Our Universities: “The Sins of the Father”

Political leadership reflects the dreams and nightmares of the electorate. Voter-sanctioned tolerance and expectations percolate into public leaders of every strain, including university presidents. For university leaders, moral authority or its lack, settles into the hearts, minds and souls of university students. And then some of those students become political leaders.

“I have a strong belief, nurtured no doubt by my own prejudices, that the central person in exercising moral leadership for the life and prosperity of any academic institution must be its president.”

Theodore M. Hesburgh, CSC, STD, President Emeritus of the University of Notre Dame


The Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, of Southern Illinois University Carbondale, reported the findings of a February poll — Illinois voters perceive “political corruption is the norm for both federal and state governments…”  It is a sad epidemic. At the state level, 53% believe corruption is very common.

Political leaders gather moral authority and ethical perspective at home, in houses of worship, in schools and at universities.  Ethical perspectives permeate all of us and are evidenced in behavior.  In Illinois, the now imprisoned Rod Blagojevich instituted an ethics test for all state employees.  He passed it.  He wanted test-proven moral leadership.  Evidently, behaviors carry more weight than test scores.

High ethical standards of elected officials are reflected in university leadership.  Conversely, moral bankruptcy begets moral bankruptcy.  Students are simmered in the university’s leadership broth, and truthfulness or disingenuousness boils out.  President Hesburgh was right.

Examples of ethically bereft university leadership abound.

At Chicago State University, James Crowley, the university’s former senior legal counsel, had been awarded $2 million in punitive damages and $480,000 in back pay after a jury decided last month that he was fired in retaliation for reporting alleged misconduct by university president Wayne Watson and other top officials,”  according to the Chicago Tribune. Does this indicate guilt on anyone’s part?  At its absolute best, it looks terrible.

The University of Illinois’ former President Joe White and Chancellor of the flagship campus, Richard Herman, stepped away from their respective positions amid charges of politically motivated admissions favoritism. The next president, Michael Hogan, oversaw a brief and rocky tenure with a number of charges levied against him and his senior staff. True or not, who knows?  It certainly does not look good.

Illinois State University President Timothy Flanagan recently resigned after a term of seven months with a buyout package of $500,000 seemingly brought about by inappropriate behavior, according to the Chicago Tribune.  Right or wrong? Can’t say.

And, to our collective misfortune, there are many more examples in and out of state.

A 2011 Chronicle of Higher Education story, “How Educated are State Legislators,” by Scott Smallwood and Alex Richards, reports on the educational achievement of political leaders.  Through first-hand experience at universities, they learn about decision-making and leadership ethics. The vast majority of elected officials, 7,400 state lawmakers nationwide, attended public colleges and universities. Of the 535 U.S. Congressmen, only four have no higher education, three quarters of the U.S. senators have advanced degrees and half of them studied law.

The Chronicle reported the majority of the state legislators attended in-state universities, crystallized with this observation, “Overall, 75% of the state legislators who have gone to college have attended at least one institution in their home state.”

University leaders set ethical frameworks in every aspect of a free society including the statehouse. In case after case, the fingerprints of legislative processes are on university affairs.  If those machinations are corrupt, or even believed to be so, university leaders are accessories to malfeasance.

Expectations too high?  Not when presidents are the most highly compensated state employees in every state in the nation except for major sport coaches.   The public owns the right to high aspirations from university leaders. They pay for it.

President Hesburgh understood the mantle of leadership.  No one has more impact on university life, and therefore students, and therefore the hope and future of the republic than the president. Even a whiff of unethical behavior is offensive.  When a president hires a son or friend of a friend, pilfers intellectual property, influences scholarships or admissions for kin or supplicant, grants a contract to a political supporter or in any way does anything that undermines the impact of academic accomplishment and integrity, the institution is compromised — corrupted.

And the levy is the highest of all: diminished reputation.

The Paul Simon Public Policy Institute poll, unfortunately, reflects people’s perceptions.  Presumed corruption is commonplace.

Students vote too — with their feet — and they have options.  The fortunate can select a private institution.  Some choose to leave the state, creating a negative impact on the state’s economy and the perceived quality of its universities. Students and families may see the infection of corruption from the statehouse into the schoolhouse, or vice versa, and say, “To hell with the whole mess.” 

Not a good choice in the lot.  Our universities must do better in exercising moral authority and ethical responsibility in leadership.   Reverend Hesburgh, even with his “own prejudices,” was right in his conviction.

2 thoughts on “Our Universities: “The Sins of the Father”

  1. The author correctly identified the central problem of ethics in university and college administration when he identified university leaders as the best compensated State employees aside from athletic principals. This is just another step in the transformation from educational institution into another corporate entity, and the role of any corporation is to generate capital. Faculty and staff are workers, students are customers, and campus entertainment brings in money. Productive workers can be fired for failing to generate adequate “research” dollars. Students aren’t expected to learn much, just bring money. Unfortunately, such is academic life today. Equally unfortunate is that many faculty also buy into the model, seeking only to “get their share”.

  2. On Sunday, I attended a memorial service for a much respected member of the Community who loved teaching, had feedback from students going back 60 years, and was treated shoddily by an newly externally hired Chair in his Department 13 years ago. We suffer when we lose such people especially dedicated faculty and staff who feel it necessary to retire when they see the developing corporate ethos that labels students as “customers” and higher education as just a “meal ticket to the middle class” in the words of one well-known personality espousing the philosophy of the supermarket, What is equally sad is that certain faculty use tenure as an opportunity to join the ranks of higher administration, earn big bucks, and become oppressors of dedicated faculty and anything that opposes the neo-liberal model that Henry Giroux and others have condemned. If this continues then American higher education will decline and soon be replaced by high powered institutions in south-east Asia who will see no reason to send students to compromised corporate factories.

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