Universities should rethink their complicity in corporate bad behaviour

David McClough reflects on whether higher education should take to the morally higher ground

August 23, 2020
Source: iStock
If universities pride themselves in getting their graduates jobs on Wall Street, can they then distance themselves from bankers’ misdeeds?

A colleague recently asked me a question I’ve been thinking about ever since.

I work in a college that requires students to complete an internship. On behalf of a student, I mentioned a firm that had sponsored internships in the past and hired graduates. As the conversation wound down, my colleague, in effect, asked: “When do we have an obligation to stop engaging with companies that are embroiled in litigation initiated by the government?” I fear that such questions are not asked often enough or are too quickly dismissed when they are.

Our institution is a private university affiliated with a Protestant denomination, yet I have experienced no imposition of Christian ethics. Indeed, evidence of the religious affiliation is limited to a weekly chapel service and convocational prayers during graduation ceremonies. The college mission statement invokes adherence to ethical behaviour, and nearly all students are required to complete a professional ethics course. The declining influence of our religious affiliation and gentle language in the mission statement make it easier to avoid asking challenging questions. Nonetheless, my colleague asked one, and I feel compelled to respond.

The reasoned and measured response is, of course, that the college is not the arbiter of morality for any individual or company. At most, it can impose an ethic or ethical system upon its own dominion, operations and employees.

Perhaps we might assert that once colleges have accepted a diminished role in society and embraced the task of training the workers of tomorrow, they have no standing in any moral court. Since students pay tuition fees for what is presented and perceived as job training, universities accept the terms of the transaction, which includes abdicating any moral authority associated with independence. Alas, this statement is not at all provocative because Thorstein Veblen made similar points nearly a century ago.

While faculty may agree with the implication that the collusion imposes cost in the form of compromise, administrators tend to react with exasperation to the suggestion that sponsored college curricula and experiential learning are anything but legitimate academic programmes developed cooperatively with practitioners. For employers, the initiatives are not educational experiences. Companies use the internships as extended auditions of prospective employees. For businesses, the relationship is an investment, not largesse – call it a quid pro quo, if you wish.

It seems naive to doubt that many potential employers are engaged in questionable activities prior to any public announcement of their misdeeds. Over the past two decades, the US Department of Justice has regularly challenged pharmaceutical companies when drugs are promoted for purposes beyond the scope of approval. Is this not a fundamental neglect of the well-being of human beings? Less than 15 years ago, we witnessed the consequences of decades of widespread disregard for others. Despite the global consequences of the financial crisis, not a single executive was charged with a crime. If violation of the law is the threshold of ethical behaviour, I hope all readers agree that the standard is too low. Nonetheless, we agree that hires by pharmaceutical companies and investment banks remain desirable and celebrated.

Commercial enterprise is not inherently “bad” – far from it. Businesses employ, produce and innovate. Our standard of living is arguably the highest ever experienced by any society. It is irresponsible to condemn the source of that wealth. Rather, the point is that colleges and universities must acknowledge their complicity in normalising behaviour that diminishes an authentic educational experience and perpetuates an ideal that distances individuals from the consequences of their employment. Adam Smith advocated compulsory education to offset the effects of the division of labour necessary to create the wealth we now enjoy. Institutions of higher learning cannot pander to employers only to distance themselves when the misdeeds of benefactors are revealed.

Furthermore, colleges and universities have, in effect, commoditised themselves by presenting their value in financial terms. The notion of a return-on-investment for a college education is not only insulting but asinine. There is absolutely no meaningful way to quantify a return on an education based on an income immediately after graduation or “mid-career”. To conclude that a sociopath accumulating millions of dollars by defrauding the elderly is a success is as nonsensical as to discount the contributions to society of stay-at-home parents and volunteers who receive no pecuniary compensation for their contribution, yet pay dearly in the form of forgone income.

So does the college have an ethical responsibility to refrain from engagement with prospective employers currently under indictment or negotiating their penance with the authorities? I regret that the answer remains “no”. But do colleges and universities have an ethical responsibility to reassess their purpose in society, their duty to students and their relationship with employers? Absolutely.

Many young people want to be part of something greater than themselves. They seek an authentic experience in college and beyond. Accordingly, I am not certain that my conclusion is utopian. To differentiate from the herd means to appear unlike competitors. While some trends last longer than others, perhaps a time is approaching when colleges reject the misplaced strategy of conformity that has led them to commodify their service in the minds of students, parents and many employers. The alternative is an authentic experience that fosters a more genuine relationship than the current transaction-based exchange defined in pecuniary terms.

David McClough is associate professor of economics at Ohio Northern University.

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