Toward Empirical Studies on University Ethics: A New Role for Institutional Research

By Counelis, James Steve | Journal of Higher Education, January-February 1993 | Go to article overview

Toward Empirical Studies on University Ethics: A New Role for Institutional Research


Counelis, James Steve, Journal of Higher Education


August 28, 1991

. . . the apologists for any means to achieve desired ends forget that the separation of "means" and "ends" is merely a verbal convenience. They forget that the means they employ are included in the ends.

Anatole Rapoport,

Science and the Goals of Man, 1950

Part 1: Introduction

On the Ethical Study of the University

The American university has a long history of concern for ethical matters.(1) Currently, the American Association of University Professors and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges establish standards on the ethical governance of the university. Further, the regional and professional accrediting associations, together with the collective bargaining agreement, are other vehicles that affect the university's moral governance |39, 93, 94, 99, 101~. However, powerful and pervasive external influences affect university governance, especially economic and governmental power.

In the last thirty years or so, the ethos and argot of the business world have taken over the university. "Markets" are sought. "Contributions to margin" become goals. "Cost/benefit analysis" is used in deciding to drop a small-enrollment classical language department or in retaining a costly laboratory science curriculum. Students become customers. The faculty become employees excluded from the economic decisions relative to the curriculum. An economic engine, the university produces new and retrained employees, new arts, new sciences, and new technologies and provides packaged services for business, church, community, education, and government. Without doubt, the regional and professional accrediting associations act in the public interest protecting students and their parents as consumers |99, chap. 12 and p. 447~. Importantly, the accrediting associations serve as an important countervalent that sets governing standards for university boards of trustees, including the sheltering of their academic communities from attacks upon institutional autonomy and academic freedom |cf. 93, pp. 15-24; 99 pp. 442-48.~.

The university's missions and goals no longer seem tied as imperatives to educational practice. With the exception of the university president, no one appears accountable for the cultivation and maintenance of institutional direction |67~. Like the American corporation, the university's broad dispersion of responsibility contributes to the university-wide practice of no one being specifically held accountable. If an institution's mission and goals become inapplicable, new general statements are drawn up, again without agential assignment of responsibility |cf. 26, 89~.

One reads in The Chronicle of Higher Education and the daily press about administrative fraud, the scientific investigator who "fudges" data, faculty and student plagiarism, student cheating on tests, the "commercial production" of undergraduate term papers and their purchase by students, sexual harassment of students and staff, student athletes' use of drugs to enhance strength and stamina in athletic competition, and the "booster club's" corruption of student athletes. Of course, student activism is a perennial source of ethical controversy. What about recent revelations of dubious university accounting practices |cf. 67~? Such a continuing stream of disturbing reports sent me to seek empirical studies on the moral behavior of those who comprise the American university community.

No empirical studies on the university's moral deportment were found in reviewing bibliographies that concentrated on the professional higher education literature since the 1950s, though one bibliography on the university presidency began with literature since 1900 |28, 29, 30, 44, 63, 96~. Two encyclopedic works on higher education yielded no citations of empirical studies on ethical behavior in American higher education |49, 56~. At roughly ten-year intervals, Lunsford in 1963, Peterson in 1974, and Bess in 1984, provided status summaries of social science research on organizational behavior for American universities |10, 59, 76~.

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