Title

Scandals in the Ivory Tower

Corruption, fraud and academic misconduct aren’t isolated occurrences in colleges and universities. They’re products of misdirected academic structures, incentives and cultures.

December 1, 2022

Today’s ivory tower is beset by scandal. The most visible scandals involve sexual harassment, molestation and abuse, bribery and favoritism in admissions, fraternity hazing, gross violations of academic integrity, plagiarized speeches and public presentations, outsize donor or trustee influence, and failure by senior administrators to act. Less visible, but no less significant, are the everyday scandals that include the exploitation of adjunct faculty, teaching and lab assistants, student athletes, international students, and nonteaching professional staff and commercial partnerships with sports gambling firms and soft drink and alcoholic beverage companies. Then there are issues typically avoided in discussions of scandal involving alcohol and drug abuse, disorderly conduct, and vandalism.

The financial costs of scandal can be extraordinary—at least $237 million at Penn State, $490 million at the University of Michigan, $500 million at Michigan State, $700 million at UCLA, $852 million at USC. But at least as damaging are the invisible costs in terms of campus morale, reputation, bad press and lives harmed.

Nor do the scandals’ repercussions quickly end. Colleges and universities must respond by implementing new prevention programs, training procedures and systems of bureaucratic oversight, reporting and enforcement at great expense. These responses, in turn, tend to make campus cultures more adversarial and inquisitorial and administratively top-heavy.

Should we consider these scandals aberrations, an anomalous series of isolated, if deeply regrettable and horrific incidents? Are scandals, in other words, an inevitable, if deplorable, product of a system of higher education as large and decentralized as this nation’s? Or is something deeper going on that will require colleges and universities to radically rethink their mission, priorities, campus cultures and governance structures?

A new collection of essays, The Ethical University, makes the latter argument: that without significant structural reforms, scandals of the sorts we regularly read about in news accounts will certainly recur.

Edited by Wanda Teays, a professor of philosophy emerita at Mount Saint Mary’s University, and Alison Dundes Renteln, a professor of political science, anthropology, law and public policy at USC, this volume sheds a bright light on the spate of recent administrative, academic, financial and sexual scandals. This volume asks why institutions long accorded a high degree of societal respect and deference have, all too often, failed to uphold their ethical and legal responsibilities. It also offers practical advice about what needs to be done if our colleges and universities are to overcome their moral lapses and oversights and ensure a safe, principled campus.

Unconventional topics covered in this volume include campus policing, grading policies and the purported obligation of older faculty to retire. But the focus is on gender and racial discrimination, sexual offenses, academic integrity, the treatment of adjuncts and athletes, and academic freedom.

I found, in particular, the discussion of the moral obligation to retire especially illuminating. The author of that contribution, Rosemary Tong, discusses and evaluates possible institutional strategies that include buyouts, phased retirement programs, posttenure reviews, including emeritus faculty in institutional life and carefully constructed detenuring schemes.

The discussion of more equitable treatment of adjuncts, student athletes and international students is also highly suggestive. Michael Boylan calls for institutions to establish a ladder of promotion for adjuncts, with specific rights (for example, involving their hiring term, teaching load and rehiring) and benefits (such as access to research support) specified for each rank and all instructors contractually guaranteed academic freedom, limited only by libel and slander statutes.

Somewhat similarly, Jonathan Lilibelad discusses the need for all student athletes to be informed in writing of their rights involving scholarships, coach-athlete relations, training, health care, time commitments, compensation, complaint procedures, the consequences of dismissal from a team and other matters. Cher Weixia Chen, in turn, emphasizes the importance of protecting international students from bias and wage and work abuses and ensuring that they receive the services that they need to thrive within the university that admits them.

The contributors to this volume view the scandals that they detail not as anomalies in an otherwise well-functioning higher education ecosystem but rather as the predictable outgrowth of a highly decentralized system that emphasizes hierarchy, status, exclusivity, prestige, competition and revenue generation. Rather than viewing scandals as the product of individual bad actors, improprieties are systemic. In some instances, misconduct takes place because of a lack of oversight, clear rules and reporting channels, accountability or a sense of empowerment among witnesses or victims or their supporters. In other instances, however, bad behavior is incentivized; indeed, it’s built into the existing system.

When I state that misbehavior is incentivized, I mean that deans, department chairs, lab directors and others are under intense pressure to cut costs, generate student credit hours, maximize margin and increase contract research. These pressures, in turn, make it more likely that these actors will take steps that can lead to scandal or abuse, for example, by instituting professional master’s programs that lack a clear return on investment.

Also, the academy’s extreme status hierarchies make it difficult to hold abusive faculty members, especially those with success as grant getters, to account. Meanwhile, the typical conditions of graduate student mentoring, where a doctoral student is wholly dependent on a single professor’s advocacy, can encourage ill treatment or exploitation.

So, what needs to be done?

Some responses strike me as straightforward. Ensure that graduate students have access to more than one mentor or adviser. Put into place readily accessible due process procedures for adjunct faculty to protect their academic freedom and prevent improper termination.

But other challenges require a more systemic response.

  1. Conduct campus conversations about misconduct. This should include all kinds of misconduct, whether it involves administrators, faculty, staff or students. Topics should include academic dishonesty, bias and discrimination, fairness in assessment and grading, free speech and academic freedom, in loco parentis responsibilities, information privacy, interpersonal relations, plagiarism and other forms of unethical behavior. These issues are far too important to be left to the general counsel’s office.
  2. Ensure that administrators recognize and respond to red flags of discrimination, abuse or exploitation. This will require administrators at all levels to closely monitor hiring practices, salary increments and promotion and tenure decisions. Everyone, not just a DEI office, needs to be accountable.
  3. Formulate and enforce policies in areas where discrimination and abuse are common. To take one example, regularly review salaries and make adjustments whenever inequities are identified.
  4. Take steps to prevent the abuse of grievance processes that can undercut academic freedom. Set a high bar for investigations into claims that research or teaching is harmful.

The single most important change is to reaffirm and reassert the principle of shared governance in oversight and decision-making.

Faculty have a particular stake in ensuring a scandal-free campus. Therefore, professors should oversee any charges of professorial or administrative misconduct and should be represented on the Board of Trustees. It also seems to me that student representatives should have a role in matters involving student wrongdoing (unless stipulated otherwise by law or government regulations).

Thus far, training sessions, Title IX offices, honor codes, academic integrity committees and student integrity boards and mandatory reporting requirements haven’t proven sufficient to ensure institutional accountability. Self-regulation has proven no more effective on college campuses than in churches, youth organizations or corporations.

At the same time, in some widely publicized incidents, existing grievance procedures have been abused in ways that infringe upon academic freedom and free speech and that subject faculty members to investigations that appear to have had a chilling effect upon research and teaching.

Academics are quite rightly anxious about the ways that a neoliberal emphasis on marketing, commercialization, enrollment management, vocationalism, contract research and revenue generation has eroded the idea of a college or university as a bastion of disinterested scholarship and liberal education. Many also worry, with good reason, that an increasingly litigious, adversarial, accusatorial campus culture with a high degree of surveillance is at odds with the academic ideals of collegiality and community.

All of us should be concerned that scandals are all too frequent at our institutions and that without carefully designed reforms, our institutions will face ruinous harms to campus finances and reputation, while undermining public support for higher education as an enterprise—much as the child abuse scandals have severely damaged the Catholic Church.

Guarding against scandal is truly a collective responsibility, but one that demands individual and especially, faculty oversight to ensure accountability.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

Share Article

Read more by

Back to Top