I’ve been teaching an early summer graduate course in Corporate and Professional Ethics. As in all my courses, one of its goals is to help students make the link between theory and practice -- particularly important in this case because ethics is by definition “applied.”
So I draw heavily on real cases and situations. They give students practice in identifying ethical issues and ethics failure; examining the underlying reasoning and justifications for action and the associated ethical perspectives they reflect; and working through what their own judgments and actions would be under similar circumstances. Being prepared to recognize and think through ethical situations in advance of action is crucial to individuals, and to every organization.
The pool of ready-made examples is vast and instructive but also rather shopworn (think Enron), so when the University of California at Berkeley announced its plans  to have the entering freshman class submit DNA samples for testing as this year’s “On the Same Page” common experience, it was like a gift. It had the quality of relatability for graduate students, and all the dimensions of a case suitable for analyzing questions of whether there have been one or more ethics failures; the quality of reasoning and choice-making; and the presence or absence of rationalization, fallacy, and bias in argumentation (whether the university’s argumentation was, in ethics terms, credible). The case was at once simple and self-contained, but complex.
The case was particularly rich in opportunities to examine conflict of interest and “the appearance standard” in conflict of interest, and the special problem of role conflict between university official duties (in this case, teaching) and outside personal and commercial interests, with the definitive condition for conflict being the use of one’s official role to further one’s personal or an unrelated institutional interest. It also provided a forum for examining the general concept of corruption, or the undermining of an institutional purpose on which others rely, a key here being that the negative consequences of decisions or actions on institutional integrity should have been recognized or understood.
We tried to identify the university’s ethical stance, and to reason about what the ethical issues were. For example, did the university owe a duty of care to a vulnerable population -- 18-year-olds leaving home for the first time, a kind of in loco parentis -- or were these “adults” who had the maturity and knowledge as the well as the legal right to determine their choice themselves? This was one of many cases that provided the opportunity to discuss the difference between legality and morality. Did the decision represent what I call “structural immorality” -- misaligned organizational conditions or processes that put institutional integrity at risk? We examined the objections raised by external observers, and the language of Berkeley’s responses, for evidence and quality of reasoning. Berkeley did not fare well on this rhetorical analysis in its early defenses.
The most interesting discussion is always around my favorite set of questions: Why (why this)? How (would it work)? What else (could we do, would we want to know)? Such questions allow us, prospectively, to head off ethics failure, and retrospectively, to assess intention or motive -- which students learn they must never assume. We wondered what else was considered, and what the criteria for judging were. If this focus on personalized medicine was the clear favorite, we wondered what other permutations were considered.
Students were in agreement that, as currently conceived, this was a relatively mindless, punctuated activity, in contrast to the processing demanded by reading a book or doing service together; we knew there was no advising involved, and it appeared that the public lecture was not required, so the entire activity seemed to consist of a swab and checking results online. (Other activities have been added.) It struck my students as lacking entirely in community, and we were able to examine and raise questions about related internal inconsistencies.
For example, did the goal of 1,000 out of 5,500 students qualify as a “common experience,” and was this minimal participation rate of 18 percent applied to previous freshmen experiences and viewed as an equally acceptable goal? Was Berkeley’s argument that it had carefully limited the analysis to three purportedly innocuous genes consistent with simultaneously offering a free full gene analysis?
Even if it had been determined by some method that personalized medicine was a more important topic than any other those charged with choosing the common experience could conceive of for entering students, there remained the question of what would be of greatest value to the students. The class generated many, many ideas for making personalized medicine and genomics a central idea that would be meaningfully engaging while eliminating what they believed to be unnecessary conflicts and risks, such as the university owning the data and the right to its publication, and the privacy risk of posting data online (the infamous posture studies were an exemplar here).
Even a few days later, when the university announced that, on further consideration,  it was no longer going to involve 23andMe (a company on whose board one of its faculty sits) and offer a full genetics test, substituting a prize of $1,000 and several $500 prizes, there remained other questions, and other facts we would want to know in order to judge the ethical dimensions. For example: was a $1,000 prize and several smaller but large prizes offered in previous years for reading a book? Was this shift, which in terms of incentivizing students was similar to an incentive to participate in a research study (and, indeed, this is first and foremost a piece of research, approved by the IRB, which focuses primarily on informed consent in human subjects research), really a change? Would students be provided with information about commercial companies doing full genetic work-ups? Did Dr. Jasper Rine, professor of genetics and developmental biology and head of the project, teach undergraduates? Is the search for tissue beginning to intrude on the relatively captive and well-defined student population; as one student said, is this a true slippery slope? Was this different, and why or why not, than recruiting students to participate in other kinds of faculty experiments, such as testing memory or a educational intervention?
The class was unanimous (a first) in its judgment that this decision was ethically misguided; the look on their faces as they read the scenario, even before discussing it, was one of incredulity. There was a sense that some line had been crossed, some barrier permeated. As we wrapped up, students asked me what I thought motivated UC Berkeley, as an institution, to do this.
Minding my teaching that we should not make assumptions, particularly about motive (although we can often unpack motive from evidence), what I told them was that, at the very least, it seemed that UC Berkeley did not think this through. That alone is a failure of ethical responsibility, and one of the lessons about how ethics failures occur, and how to prevent them, that I work to get my students to internalize in preparation for their own professional roles.
Jane Robbins is senior lecturer in organizational leadership at Vanderbilt University.