Perceived Conduct and Professional Ethics among College Economics Faculty

Article excerpt

Michael J. Piette [*]


We present survey results that shed light on the perceived frequency and severity of 61 professional practices. Our findings, based on questionnaires completed by 728 academic economists in the United States, suggest that most of the practices that might be considered ethically suspect also are perceived to occur relatively infrequently. The mean values for the responses to our survey are significantly lower, in absolute terms, than those recorded by Mason et al. (1990), who conducted an almost identical survey in 1987 of marketing academicians. However, in relative terms the perceived severity of these practices is highly consistent between economics faculty and marketing faculty.

ethical: "being in accordance with the rules or standards for right conduct or practice, esp. the standards of a profession."--The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, (2nd ed., unabridged, 1987)


Many economics departments in the United States offer a baccalaureate degree through a college (or school) of business. The various degree programs, including economics, offered in the context of a business school are regarded as 'professional' degree programs. As such, the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) requires accredited business schools to provide for instruction of ethics, in a variety of guises, to undergraduate business majors. Despite this clear concern by the AACSB about student exposure to ethics, most of the national associations of which business and economics faculty are members do not have codes or statements of ethical professional conduct, either inside or outside of the classroom. This includes the American Economic Association and all of the major regional associations.

Surely the lack of any formal statement or code of professional ethics does not reflect a lack of shared concern about certain professional practices. We suspect that there are a number of practices about which members of the economics profession, and others, would express concern. Yet aside from anecdotes, we know little about: (1) the types of professional practices members of the economics profession perceive as problematic, and (2) the perceived frequency of occurrence of various professional practices. Indeed, with the exception of papers by Fox, Sattler, Piette, and Johnson in a special symposium on ethics in forensic economics published in the Journal of Forensic Economics (1991), and by Meier (1986) and Fisher (1986) also on ethical behavior by economists in a forensic testimony context, the professional literature in economics is barren with respect to the professional behavior of economists.

Following the methodology established by Mason et al. (1990), we present survey results that shed light on the perceived frequency and severity of 61 professional practices. Our findings, based on questionnaire responses by 728 economists in U.S. colleges and universities, are consistent in many respects with those of Mason et al., and provide a useful benchmark for measuring changes in attitudes and perceptions about a wide array of professional practices.



Our survey instrument was sent to 3,000 randomly-selected members of the American Economic Association in 1993, who held academic positions. We identified these individuals by selecting every 5th name in the 1993 AEA Directory; if that individual did not list an affiliation with a U.S. college or university, we went to the next name as necessary until we found an individual who met these criteria. The mailing included an introductory letter that read:

Dear Professor _______:

Dr. Michael J. Piette and I are conducting an intensive survey of the academic membership of the American Economic Association, as a critical first step in a scientific assessment of ethical behavior among academic economists. There are no 'right' or 'wrong' answers to the questions on the enclosed questionnaire. …