05/30/2013 02:54 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2013

Blame and Punishment: When Mea Culpas Are Simply Not Sufficient

There are those misdeeds committed against organizations, and there are those committed on their behalf. Those of individual disloyalty and dishonesty, and those misguided attempts to serve the greater organizational good.

Assigning responsibility and consequence becomes even more difficult and controversial when individuals believed at the time that they were acting in the best interests of their organizations, sometimes even at the direction or at least acquiescence of their bosses. Can an organization collectively assume blame and penalty, or are only individuals themselves culpable, and, if so, how far up in the pecking order? What happens when an individual is not the lone rogue, but shares responsibility, in varying degrees, with others up and down the organizational structure? Who can tap the Nuremberg Defense, and who resides where the buck stops, regardless of the extent of their involvement?

The recent Internal Revenue Services targeting of the Tea Party implicated many -- where the lines of responsibility are fuzzy and perhaps even arbitrary. And just this past week, the dean of Harvard College resigned amidst a scandal-within-a-scandal: when she ordered searches into the email accounts of sixteen residential deans in pursuit of the one leaking confidential information about Harvard's massive student cheating scandal.

Public dramas like these test leadership, the media, and public outrage -- and what it will take to return to normalcy. There is no set formula for justice that effectively wipes the slate clean -- and which will prevent either a whitewashing of a scandal or an overreaction that decimates the careers of those who naively thought they were just doing their job. The often subjective factors that contribute to a resolution are often unsettling and unsatisfying. Resolving these ethical crises are case-by-case tests of judgment and justice, and often tinged with pragmatism, public relations, self-righteousness, and rationalization.

For example, over one hundred Harvard undergraduates were accused last August of cheating in a course -- which then led to a prolonged and tortuous investigation. When private deliberations were made public in the Harvard Crimson, Evelynn M. Hammonds, Harvard College's dean, sought the permission of the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (her boss) and Harvard's legal counsel to read the subject lines of emails to see whether documents were being forwarded to the press. In fact, they had been.

However, she didn't stop there. She authorized additional searches. Legally, she was in the right -- email is the property of the university -- and she perhaps had no motive other than to ensure the integrity of the investigation. Her actions were more myopic than sinister -- and remarkably insensitive to how invasive this would appear to others.

When this investigation became public, at first she sought to explain this as ensuring student privacy and preventing the legal consequences of violating this privacy. She argued that her higher ethical mandate was to protect the institution and its student body. But she hadn't anticipated the backlash of faculty, who believed this was a major breach of trust. Her ends didn't justify her means -- she addressed a covert leak with a covert action of her own.

Dean Hammonds issued an apology to the deans and then used every subsequent public forum to try to explain herself, to reassure faculty, and ask for the understanding and forgiveness of her academic community. This distracting and demeaning ordeal simply wouldn't go away. An ex post facto apology seemed hallow, insincere, and insufficient. Faculty had every reason to empathize with the sense of violation felt by the residential deans. Dean Hammonds was subsequently on a public watch -- with those inside and outside calculating her chances of survival.

Perhaps Harvard's preeminence exacerbated things -- by placing this drama on a larger stage, engaging world-renowned scholars in the discussion, and expecting exemplary moral behavior from the world's leader in higher learning. Perhaps a dean is at a place in the pecking order where more is expected and judged more harshly. Perhaps we expect acts of honor and self-sacrifice from a university leader, who then might seem like a scapegoat for those above her who failed to step forward to support her nor share in the responsibility.

Perhaps the media makes a person's position untenable by creating the very outrage it claims to be reporting. Perhaps the unique power of academic faculty exposes a controversy like this, which might otherwise go unaddressed in an opaque corporate setting.

Perhaps a public denouncement serves many practical purposes. Blame is assigned, closure might be achieved, and a chilling moral lesson is sent to others. But when should an institution rally to support or at least forgive lapses in moral leadership? Or when should it throw its leaders to the wolves? Sometimes this is a matter of context: how valued and essential this individual is perceived to be, how important it is to identify and isolate a sacrificial lamb, and how believable and sympathetic the individual is throughout the ordeal.

Is shame and loss of a title sufficient punishment? The nonacademic public will have difficulty seeing the tangible price paid at Harvard. Dean Hammonds will be on a paid sabbatical to retool for her return to Harvard's faculty as head of an exciting new program on race and science. This seems more of a dream-come-true than punishment for her lapse of judgment. She will be able to claim that her "resignation" had nothing to do with the scandal itself.

In a massive exercise intended to demonstrate moral authority to students, a Harvard leader herself became a public spectacle of a major ethical failing. Those who see this resolution as a hypocritical reward fail to factor in public humiliation and likely long-term ostracism within her academic community. She'll be reminded of this event from this time forward. Few of us would trade public disgrace even for Harvard tenure.

Jay A. Halfond is transitioning from a deanship at Boston University to a full-time faculty role, via a sabbatical as Research Fellow at Bentley University's Center for Business Ethics.