Ethics in Higher Education: Case Studies for Regents

Article excerpt

Ethics in Higher Education: Case Studies for Regents by Alexander B. Holmes. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK. 1996. 112 pages. $21.95. ISBN 0-8061-2857-7.

Within the past year, the Regents of the State of New York exercised its extraordinary authority and removed the members of the board of trustees of Adelphi University, and the editors of the Community College Week published a special report issue (August 24, 1998) devoted to "Trustees: Stewards of America's Future."

Although the latter may reflect journalistic exaggeration, the former reflects the very real concern of the state, and theoretically the community-at-large, in the actions of trustees, even trustees at a private university. Finally, for those who wish some historical perspective, over 70 years ago, in The Higher Learning In America, Thorstein Veblen argued that universities had experienced a substitution of businessmen and politicians for clergymen on their governing boards. The result for Veblen was that control in matters of university policy rested in the hands of businessmen.

Indeed, Veblen would be interested to know that according to Vaughan and Weisman (cited in the Community College Week report), 67% of the community college trustees are professionals and 17% are business owners or managers whereas less than 6% are artists, or sales, services, office and other categories of "worker." However, for the majority of internal and external stakeholders, the primary concern is not who the trustees are, but how they became board members (appointment versus election) and how they act.

In this brief book of 112 pages, Alexander B. Holmes addresses the issue of how board members should act. More specifically, "This book is intended to provide thought-provoking discussion of the ethical issues faced by regents and trustees of institutions of higher education" (p. xiii). Through his emphasis on ethics, Holmes, correctly I believe, assumes that open lines of communication and adequate knowledge about the particular institution and issue are not sufficient to ensure appropriate behavior and decision-making on the part of trustees.

Holmes is Regents Professor of Economics at the University of Oklahoma, and former secretary of finance and revenue and budget director of the state of Oklahoma. Through education and experience, he is in an excellent position to understand the role of information, power, and ethics in decision-making processes.

Although the case studies reflect experiences at senior colleges and universities, they or similar situations are likely to be encountered by trustees at community colleges. Certainly, the underlying principles raised in each of the cases are applicable regardless of institutional setting.

For Holmes, ethical behavior is not an end in itself. The good economist that he is leads him to conclude that colleges and universities play a crucial role in accounting for the economic development of the society and for individual social mobility within the society. However, he also recognizes that the continued support of these institutions is dependent on public confidence, and, that in turn requires "regents, faculty, and staff to adhere to the highest standards of ethical behavior" (p.xv).

Given their power, the ethical expectation is particularly strong for trustees. …