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Ensuring Ethics

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Alamy
Alamy

The Penn State child sexual abuse scandal continues to make headlines on an almost daily basis, signaling how deeply it has impacted not only the higher education community, but much of our civic discourse. As the independent investigation conducted by Louis Freeh has indicated, the scandal resulted not only from the misconduct of individuals in positions of power but from an organizational culture that discouraged employees from acting on their own moral principles as events unfolded. This disturbing lack of ethical standards has been evident in a broad range of institutions and agencies in both the public and private sectors. In recent months, we have learned of appalling misconduct at British banks, U.S. financial brokerages, and the federal General Services Administration and Secret Service, to name a few.

Now, perhaps more than ever before, corporate CEOs, university presidents, and government officials are being challenged to firmly establish ethical guideposts within their organizations. So how do we create an organizational culture in which ethical behavior is tightly woven throughout all aspects of daily operations? Not surprisingly, creating and maintaining such a work climate must begin with the top leadership.

Executives must ensure that, across the organization, ethical behavior is valued and rewarded, and that misconduct is addressed quickly and with appropriate sanctions. Communication of organizational values must be vigorous and constant. Institutions must:

  • Adopt a code of conduct that clearly articulates ethical standards;
  • Recruit individuals who reflect and are aligned with an organization's principles;
  • Reinforce those values through training and mentoring of new employees by senior managers who strongly exhibit those commitments;
  • Provide protection for employees who may want to report unethical practices; and,
  • Commit to a policy of transparency when ethical breaches do occur.

We in the higher education community have an especially vital role here -- both by modeling a positive organizational culture, as described above, and by preparing our students -- who will soon be entering the workplace -- to make informed, thoughtful choices when faced with an ethical dilemma. How should we ready our students for the ethical challenges they may face in the future?

At Albion College -- and at many of our peer liberal arts institutions -- we believe that helping students learn to make ethical choices is one of our chief responsibilities and one that is vital to a well-educated citizenry. Liberal arts colleges are especially well-suited to discuss ethics because we encourage our students to explore a broad range of human endeavors and to debate diverse perspectives. In so doing, our students can more clearly define what their values are and further develop the strength of character needed to live out those values. Under the guidance of faculty, our students can deepen their understanding of the potential impact of various ethical choices. What better place than a college classroom to begin to confront the complex ethical decision making that will be required of them in their lives after graduation? We believe such an education is just as important for students' professional development as more specific job skills.

As evidenced by the wide array of institutions and organizations exhibiting ethical misconduct, a discussion of ethics should not be restricted to students seeking to go into certain professions. We anticipate that our graduates will change careers many times and will be confronted with ethical challenges in their personal lives, as well. As such, students may be better served by a college's effort to address ethical issues across a breadth of curricular and co-curricular activities. Our graduates will discover that the need for moral decision making is inherent throughout human activity.

Due to the importance of leadership in creating and maintaining ethical work climates, it may not be enough for colleges and universities to prepare students to enter into the workforce with a moral compass. As a liberal arts institution, we feel a profound sense of social responsibility to prepare our graduates to assume principled leadership roles in public and private organizations and institutions. We want our graduates not only to rise to the personal and professional challenges that accompany ethical decision making, but to be in positions whereby they can create an environment that encourages and supports others in that quest. There cannot be a better time for the higher education community to provide strong, highly visible leadership in addressing the deeply disturbing scandals that threaten our social order.