Leadership and a Moral Compass

Third in the IMTE series 

My reflection on October 6, I’m Mad, too, Eddie,” (IMTE) suggested that university leadership appears to operate without a moral compass. Of course it does appear to be so, because, too frequently, it is so.

Universities are full of patronage, favoritism, cronyism, back-scratching, and kick-the-can-down-the-road avoidance of tough issues: Anything you can name as the basest form of political sin infects too many. Institutions, public or private, large or small, rich or poor, are havens of human nature: Crock-pots and pressure cookers full of aspiration and ambition, dreams and reality, youthful passion, and regretfully, polluted wisdom that says, “If we do it, as smart and well intended as we are, it must be OK.” The stew, when it’s done, is rough to look at and smells bad. It lacks the hand of the chef.  Legitimate moral perspective is lost in rules, regulations, and operating principles that protect insiders from outsiders, and all from each other.

Tuition discounting, as described by the Association of Governing Boards, was initially a noble effort to attract and assist a greater range of students from diverse economic, ethnic, and cultural persuasion into universities. However, it has been contaminated as a means to inflate enrollment numbers, and has ultimately hurt the long-term viability of many institutions. While honest in inception, it has degraded into a deception of negligent board and executive leadership to draw in the uninitiated, mislead families, and misrepresent the purpose, function and ability of an education to help transform people’s lives, because institutional leadership lacks a moral compass. It is a fundamental tenant of honesty. And King Solomon said it clearly in the Book of Proverbs. For another take, Transparency International sums it up succinctly, “Since education typically comprises 20-30 per cent of a country’s budget, it is critically prone to corruption…”

Threats to the integrity of the university, reminiscent of President Eisenhower’s apprehension about the military-industrial complex, also come from various industries interested in something other than, or in addition to, the educational experience. One needs to look no further than the online institutions and the stunning lack of clarity about costs and benefits of study in many of them. Jennifer Washburn in “University Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education” suggests the forces at work from the business and financial sectors are having a negative impact on universities as places of veritas. It is a form of covetousness. And you know the old axiom, “Thou shalt not covet…”

Intercollegiate athletics programs are prone to greed and moral compromise (King Solomon again) for the capital tied up in even modest enterprises of mid-major state universities, institutionally and individually. Beyond the pay-for-play afforded to individual star athletes, “palm grease” from major league recruiters and other kinds of malfeasance, university leadership sells its own integrity and the university operating principles, to turn profits on T-shirts, beer, hotdogs, and tickets at prices that rival the NBA or the NFL. Some institutions of higher learning are sacrificing purpose at the altar of the locker room.

Admissions officers and recruitment processes attack academic integrity in too many ways. At the University of Texas it appears that admissions processes had become politicized and university executives were bowing to political persuasion rather than academic ability, merit, and passion of the student: A sad testimony to a great public university. The details of that will likely never be fully revealed for the stink that would hover over the University for years to come.

Cronyism corrupts the cornerstones of colleges.   And there is no moral perspective about fairness or propriety in treatment of people.  The golden rule as articulated in the seventh chapter of Book of Saint Mathew should rule, and it’s gone missing. And can you even imagine a university leader or board president citing such a text as a means to determine how things should be done from a moral perspective. “Jesus Christ among others said what?”

And then, there is the mother lode of absent academic morality: plagiarism. It is rampant in students, and unfortunately evidenced in university leadership.  And in too many cases people in positions of power and responsibility at every level turn their heads for the apparent ease of non-confrontation.  The Army War College recently revoked the Master’s degree conferred to Senator John Walsh. The argument of the college was, “In short, the paper was plagiarized and… the plagiarism was intentional.” The Army War College stood for what was right and did not shun its responsibilities as many boards and academic leaders have in the recent past.

Plagiarism is stealing what is not yours. When leadership does it, the trickle-down effect infects every aspect of university life.  Faculty members bemoan the cheating and stealing of students world-wide as evidenced in a piece in America entitled, “The Plagiarism Plague.”  Some try to blame the internet.  No soap.  Their jobs, family commitments, and other forces used to condone thievery are groundless. Flip Wilson would have said, “The devil made me do it.”  Funny, but not. It is fundamental morality, as Moses shared in a ringingly clear and straightforward admonition, “Thou shalt not Steal.

Moral rectitude is not a mystery. It’s simple.  You just need a compass.

One thought on “Leadership and a Moral Compass

  1. No argument again. This is a very relevant post putting our moderator in the line of those Old Testament prophets who spoke up against corruption and injustice. On the issue of plagiarism, I can’t see the difference between “intentional” and “unintentional” plagiarism. I wonder whether the latter definition would be accepted in a court of law in cases of murder, domestic violence, drunken driving etc. “It was all `unintentional’ your Honor.”

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