBI probe into recruiting practices in college basketball.  The university is determining whether this incident violated NCAA rules. Coolege scandals

In March 2019, the story broke of an alarming scheme by parents to pay off middleman, William “Rick” Singer and athletic coaches to give favored treatment to the children of rich and well-connected Hollywood stars. Dubbed 'Operation Varsity Blues,' the schemes included rigging ACT and SAT scores, doctoring photos of alleged student athletes to receive admission for their sport, and other pay to play schemes. Using Singer’s connections, the parents bribed coaches and administrators at some of the most prestigious institutions in the U.S., including Georgetown, Stanford, UCLA, USC, UT Austin, Yale and Wake Forest. Singer and two parents were indicted on charges of taking part in the admissions scheme. You can bet more indictments are on the way as those already indicted and others being investigated scurry around to find ways to reduce their sentences by naming names.

At USC, athletic director Donna Heinel and men’s and women’s water polo coach Jovan Vavic were fired after allegedly receiving bribes totaling more than $1.3 million and $250,000, respectively, to help parents take advantage of relaxed admissions standards for athletes at USC even though their kids were not being recruited as athletes.

What’s concerning about the USC situation is they had already dealt with an admissions scandal. The former women’s soccer coach Ali Khosroshahin, who was fired in 2013, and his former assistant coach, Laura Janke, who left the school in 2014, were also named in the indictment for allegedly fabricating athlete profiles for the prospective students and receiving payments totaling nearly $350,000 that were sent to their private soccer club. It would appear USC didn’t learn its lesson.

What should universities do to strengthen their ethical systems? First and foremost, the culture in these and other institutions must change. In each case those in the know did nothing to stop the ethical violations. Others should have known but maybe they didn’t want to look too hard for fear of harming the reputation of the institution. What’s needed is for top officials to set an ethical tone at the top and ensure that ethical standards are being met fully.

Here are some concrete steps to consider.

  • Evaluate whether appropriate systems are in place to monitor policies and procedures in general, and the admissions system specifically.
  • Assess whether the systems are operating as intended.
  • Encourage reporting of alleged wrongdoing.
  • Establish a whistleblowing hot line.
  • Create a new office of “Ethics and Integrity.”
  • Develop training programs for admissions officials, athletic personnel, and other university officials to make sure they understand their ethical obligations when reports are made.
  • Retain an outside auditing firm to review policies and make sure they were followed as intended.

The nature and scope of the scandals in universities in recent years is alarming. The idea that most applicants play by the rules, work hard to be admitted, and then lose out because of gaming the system is deeply concerning. To think that the children of Hollywood stars were given a spot in the admissions class that should have been given to a more deserving student by bribing officials is appalling.

There is a lack of basic fairness in the admissions cases cited. Students weren’t competing on a level playing field. The very safety of student athletes was compromised in other cases by turning a blind eye to sexual abuse. The falsification of accreditation data raises questions whether other programs are tarnished. Most important, we need to stop and ask what these offending institutions, and probably many more, are teaching their students about right versus wrong?

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on April 2, 2019. Visit Steve’s website and sign up for his newsletter. Follow him on Facebook and “Like” his page.