Closure in an Ethics Case

May 5, 2008

With a settlement in a case involving two Southern Illinois University at Carbondale professors, their faculty union and the state, an unusual dispute over ethics and quick test taking appears to have reached a conclusion.

The deal acknowledges that the faculty members complied with state law when they passed a mandatory state ethics test in 2006, and that they won't be disciplined for finishing the exam too quickly.

Marvin Zeman, one of the professors who sued the state, said he feels vindicated by the settlement, and that "as far as we're concerned, it's a complete victory."

Illinois ethics legislation calls for all state workers to take part in ethics training and be tested on the material every year. Zeman, along with hundreds of other SIU employees who finished the test within minutes, received a notice of "noncompliance" from the state's inspector general office.

Zeman said he read the notice to mean that the state was accusing him of cheating. He's not sure how long it took to read the training material and finish the 10-question test, but the state said in writing that it was just over six minutes. He and others have noted that nowhere in the training material did it mention a time limit or minimum for completing the test.

"Every year you go for ethics training and you see roughly the same material," Zeman said. "A lot of it is common sense. It's not exactly rocket science." (An account by another professor of taking the test appears here.)

Zeman said he didn't feel comfortable signing a statement acknowledging wrongdoing. He also said that because his union’s collective bargaining rules allow for harsher penalties from the university if a person has prior marks on his record, signing the form could hurt his ability to defend himself should he come under any future disciplinary action.

"They were threatening our livelihood," Zeman said.

So more than a year ago, the Illinois Education Association, the state’s largest education employees’ group, filed suit on behalf of him and his colleague, claiming that the state had no grounds to claim noncompliance.

A spokesman for the inspector general's office said he couldn't comment on the case because he had yet to see a copy of the finalized settlement.

Rod Sievers, a spokesman for the university, said Southern Illinois never intended to discipline employees. A university ethics officer told Inside Higher Ed last year that the noncompliance test was "retraining," and that none of the employees should be concerned about being fired.

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