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October 21, 2009 - 4:22pm


State workers here are required to take and pass an annual, online, ethics refresher course (it takes 30-60 minutes), and state university employees are no exception. The format has varied over time, but the requirement inevitably draws complaints. Since money is always tight, and the state employs many people, the course's design has been one-size-fits-all. Liberal arts faculty were often irritated that they had to read about and be quizzed on the ethics of signing contracts with vendors, with whom they had no contact, and facilities workers were no doubt puzzled about warnings not to take gifts from students’ parents in exchange for grade influence.

ach year's refresher covers oddly selective rules governing everything from taking home leftover departmental-party balloons to sexual harassment. None of the information is particularly weighted, so all infractions sound like equal offenses. A formal test, also taken online, used to follow the instruction. The system knew exactly how long you were taking to read each page, so if you sped through or left it sitting there too long you could be disciplined for not taking the process seriously. The system also reports those who fail to take it at all.

When you do finish, it generates a certificate that must be printed and kept on hand in case an administrator demands to see it. Dire warnings are sent around about failure to comply. All this has come down from on high in a state where the governor himself had a few ethics problems, which really stuck in some people’s craws too.

I’ve just finished this year’s refresher. The website was much slicker, and there was no separate test, just 74 pages(!) of scenarios and multiple-choice questions, with feedback on both right and wrong answers. The material still tried to cover, in a general fashion, oddly specific rules. If you’re invited to a cocktail-dinner party for a company that does business with the university, it turns out, you can eat and drink $75 worth, but at $75.01 you’ve committed an ethics breach. Some other situation sets the cap at $100. Sometimes you have to give perceived gifts or compensation back, or donate an equivalent amount to charity, other times not.

The winning scenario was one in which Administrator Pablo did something that was a minor ethics problem, best I can remember; Sub-Administrator Jill didn’t report it, so her violation was worse; her coworkers tried to give her a hard time about it and were in bigger trouble; and when State Investigator Fred came to ask for documents regarding the case, he overstepped his authority by doing so. The expected answer to the final corresponding test question was that we should immediately contact our “EO”—campus ethics officer—to report the state ethics investigator.

There was a passage in the introduction to this year’s test that read:

The University is committed to building and fostering an ethical workplace culture. Ethics training provides an opportunity to reflect on and reaffirm our obligations as members of the academic community. Though not all elements of the training may be specific to your line of work here at the University, the program in its entirety is important. Ethics training will not, by itself, ensure ethical behavior. Personal responsibility, a culture of high mutual expectations, and the tone set by leaders all play a role in encouraging ethically responsible behavior.

It was signed by all the university presidents in the system, including the one we most recently lost to ethics violations, and I took my test on the day that our chancellor resigned for related reasons.


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