Criminal minds betray the academy's higher principles

As bad behaviour mars the US sector, observers point to lack of ethical code for all scholars. Jon Marcus reports

August 5, 2010

A slew of criminal charges, civil lawsuits, expensive legal settlements and other misdeeds by university managers and faculty in the US suggest that the "higher" in higher education no longer necessarily applies to moral standards.

Presidents, deans and department directors have been convicted of embezzling money from their universities and government research grants; administrators have been charged with sexually abusing subordinates; and faculty members have been indicted for falsifying their credentials and sexually harassing students.

"In a time of financial pressure, we see more of a tendency towards wrongdoing," said Neil Hamilton, a law professor at the University of St Thomas in Minnesota and the author of Academic Ethics: Problems and Materials on Professional Conduct and Shared Governance, which criticises universities for failing to teach ethics to doctoral students planning academic careers.

Professor Hamilton said there was no way to know decisively if malfeasance is on the increase, since, unlike lawyers and doctors who must be licensed and adhere to codes of ethics, academics face no standardised disciplinary process or public disclosure of ethical violations.

This is compounded by the fact that it is not in universities' interests to disclose when crimes occur, he said, while surveys have also found that faculty are hesitant to report their colleagues for such lapses.

Among the medical, legal and higher education fields, "the academic profession does the least in terms of any self-study," Professor Hamilton added.

"We don't actually study ourselves in terms of violations of ethical conduct. There's a certain dereliction of duty in the failure of the professoriate to look at itself in a responsible way."

Criminal prosecutors and journalists have reported a spate of cases involving university staff in the past few months. Many relate to financial offences.

The former dean of the University of Louisville's College of Education and Human Development was sentenced to more than five years in prison for misappropriating $2 million (£1.3 million) from government research grants meant to help inner-city schools.

The head of the University of Florida's Innovative Nuclear Space Power and Propulsion Institute and his wife have been charged with stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from another government grant and claiming to have carried out research that was actually done by others.

A former president of Peru State College committed suicide after an audit discovered he had used $43,000 from a university account for personal expenses, while a departmental director at Florida A&M University has been indicted for conspiring to embezzle $134,000 from a federal grant.

In other scandals, a top executive at one cash-strapped community college in California is alleged to have earned sick pay while working for an additional salary at a nearby community college, and La Salle University fired a vice-president accused of paying millions of dollars of university money to a fictitious company he controlled.

Some of the wrongdoing relates to academic integrity.

A former substance-abuse researcher at the University at Buffalo was not only charged with inflating the number of participants in a government-funded research study, but was also accused of hiring actors to portray defence witnesses at his misconduct hearing.

The Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences, meanwhile, has sued its former president for falsifying documents to inflate her pay - charges she denies - and an administrator at Texas A&M University resigned after a newspaper reported he had lied about having a master's degree and serving as a Navy SEAL.

Not just about the money

There have also been high-level and high-profile sexual-harassment allegations.

An admissions official at church-run Allen University has sued the university's president for allegedly coercing her into a sexual relationship, and a former student at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania won a $495,000 settlement after suing the institution for doing nothing when he complained about sexual harassment by a male professor accused by other students of doing the same thing.

Professor Hamilton said universities do too little to encourage ethical behaviour, beginning with their training of doctoral candidates.

"The professoriate has chosen not to acculturate our members in a serious way into the ethics of the profession," he said. If it acted like the legal and medical fields, he added, "we could be keeping track, state by state, of how many complaints are being made about violations, how many have been found to have probable cause, how many went to a hearing and how many resulted in disciplinary action".

A proliferation of crimes is likely to do little for the academy's reputation, he said, already tarnished by soaring costs and controversial practices such as high salaries for presidents and top administrators.

"Public respect for educators is generally holding up so far," Professor Hamilton said. "But there has been a general diminution of all the professions in terms of our respect for authority, which has decreased."

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