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Creating the Ethical Academy: A Systems Approach to Understanding Misconduct and Empowering Change

reviewed by Ellen Schrecker - May 16, 2011

coverTitle: Creating the Ethical Academy: A Systems Approach to Understanding Misconduct and Empowering Change
Author(s): Tricia Bertram Gallant (ed.)
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0415874696, Pages: 240, Year: 2010
Search for book at Amazon.com

Something is rotten in academe. There is, as Tricia Bertram Gallant and Lester F. Goodchild point out in the introduction to this disturbing, yet valuable, collection of essays, a “continuing academic ethics crisis” (p. 9). Students cheat, researchers falsify their data, and institutions sell themselves literally and figuratively. The most chilling recent example of the last was the long-term practice at the University of Illinois of offering admission to unqualified, but politically well-connected, applicants to the institution’s undergraduate and professional schools.  

It is hard to tell how dire the situation is. Gallant, the “academic integrity coordinator” (whatever that is) for the University of California-San Diego, claims that the standard estimate for the amount of fraud within the world of test-taking and admissions is still below five percent, but she worries “that, left unchecked and unaddressed, it could become more common and pervasive” (p. 58). Technology is a big part of the problem, increasing the ease with which everyone from undergraduates to college presidents can download paragraphs and whole articles off the worldwide web or communicate test answers via cellphones and cameras. The globalization of higher education also offers new opportunities for fraud. While open bribery can occur – as happens in parts of the former Soviet empire – it is also the case that people who come from societies without Western academic cultures are sometimes unaware that practices such as paying consultants to fill out college applications are beyond the pale.

Gallant and her contributors, however, believe that, despite what she and Patrick Drinan call “the democratization of cheating” (p. 217), the real culprit is neither technological nor geographical, but structural. Built into the various layers of the academy are an increasing number of incentives to do the wrong thing. No one, it must be noted, excuses individual misconduct; bad apples certainly exist. Still, it is systemic pressures on applicants, students, professors, administrators, and other members of the academic community that have brought higher education to its current ethically impaired condition. These pressures come, the authors claim, at every level: from the individual’s own moral principles or lack thereof, to that of the specific institution that houses him or her, to the educational system as a whole, to, finally, the society within which all these elements are embedded.  

The thesis of this volume reverberates in every chapter. As someone who has edited several collections of essays, I am struck by the intellectual cohesiveness of this compilation of fourteen articles by sixteen different authors. Almost every piece offers a similar catalogue of the structural causes of the current ethical crisis in one or another sector of academe, with special attention to the increasingly competitive pressures that spur corruption at every level. The book contains three sections: first, a general overview; then, descriptions of the problems within areas from spectator sports to high stakes tests; and finally, a set of proposed solutions.

Many students, under pressure to achieve success at all costs, as Gallant and Michael Kalichman as well as Stephen P. Heyneman explain, now look to higher education for the credential it confers, rather than the enlightenment it brings. Or, as Brian L. Heuser and Timothy A. Drake put it, “serious problems arise when it is merely the degree itself and not the intellectual capabilities associated with that degree that drive the whole exchange” (p. 201). As a result, students are easily tempted to take invidious short cuts, all the more so, Peter Keller notes, since most are enrolled in vocational programs that do not expose them to the multiple perspectives and critical reasoning of a liberal arts education that research has shown seem to offer some inoculation against dishonesty.

Moreover (and this is a structural issue that most of the contributors to this volume discuss), opportunities for cheating have increased exponentially. Technology facilitates much of this misconduct, but it can also come from something as rudimentary as an AP teacher with a personal stake in his students’ success leaving the room during an exam. In addition, as Melissa S. Anderson notes with regard to the overwhelmed editors of scientific journals, a lack of resources makes it hard to ferret out fraud. When institutions at every level do not take precautions against such eventualities, they appear to be condoning unethical behavior. In such situations, it makes little sense to attribute that behavior solely to individual moral lapses.

A particularly fecund source of misbehavior are the athletic programs of schools that seek to push spectator sports, J. Douglas Toma and Mark Kavanaugh explain, as a way of “getting to the next level” (p. 98). Operating in an essentially commercial environment, these institutions not only bend the rules in recruiting varsity players and then relax academic standards to keep them around, but they also divert resources from those schools’ traditional educational missions. Similar problems occur in related areas, such as fundraising, where “institutions fixating on their upward mobility” (p. 104) engage in what Toma and Kavanaugh call a “construction arms race” that leads them to invest “in facilities and programs connected with prestige while allowing academic programs within their core to struggle” (p. 105). Such a diversion of resources, the authors suggest, may well constitute an ethical lapse.  

So, what is to be done? Obviously much of the bad behavior that the contributors to Creating the Ethical Academy document reflects the tarnished practices of the world beyond the campus. In particular, the competitive values of a market-driven society that prizes individual success above all else create a significant barrier to instilling an alternative, more socially responsible, ethic within the sphere of higher education. Yet the disadvantages of tolerating such unethical behavior are so deleterious that all the authors demand major reforms. Not only does academic misconduct destroy the trust that the rest of society has long accorded to the system of higher education, but it also makes it impossible for the system to perform its traditional function of selecting future leaders. A corrupt educational process can no longer vouch for the integrity of its graduates or the quality of its offerings.

It is, of course, easier to diagnose the disease than to cure it. Still, the authors do suggest a few basic steps that might alleviate some of the more questionable practices. Drawing up an academic code of ethics is probably the most commonly espoused measure. Surprisingly, as Heyneman, John M. Braxton, and others note, despite a myriad of guidelines for individual disciplines and professions, there is no general code of ethics for the academic community as a whole. As a result, individuals are often unaware that they have committed a breach, especially when, as Nathan F. Harris and Michael N. Bastedo show in their treatment of the University of Illinois admissions scandal, top administrators rationalize the corruption as “serving the greater good” of the institution (p. 123). Drawing up a code, however, will not suffice if it does not get enforced. Genuine sanctions, in other words, need to reinforce whatever ethical standards an institution develops. Finally, there is the question of leadership. Adrianna J. Kezar and Cecile Sam call for “transcendental leaders” who will not only act in an ethical manner themselves, but will also inspire the rest of the community to do the same (p. 153).  

Whether the above measures will create a more ethical academic culture – whether, in fact, they could ever be adopted by an increasingly corporatized academy – remains an open question. Nonetheless, Tricia Bertram Gallant and her contributors have done the rest of us a favor by offering a useable intellectual framework for understanding the ethical dilemmas facing higher education today.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 16, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16409, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 7:34:13 PM

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About the Author
  • Ellen Schrecker
    Yeshiva University
    E-mail Author
    ELLEN SCHRECKER, the author of The Lost Soul of Higher Education (2010), is a Professor of History at Yeshiva University and has written extensively on McCarthyism and academic freedom. Among her other publications are Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (1998) and No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities (1986). Active in the American Association of University Professors, she is the former editor of its magazine, Academe, and a member of its National Council and its Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure.
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