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Ethics in Higher Education: Case Studies for Regents.

Ethics in Higher Education: Case Studies for Regents by Alexander B. Holmes. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK. 1996. 112 pages. $21.95. ISBN 0-8061-2857-7.

Within the past year, the Regents of the State of New York exercised its extraordinary authority and removed the members of the board of trustees of Adelphi University, and the editors of the Community College Week published a special report issue (August 24, 1998) devoted to "Trustees: Stewards of America's Future."

Although the latter may reflect journalistic exaggeration, the former reflects the very real concern of the state, and theoretically the community-at-large, in the actions of trustees, even trustees at a private university. Finally, for those who wish some historical perspective, over 70 years ago, in The Higher Learning In America, Thorstein Veblen argued that universities had experienced a substitution of businessmen and politicians for clergymen on their governing boards. The result for Veblen was that control in matters of university policy rested in the hands of businessmen.

Indeed, Veblen would be interested to know that according to Vaughan and Weisman (cited in the Community College Week report), 67% of the community college trustees are professionals and 17% are business owners or managers whereas less than 6% are artists, or sales, services, office and other categories of "worker." However, for the majority of internal and external stakeholders, the primary concern is not who the trustees are, but how they became board members (appointment versus election) and how they act.

In this brief book of 112 pages, Alexander B. Holmes addresses the issue of how board members should act. More specifically, "This book is intended to provide thought-provoking discussion of the ethical issues faced by regents and trustees of institutions of higher education" (p. xiii). Through his emphasis on ethics, Holmes, correctly I believe, assumes that open lines of communication and adequate knowledge about the particular institution and issue are not sufficient to ensure appropriate behavior and decision-making on the part of trustees.

Holmes is Regents Professor of Economics at the University of Oklahoma, and former secretary of finance and revenue and budget director of the state of Oklahoma. Through education and experience, he is in an excellent position to understand the role of information, power, and ethics in decision-making processes.

Although the case studies reflect experiences at senior colleges and universities, they or similar situations are likely to be encountered by trustees at community colleges. Certainly, the underlying principles raised in each of the cases are applicable regardless of institutional setting.

For Holmes, ethical behavior is not an end in itself. The good economist that he is leads him to conclude that colleges and universities play a crucial role in accounting for the economic development of the society and for individual social mobility within the society. However, he also recognizes that the continued support of these institutions is dependent on public confidence, and, that in turn requires "regents, faculty, and staff to adhere to the highest standards of ethical behavior" (p.xv).

Given their power, the ethical expectation is particularly strong for trustees. One strength of Holmes's discussion is his recognition in the first chapter that trustees have power and that "this power is the source of potential ethical conflicts" (p.5). Every interaction between a board member and an employee of the college is an exchange between a more and a less powerful person. Indeed, Holmes stresses what may be referred to as the normality of situations of ethical conflict. These may range from face-to-face conversations to board agenda items.

Holmes has identified six areas of governance from which to select his cases: (a) financial issues, (b) academic issues, (c) personnel issues, (d) student press, (e) student athletics, and (f) campus organizations. He argues that these are the areas in which trustees make most of their policy decisions. The first three certainly dominate the agendas of board meetings of trustees at community colleges. Six of the eight chapters are devoted to exploring examples of ethical conflicts in each of these areas. The value of the examples (such as relationships with vendors, nepotism, freedom of student press, abuse of privilege, and support of unpopular student organizations) is that they are the kinds of situations that trustees are likely to encounter. In addition, the cases vary in the degree to which the ethical conflict is obvious.

Holmes's hope is that his discussion in each case will assist the trustee in developing a thorough (his term) understanding of the ethical implications the next time he or she exercises power--that is, the next time the trustee acts, in the broadest sense of the term, on a matter relating to the college. In reference to guidance for ethical behavior, Holmes proposes six principles worded in question form that can be useful. He suggests that a positive answer to any of the six indicates the potential for a breach of ethical conduct.

Four of the six are non-controversial and can be summarized as follows: actions should not be directed at a particular individual, actions should be at the policy level, and neither the board member nor a relative or friend should benefit from the actions. However, I suggest that the remaining two are not absolute prohibitions. These are as follows: Does this action, official or unofficial, make it difficult for the public to know what is happening at this institution of higher education? Will this action, official or unofficial, require an explanation in the press to remove any suggestion of ethical misconduct? It is conceivable that ethical behavior may be difficult for the public to understand and thus require additional explanation in the press.

Holmes concludes with the proposition that his six questions or principles can be reduced to a simple dictum "put the interests of the public above all other interests--even though following this dictum may cause hardships in the form of lost income, lost privileges, and lost friends" (pp. 111-112).

Perhaps it is time to change the focus from an exploration of ethics to an exploration of power. From my perspective, it is unfortunate that Holmes did not do more to build on his first chapter, "The Source of a Regent's Power."

Mark Oromaner is dean for planning and institutional research at Hudson County Community College, Jersey City, New Jersey. (
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Author:Oromaner, Mark
Publication:Community College Review
Date:Dec 22, 1998
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