Conference (W)rap: Ethics 101 for CFOs, Keys to Great HR

At business officers' meeting, philosophical and practical assessments on relations between colleges and companies, and tips on strengthening human resource departments.
July 14, 2008

It's safe to say that the typical session at the annual conference of the National Association of College and University Business Officers does not have a heck of a lot in common with the standard intro philosophy course. But as the annual meeting of campus financial administrators kicked into gear in Chicago Sunday, an overflow crowd of college officials in one session got a crash course in utilitarianism, Kant's categorical imperative, and Aristotelian virtue theory, all with an eye to helping them wrestle with the ethical conflicts they may face day to day in their jobs.

The principles and tensions discussed in the session, "Wink, Wink, Nudge, Nudge: Ethical Conflicts in University Business Practices," were hardly just theoretical; business officers have been among the college officials caught up in the scrutiny that unfolded in the wake of last year's student loan scandal, with the business officers' group reviewing its own relationships with vendors and its leaders participating in discussions with other higher education groups about the appropriate boundaries at the intersection of corporate support and university decision making, among other things.

If those attending Sunday's session came looking for a neat and clean list of guidelines for dealing with ethical conflicts and dilemmas they may face in their day to day jobs, they were probably disappointed. "We're ill-equipped to give you all of the answers to the problems," said the session's co-leader, Wayne Vaught, associate professor of philosophy and medicine and director of the Center for Applied and Professional Ethics at the University of Missouri at Kansas City.

The goal for Vaught and Clancy Martin, an assistant professor of philosophy at Missouri-Kansas City (and Vaught's co-host on a monthly public radio show, "The Ethics Professors"), they said, was, like any undergraduate professor, to equip them with the tools to frame conflicts as they arise.

The presenters attempted to ground the discussion with a case study of a university facilities office that is preparing to hire a contractor to replace rotting wooden windows around the campus. The facilities director, at the urging of the chief financial officer, has an underling fax the specifications for the job to a favored contractor who has done significant (good) work for the institution in the past. Armed in advance with the specs for the job, the contractor submits a bid that ensures it gets the job.

Asked for possible defenses for the practice, audience members cite the knowledge that the contractor will do good work and the loyalty shown to proven vendors. "You have clear knowledge of the person's skill and capabilities, and if you have the obligation that your institution is getting the most bang for the buck, then maybe this is an appropriate thing to take into consideration," said Vaught.

But the lack of transparency and openness in the case study's bidding process and the fact that the preferential treatment it creates benefits a "very narrow band of participants" while hurting many others, make it flawed and therefore unethical, Martin suggested.

He offered a similar view when a questioner, given a chance to flag ethical issues audience members might have faced, mentioned the issue he and others would face when they entered the exhibit hall a few hours later: "whether it's ethical that we have sponsors at these [meetings] that are giving us things."

As its leaders promised a year ago, when a representative of Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo was on hand for its 2007 annual meeting in New Orleans, NACUBO has quietly revamped its rules governing the association's own relationships with vendors at its conference, the group's president, John Walda, said Sunday.

He said the association's "stricter" guidelines much more clearly delineate which sessions at its meetings are sponsored by corporations and designed to showcase their wares, and that the meeting structure has been altered so there is no time when the only sessions being offered are corporate showcases, as was true in the past.

Walda also said the association had imposed an "upper limit" on the dollar value of giveaways by vendors in the exhibit hall, and that he was confident that, compared to last year, when many major companies took large groups of college officials out for fancy dinners and other events in New Orleans last year, there will be a "small fraction" of such activity at this year's meeting, as much because of the "sensitivity" that companies are showing to the scrutiny they and colleges are feeling as because of any new limitations imposed by the association. (At least one vendor circulated a letter inviting participants to go on an architectural cruise around Chicago, though.)

To the ethics professors, such tinkering seems unlikely to solve whatever ethical dilemmas such corporate giveaways might present. "They're not doing this because they think it's cool to give away stuff," Vaught said, who specializes in the conflicts surrounding the biomedical sciences, which have come under intense scrutiny of late at the federal level. "They're doing it because they think it will have a direct impact on how purchases are made."

Added Martin: "When you know a practice is being implemented to influence your decision making process in way that could otherwise not be influenced, isn't it obvious that that is ethically problematic? It's hard to imagine a defense of sponsorship which is designed specifically to influence a process that cannot otherwise be influenced. The fact that it's legal, supported, and widely practiced doesn't make it moral."

Elsewhere on the first full day of the NACUBO meeting, participants listened in on more traditional fare for business officers: measuring profit and loss in university medical centers, using debt to finance capital projects at community colleges, and "creating a map" for presidential transitions.

In a session led by Kathy Hagedorn, a human resources consultant (who, in full disclosure, is also leading an Inside Higher Ed audio conference on merit pay this week), business officers received advice about how to assess the quality of their personnel offices, given the increasing pressure on institutions to hire and manage their employees effectively and intelligently.

For each of 10 key attributes she said college leaders should look for in their human resources managers -- including that they be strategic, caring, have business savvy, and be "forward thinking change agents" -- Hagedorn offered specific ways to assess whether their own HR folks qualify. (Are they strategic? "Ways to Assess: Does HR participate actively in the institution’s strategic and budget planning? Are HR goals woven into the institution’s plans? Do HR policies support one or more goals?")

The meeting continues today in Chicago.


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