Over the years, I’ve commented occasionally on specific cases of what I call ethics failure, and others might call scandals. Mostly, I’ve done it when asked by this or another media outlet—and it has sometimes surprised me when something I thought was problematic went unnoticed, or at least unnoticed as an ethical issue. But now it feels to me as if there is a need for extended, visible conversation about ethics and institutional integrity in higher education -- in the colleges and universities that make up this opaque industry, and in the larger society that supports and relies on it. Like 9/11, like the financial collapse, Penn State changed everything.
I think we all feel that in some way. After the news broke of the alleged, now confirmed, child rape at Penn State and the myriad individual and organizational failures that followed, I wrote a commentary for this publication, and then did not send it in. As an observer of institutional behavior, I wanted to see what the reaction was from those involved, both closely and by association. When the verdicts came, I wrote another, and for the same reason did not send it in. I was, I am surprised to say, still waiting. Beyond this, withholding those articles was the beginning of thinking that it was not enough to comment after-the-fact; it feels too much like trying to treat a preventable disease at an advanced stage, like trying to get the proverbial horse back in the barn. I began to feel that, like ethical behavior itself, something more active—and proactive—was needed. We needed an anticipatory ethics.
Hence this blog. Sounding Board is a forum for readers to ask questions and seek advice or a third-party perspective on any topic, issue, or problem of ethics, whether one that involves you personally, such as an ethical dilemma or challenge to your personal ethics; one that you confront as an institutional manager or supervisor; observe as an organizational or institutional member; or one that you are just curious about as a participant or interested party in the larger field of higher education. The primary purpose of the blog is to facilitate a conversation around reader questions and reader-raised requests for commentary or perspective, in the process revealing the sometimes unexpected ethical content and complexity of seemingly day-to-day decisions. However, as it seems appropriate, I will comment independently on current events and write posts on particular aspects of ethical reasoning and behavior that I have come to think matter.
Do you have a question or comment that you wish to make anonymously?
Type it here and click Submit.
So here is my formal invitation, to everyone from students and administrators at all levels to policy makers and the public: ask me anything that you are thinking about, perhaps struggling with, related to ethics and integrity in higher education. The reality is that every domain in which decisions and choices are made has ethical content. I personally am very interested in ethical issues related to the conduct and dissemination of research -- what I call the ethics of innovation -- and in the relationship between integrity and institutional leadership and organizational design; these have been a primary focus of my academic training and teaching, and the latter a focus of my prior professional life in management. But there are important ethical issues that underlie every aspect of the operations of higher education: tuition and financial aid, teaching and curriculum, fundraising, study abroad, admissions, student life administration, technology and facilities, and, of course, sports. As both a higher education generalist and institutional analyst by training, experience, and inclination, I know that when we start to understand that each of these contributes to the integrity of the whole, we are getting somewhere.
Penn State struck such a chord with me because it was, in the end, about leadership, culture, and decision making at all (including the highest) institutional levels—the very heart and soul of integrity. The leadership vacuum -- the deafening silence and inaction in general in the aftermath of this crisis from the institution, the organizations of which Penn State is a member and does business, and from its peers and policy partners -- has been strange indeed. Whether from fear, numbness, or uncertainty, from lack of courage or absence of imagination, or from some paralyzing combination, it should be cause for concern to everyone who cares about the soul and future of higher education, about the idea of a university.
Raise a voice. Because taking a public stand is an important skill in ethical problem solving, all comments to this blog should be submitted under your full name; anonymous comments will not be published. However, questions and concerns that you would like to raise as possible topics for the blog may be submitted anonymously and in confidence using the form at the right. I do recognize—have indeed witnessed -- that some people have good reason to feel vulnerable if they comment or even question publicly. I will similarly accept anonymous comments via this form and try to incorporate them into a future post.
I look forward to the discussion.