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Is Academic Ethics an Oxymoron

The Ends do not justify the Means in an Ethical Decision-Making System

Five ethical values underlie academic integrity: honesty, trust, fairness, respect and responsibility. Recent disclosures about the actions of two professors at prominent universities brings into question whether their academic integrity was compromised leading to the broader question of whether academic ethics is an oxymoron. In each case, a professor made a decision that violated the ethical rights of stakeholders to be told the truth about the basis for their actions. The professors violated academic integrity by deciding to mask the truth and mislead others, all in the name of promoting one's self-interest.

These cases illustrate how professors rationalized their actions using an ends justifies the means approach to decision making. To them, achieving the goal was more important than the way in which they went about it. They were oblivious to the fact that from an ethical perspective the methods used to accomplish a goal are more important that reaching the goal itself, in part because it reveals the character of the decision-maker.

As I pointed out in a recent blog, a week ago the public learned that MIT professor Jonathan Gruber, one of the architects of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), violated academic integrity by purposefully lying about the effect of the bill on Americans and disguising its true nature as a tax, not a penalty, for those who do not enroll in one of the available health plans. In one video Gruber explains that “Politically, you just literally cannot do … transparent financing, transparent spending. I mean, this bill was written in a tortured way to make sure CBO [Congressional Budget Office] did not score the mandate as taxes. If the CBO scored the mandate as taxes, the bill dies. So it was written to do that.”

In previous speeches, Gruber discusses how those pushing the bill took part in an "exploitation of the lack of economic understanding of the American voter," taking advantage of voters' "stupidity" to create a law that would ultimately be good for them. In one video, Gruber is seen explaining how he intentionally used misinformation to trick the American public.

“If you had a law which … made it explicit that healthy people pay in and sick people get money, it would not have passed. Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically, that was really, really critical to getting the thing to pass,” Gruber said.

Gruber’s incessant railing against the intellect of the American public demonstrates hubris and contempt for the public. While Gruber said he wished he could have been honest with the American people, the economist explained he would “rather have this law than not,” and he renounced the concept of transparent government. Gruber rationalized that the ends justified the means and, in his mind, that made it acceptable to lie to the public about the true nature of the bill. In the end he committed academic fraud in selling the bill to the public.

Gruber violated all five ethical values underlying academic integrity. He was dishonest about the true nature of the Affordable Care Act and his deceitful actions made him untrustworthy. He treated the public disrespectfully and with disdain. He did not accept responsibility for his egregious behavior. Instead, he made excuses for it. The arrogance he showed in discussing the bill at college campuses and on video demonstrates a lack of integrity, a critical element of principled behavior.

The second case is the so-called "paper-class scandal" involving 3,100 student-athletes at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill who were essentially allowed to take classes without attending classes and given grades good enough to keep them eligible to play men's football and basketball. For 18 years, these students at UNC took fake "paper classes," and advisers funneled athletes into the program to keep them eligible, according to a critical report released on October 16, 2014. "These counselors saw the paper classes and the artificially high grades they yielded as key to helping some student-athletes remain eligible," Kenneth Wainstein wrote in his report that was commissioned by UNC to independently investigate the academic fraud.

The violations of ethics by UNC raise many important questions. How could such a reputable college sports program get away with the behavior for 18 years? Who was responsible for keeping a watchful eye out for violations of NCAA rules? Where were the managers of the affected sport programs; what did they know; when did they know it; what actions, if any, did they take?

One lesser-known aspect of the scandal at UNC is the behavior of one professor, Jan Boxill, who ignored basic academic standards to achieve the goal of securing academic eligibility for student-athletes.

Ironically, Boxill, is an expert in sports ethics as well as the director of the Parr Center for Ethics at UNC. For many years, she was the academic counselor for the UNC women's basketball team. As revealed in the Wainstein investigation, Boxill was actively colluding with members of the African and Afro-American Studies department to secure specific grades for student athletes, as well as to cover up plagiarism and other academic policy violations.

According to the Wainstein report, "Jan Boxill was fully aware of the lax work requirements and grading standards in the paper classes.” Further, she agreed to give a women’s basketball player a D for a final paper that cited no sources, didn’t answer the original prompt, and appeared to be “recycled” from a separate class.

There is no justification for intentionally disregarding academic standards by allowing a group of selected students to progress in their studies based on a standard lesser than that applied to those who play by the rules. It is unabashedly unfair to those students who worked hard to achieve their academic goals without the benefit of favoritism with respect to academic standards.

Other scandals have recently occurred in the academe, in particular falsifying research results. In one case, Diederik Stapel, a professor at the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands, was caught using fraudulent research data in two studies. He was suspended by the University for fabricating and manipulating data for his research publications over a number of years and affected at least 55 publications.

In another case, the once-celebrated South Korean stem-cell researcher Hwang Woo Suk, who had claimed major breakthroughs in stem-cell research, was convicted of falsifying his papers and embezzling $705,000 in government research funds. Two research papers with fabricated data were retracted by the journal Science and, in 2006, the government stripped Dr. Hwang of his license to carry out stem-cell research.

Using fraudulent research data to support academic research with the goal of getting a peer-refereed journal publication is the basest of all violations of academic ethics. Once again we see an ends-versus-means approach to decision-making by academics who should know better.

All of us are familiar with student cheating scandals at places like Harvard University. However, little has been said about unethical actions by university professors to further their personal goals without due regard for academic ethics. It is a sad day for the academe when those who should otherwise serve as role models compromise their integrity and then rationalize their actions as the ends justifying the means.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on December 2, 2014. Professor Mintz teaches in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at:

12/02/2014 in Business ethics, Ethical business practices, Human Resources, Social media, Societal ethics, Workplace ethics | Permalink |Comments (0)

Tags: academic ethics, academic integrity, Affordable Care Act, business ethics, ends versus means, ethical practices in academe, ethics sage, Jan Boxill, Jonathan Gruber, Obamacare, paper-class scandal, sports ethics, Steven Mintz

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