Practical insights for compliance and ethics professionals and commentary on the intersection of compliance and culture.

Round-up on higher education compliance

Many of the challenges of modern society in general are writ large in the world of higher education. The obstacles to ethical decision-making that are prevalent for individuals and organizations in business are also present in the educational environment. Campus culture often represents a microcosm of culture at large, with many complex social dynamics playing out in close quarters. Students as well as educators and administrators are confronted by complicated moral dilemmas as generational divides and differing expectations for justice, integrity, and duty of care coexist.

  • In taking the administrative decision to close a popular but controversial student dormitory, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology stepped into the thorny issue of informed consent. In order to support their choice to deaccession “Senior House” as a student housing, MIT used data from student surveys that were supposed to be anonymous (but were actually tagged with geolocation information) to collect evidence that the dormitory was the source of high drug usage, low graduation rates, and other behavior deemed unsafe or unacceptable by the Chancellor’s Office. This methodology of gathering data from students and their organizations without explicit expression of the purpose and its intended usage, and the questionable decision-making that stems from it, bring into question the ethics of universities’ relations with the students for whom they are supposedly providing a supportive and inclusive community. The closure of Senior House by MIT is seen as part of a trend of university administrations to exact more control over students’ lives, including conduct they may expect to be unrelated to their educational relationship with their school, such as things that happen off-campus, when school is out of session, or even online:  A Weird MIT Dorm Dies, and a Crisis Blooms at Colleges
  • Given the insular culture that many university academic departments are known for cultivating – focused on competition and comparison and often resulting in isolation and highly politicized decision-making – hostile working environments can quickly emerge on interpersonal levels. Unlike most at-will employees in the job market at large, however, many experienced professors have security of tenure and therefore their interactions with colleagues are not always checked by their fear of reprisal that could lead to losing their jobs. In some situations this can create workplaces that value and promote individuals for their academic prowess but turn a blind eye to claims of troubling personal behavior with colleagues or even students. Universities are often accused of failing to adequately investigate these allegations or not even providing a sufficient framework for safe and effective reporting. Hierarchical departments allow powerful, tenured professors to exploit their positions, with addressing toxic behavior taking a backseat to protecting those reporting harassment:  She Was a Rising Star at a Major University. Then a Lecherous Professor Made Her Life Hell.
  • “Call-out culture” – in which people, often in groups, point out statements or actions of others that they see as problematic or abusive and take down the person in question – has been fed by the public’s appetite for controversy and the prevalence of the internet and social media, where otherwise innocuous events between friends can be broadcast all over the world for commentary, criticism, and ridicule. While understandably some of the intent of call-out culture is to suggest and reinforce more positive, informed standards for interactions in a more inclusive society, this often goes too far. Far from just being restricted to taking down those who act with the intent to cause offense, or educating those who are unaware of the real implications of things they do and say involuntarily or too casually, this culture has fostered an environment where innocent behavior is subject to ridicule and derision. In the university setting, this fear of group criticism is very destructive to creation of community. Being unable to have dialog in the classrooms and student centers of universities has a major chilling effect on sharing of views and open learning:  The Destructiveness of Call-Out Culture on Campus
  • The call-out culture trend described above between students also exists on campuses between professors and other academics. Instead of playing out on social media, this dynamic takes place from editorial boards and academics who read papers in journals, or even just commentaries on papers in journals, and then pile on to criticize the author’s intent. Leaving aside the merit of any arguments made among these groups, the dynamic is the same, of stifling dialog and using groupthink to determine which expression is acceptable or even legitimate. Often this criticism is not very informed and even extends to having the outright intent of policing which and whose ideas are considered worthy of engaging with and debating about:  Academe’s Poisonous Call-Out Culture 
  • Another impact of social media and the internet on the classroom has been the rise of the “teacher influencer” – educators who are given free educational software or equipment, and even sometimes paid in addition, to use for their students in exchange for making posts online or giving talks about the products. These teachers can argue convincingly that their students benefit from access to these products, and that their business arrangements are taken on with the sole objective of benefiting their students in a time when school supplies and improvements are vastly underprovided and underfunded.   However, the standards for disclosure of these arrangements and the handling of the potential conflicts of interest that can arise even from the most innocent, helpful intentions are uncharted ethical territory:  Silicon Valley Courts Brand-Name Teachers, Raising Ethics Issues

In many ways the academic setting, for secondary education as well as at the university level, can be seen as an incubator for these social disruptions that occur in every area of contemporary life. Educational institutions are struggling with cultural changes that redefine the responsibilities in and limits of authority. Issues of consent, safety, cultural values, and conflicts of interest all prompt compelling compliance dilemmas in the higher education domain.