Higher Education, Corruption, and Reform

By Johnson, Vincent R. | Contemporary Readings in Law and Social Justice, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Higher Education, Corruption, and Reform


Johnson, Vincent R., Contemporary Readings in Law and Social Justice


ABSTRACT.

Educational corruption is problem in every country, particularly at the college and university level. With illustrations drawn from the United States, this article considers what "basic principles" should shape efforts to deter, expose, and penalize corruption in academic institutions. The article then identifies "best practices" that should be followed by colleges and universities aspiring to high standards. The discussion explores the role that ethics codes and ethics education can play in fighting corruption. More specifically, the article addresses what types of substantive rules and systemic procedures are essential parts of effective higher education ethics codes. Mindful of the fact that reformers are fighting educational corruption in countries around the world, the article notes difficulties that may arise in transplanting American "best practices" to other cultures.

Keywords: ethics, corruption, honor code, higher education

1. The Continuing Challenge of Ethics in Academia

In every educational institution, in every country and generation, there is a struggle between corrupt practices and the continuing quest for high ethical standards. In many instances the problems are blatant, as where bribes are taken by college or university officials in exchange for academic favors; fraudulent invoices are submitted for payment; or funding is wasted on lavish or unauthorized spending, or on private, rather than institutional, purposes. In other cases educational corruption is subtler. This is true where conduct that is neither criminal, fraudulent, nor a breach of fiduciary duty nevertheless undercuts the moral foundations of the educational enterprise. For example, if academic honors, such as membership in a learned society, are conferred based not on merit, but on political loyalty, the process is arguably corrupt. Such an award, like giving grades to athletes for little or no work, helping students to cheat on exams, or changing grades for money, erodes the intellectual integrity of the institution. When that happens, the educational enterprise is diminished in a very real sense.

Just as a country is poorer overall if corruption levels are high, so too an educational institution is poorer if its members engage in corrupt practices. Such misfeasance wastes limited resources, demoralizes participants, and adversely affects productivity.

Educational corruption comes in many forms. A distinction may be drawn between widespread institutional corruption and the corruption of renegade individuals within an otherwise ethically sound educational program. The latter is as morally repugnant as the former, with the caveat that such individual corruption may be easier to correct (e.g., through prosecution or expulsion) and may cause harm that is that is less far ranging. Institutional corruption is not only ethically odious and difficult to remedy, but also socially dangerous, for it strikes at the very core of democratic institutions.

The terms "corrupt" and "unethical" are synonymous. All corrupt practices are unethical, but not all unethical practices are corrupt. For example, certain forms of university medical research - such as embryonic stem cell studies - may or may not be unethical, but so long as that research is carried on honestly and fairly within the bounds of the law, corruption is not a problem. Similarly, a professor's biased editing of digital video clips or a university's retailing of apparel made in low-wage countries may be unethical, but those practices are not necessarily corrupt.

Corruption in education entails (1) serious criminal conduct, (2) tortious conduct in the nature of fraud or intentional breach of fiduciary duty, or (3) conduct that betrays the values that form the moral basis for the educational process, foremost among those being intellectual honesty. In order to constitute educational corruption, conduct must relate to the performance of educational duties. …

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