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The Law defines "person" as "a human being or organization with legal rights and duties." In the United States, our regional accrediting agencies speak of the unique "culture" of each institution of higher education in very much the same way that anthropologists and cultural historians speak of human groupings. Several accrediting agencies require their institutions, in the self-study that precedes the evaluation team's visit, to "define the institution's character," that is, to state its reason for being, the institutional purpose or mission of the university. There is little doubt that institutions of higher education can be viewed as legal persons. But recent criticisms by the public clearly indicate that we are being held to a higher standard, one that could be called "supra-legal," that is, going beyond mere compliance with the law and into the realm of ethical behaviors. Our colleges and universities today are undergoing the same scrutiny as other public persons in regard to fundraising, government contracts, presidential compensation and perks, sexual harassment and student/faculty relationships in ways that go beyond the mere letter of the law into grey areas in which what is legal may not be enough. What is licit, according to accepted ethical standards, in the absence of stated laws, has become once again, the expectation of the public and certain internal constituencies of the university. This is not bad. This is good. Institutions of higher learning, because they profess a central purpose that is lofty, are being viewed, rightly, by critics and partisans alike, as subject to the same moral behaviors we expect of human persons, with two significant exceptions: death and taxes. Few institutions have simply died of old age or their own volition, although we all know some universities that are definitely suicidal. And although many larger institutions do pay taxes, these taxes are levied for what are classed as "for-profit" businesses, not directly related to their educational mission. So although the terms may not be explicit, it is not unusual these days for the public to view the university as a person. The down side of this is that the time has come to pay the piper. Our institutions have claimed certain exemptions as non-profit organizations--exemption from taxes, for example--and certain privileges not accorded to other non-profits--tenure, for example. Without very much explanation or even dialogue, we expect our non-academic partners to understand that although, when it comes to governance, it's true of business management that "God so loved the world that she did not send a committee," but it's definitely not true of universities and colleges, in which failure to build consensus is the graveyard of presidents and deans. But where can concerned persons and institutional leaders look for help in assessing the moral character of the university? Whose morality should prevail?
We you could begin by asking the faculty. Yet faculty often have to erect billboards of protest before their concerns about institutional behaviors are noticed. Institutions with religious affiliation usually have no problem defining the moral behaviors that are acceptable in persons but sometimes do not apply these standards equally to institutional behavior. Public institutions are often held to a higher moral standard because of the public source of their funding (actually only a fraction of the total budgets in the nation's foremost public universities and colleges, but perceived by the public as entirely publicly funded). Often the source of public outrage is not about behaviors at all, but about the cost of those behaviors. What's being called a "double standard" is often a single standard--selfishness. Yet issues such as this, which are at base moral issues, are not being discussed in select Congressional meetings and Boards of Trustees. When I first learned that there actually was a U.S. Department of Ethics, I tracked their phone number through indirect means--they are not listed in your yellow or blue pages--and went to see them, expecting that our professional ethicists could be of assistance to them in offering workshops and training programs for government personnel. I discovered--to my chagrin and theirs--that what they were all about is compliance, not ethics. Their mandate is to teach the regulations and train personnel in how to avoid conflicts of interest. We need to establish once again the moral grounds for dialogue on such institutional issues which are now viewed as primarily questions of executive judgment or economic, bottom-line issues.
All comprehensive or liberal arts institutions, public and private, have professional philosophers on staff, yet seldom consult them on matters of institutional ethics. The ugly truth is that the university as moral person holds less interest for evaluators and assessors within the academy than the university as degree grantor, NCAA competitor, research grant attractor and income generator. Yet recent history shows that institutional behaviors have been the major source of public scandals that often reverberate in reprisals from funding sources in the federal government and private sector.
The central work of this three-day conference will be to explore, in supra-legal terms, institutional values. The terms of discourse will be largely drawn from the language of "ethics" and "ethos," deriving from the Greek word for "character." The linguistic ancestor of the Greek ethos, the Indo-European root "s[w]e," has everything to do with "the social group as an entity," as in the example phrase, "we ourselves," in all the languages of the Indo-European language family. The same root in the Irish language gave us the words "Sinn Fein"--"ourselves alone"--hardly an auspicious beginning for a discussion of the desired relationship of parts to the whole in the sensitive organism we know as the "university." Elsewhere the university has been defined as a diverse group of individuals united only by disagreements about parking! We might note in passing that other words derived from the same Indo-European root, "swe," have given us these terms, not unrelated to today's topic, as we shall see shortly: suicide, gossip, secret, secede, seduce, segregation, custom, ethnic and idiom, to name only a few cognates. We could organize the entire liberal arts curriculum around "ethos" and its Indo-European root. But we won't, not today anyhow. Instead, I would ask you to reflect for a few minutes on a redefinition of institutional purpose that has as its central assumption the institution as moral person. Then to consider what effect that might have on our day-to-day conduct of academic business, our relations to the public, to students and alumni, and the internal relations of parts to the whole within the university itself.
The place we might look for guidance in such reflection would logically be the handbooks of the six regional accrediting agencies that oversee our institutional life and make critical judgments affecting higher education as a whole--a process that is of particular and crucial interest right now to federal providers of financial aid and research dollars which are the lifeblood of many institutions, large and small.
You may be aware that we, you and I as working members of the American higher education non-system, are in the midst of a national debate about how best to accredit institutions of higher education. At present, regional accreditation satisfies a number of publics who need to know that we are doing the best possible job of educating the nation's citizens--and more than one-quarter of the world's foreign students. Because accreditation is a form of "gate-keeping" used by the Federal government to safeguards the proper disbursement of tremendous amounts of federal funds, critics outside the academy are insisting that we should no longer be evaluated by peers within the academy but by outside agencies. Since the 1992 add-on to the Higher Education Reauthorization Act that assures federal funds for financial aid and other necessary functions of colleges and universities, several major changes in accreditation were attempted, including the setting up of state-based review boards to pass on the viability of the institutions in each state. These have disappeared. Likewise, a National Policy Board established by friends of the regional accreditation process, presidents and heads of accrediting agencies, enjoyed a brief life from 1994 until last year; then it, too, bit the dust. We now have a new agency taking up residence at One Dupont Circle, CHEA, largely the creature of about 40 founding presidents. But it's not at all clear that any one grouping of presidents is the appropriate one to solve the central issues in the present system which have not generally been aired in bodies like this. From my point of view, one of the reasons there has been such a concerted attack on the status quo of regional accreditation is that the accrediting agencies themselves have not expressed the process in language that both insiders and outsiders can understand and agree with. In fact, there is a glaring omission in most presentations of standards for accreditation by five of the six regional agencies. None of them clearly recognizes that the university is, first and foremost, an institution of value-based civic as well as intellectual corporate endeavor and that foremost among the standards for judgment should be the criterion and the clearly stated expectation of ethical behavior by the institutions themselves in their conduct of business.
In the time we have left, I would like to focus on one aspect of the present system's crucial area of standards: the standard that concerns ethical behavior of institutions. The term, "integrity," has replaced the term "ethical" in the standard, where it exists, but it is still the most difficult one for evaluators to judge. And "knowledge" has replaced "truth" as theobject of our shared pursuit, the goal of higher education, in the six accrediting agencies' guidelines, marking the shift from ontology to epistemology as the soul of the university mission.
In all the revisions of guidelines for regional accreditation, most of them undertaken in the 1990s by the six regional agencies, the ethical norm is the one that has undergone the least transformation, with the possible exception of the article defining the essential nature of the university. The Northwest, North Central, Western, and Middle States Associations of Colleges and Schools or Schools and Colleges still define the central purpose of the university as "the pursuit of truth and its communication to others." The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and the New England Association of Schools and Colleges both phrase that function as "the search for knowledge and its dissemination" (SACS) and "the free pursuit and dissemination of knowledge" (NEASC). Would you recognize your institution in this definition if you were judging it, not by mission statement, but by actual programs, decision-making and recent institutional behaviors? All six agencies state unequivocally that the necessary concomitants of this central purpose, and the sine qua non of institutional success in carrying forward this purpose, are autonomy and freedom, variously phrased as "academic freedom and free inquiry...the freedom to teach and freedom to learn...the freedom to teach and study...the free pursuit of knowledge and expression of ideas. If American institutions of higher learning and the American public truly believed that this is truly the central purpose and the means to achieve it, the unique and privileged institution of tenure and its responsible awarding would not today be in question.
But on the issue of institutional ethics and the centrality of ethical expectation of institutional behavior, there is not the same unanimity in the present system and guidelines for accreditation; hence, the absence of central understandings of the university as moral person, with serious consequences for the whole enterprise of post-secondary teaching and learning.
The Western Association of Schools and Colleges is the only one of the six which gives institutional integrity the number one slot in its listing of standards for accreditation. Standard One, "Institutional Integrity," includes in its opening paragraphs this statement:
"Although a college or university must be managed well and remain solvent, it is not primarily a business nor an industry. Established to serve society, a college or university is not a political institution; it is not a religion or church. Those within an education institution have as a first concern, knowledge, evidence and truth. This concern should not be undermined by particular judgments of institutional benefactors, of public or social pressure groups, or of religious or political groups." (WAS)
Although the Northwest Association lists as Number Four its policy on institutional integrity, it has taken the Western model and improved upon it in its 1994 utterance:
"By academic tradition and by philosophical principle, an institution of higher learning is committed to the pursuit of truth and to its communication to others. To carry out this essential commitment calls for institutional integrity in the way a college or university manages its affairs--specifies its goals, selects and retains its faculty, admits students, establishes curricula, determines its programs of research, fixes its fields of service. The maintenance and exercise of such institutional integrity postulates and requires appropriate autonomy and freedom. Put positively, this is the freedom to examine data, to question assumptions, to be guided by evidence, to teach what one knows--to be a learner and a scholar. Put negatively, this is a freedom from unwarranted harassment which hinders or prevents a college or university from getting on with its essential work. A college or university must be managed well and remain solvent, but it is not a business or an industry. It must be concerned with the needs of its community and state and country, but an institution of higher learning is not a political party or a social service. It must be morally responsible but, even when church related, it is not a religion or a church. A college or university is an institution of higher learning. Those within it have as a first concern evidence and truth rather than particular judgments of institutional benefactors, concerns of churchmen, public opinion, social pressure, or political proscription..." (Northwest Assoc. of Schools and Colleges) 1994.
A concerned Congressperson or frustrated corporate CEO or Pope might not find in these statements what they are looking for in accountability studies. A Newman certainly would. However, there are probably many faculty, administrators, trustees and students, some here today, who would find these statements of institutional integrity, noble as they are, lacking in some essential notes of the modern university. Arguments about accreditation continue to founder over the question of who will control the process. There is little discussion of the essential nature of the modern university.
The North Central Association of Colleges and Schools has as its Criterion Five, out of five, "The institution demonstrates integrity in its practices and relationships" and follows it with eight pages of definitions of each term in the criterion statement, along with helpful examples and case studies of infractions of integrity by institutions, as well as a five-page listing of external resources by other agencies on good practice in each of the areas covered by the criterion.
The New England Association of Schools and Colleges lists its institutional integrity standard as Number Eleven out of eleven, but its ten subsections of explanation and application include an important element found only in the North Central standards among the other five--a statement about the supra-legal nature of the university's central commitment to ethical conduct of its affairs and its integrity: "The institution observes the spirit as well as the letter of applicable legal requirements." The North Central Association states this at greater length in its new criterion on integrity: "The Commission goes beyond institutional behavior that is purely legal to include institutional behavior that reflects the ethical values that institutions of higher education have traditionally expected of themselves and of each other."
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools has the most recent revision, 1996, and has taken an integrative approach to the statement of institutional responsibility for accreditation processes. Although it has no specific criterion on integrity, its very first article, 1.1, entitled "Institutional Commitment and Responsibilities in the Accreditation Process" speaks of what is required, what the institution must do, but places this within the context of what is expected of any institution of higher learning:
"An institution of higher education is committed to the search for knowledge and its dissemination. Integrity in the pursuit of knowledge is expected to govern the total environment of an institution. Each member institution is responsible for ensuring integrity in all operations dealing with its constituencies, in the relations with other member institutions, and in its accreditation activities with the Commission on Colleges. etc."
It has, in effect, woven the integrity criterion throughout each of the criteria that follow in the "application" section.
It seems to me that higher education contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction. but the converse is also true: we cannot expect any external agency to salvage the essential nature of the university if we are not willing to do this for ourselves. How? By engaging each other in quote "meaningful dialog" about the essential shared nature of our work as academics, by making sure that our own institutional leaders consider the supra legal concerns of students and our own concerns before purely legal compliance in institutional assessment; and by not waiting until there is a mandated institutional self-study to tackle the really crucial issues that will affect all we do in higher education in future, all we will be permitted to do, if we lose our freedoms and privilege. There was a good reason for those privileges extended to the university in the glory days of yore. We had better be sure we understand and agree upon the essential nature of the educational enterprise before we attempt to justify our ways to man and woman in the public arena that controls needed funding and is our only source of students to teach. Like charity, public scrutiny should begin at home, and we should not leave it up to the presidents alone to do that job for us. I believe it all begins with taking seriously the university as moral person, and then noticing what follows logically from acceptance of that assumption. Perhaps the greatest scandal to emerge in the decade that's almost finished is the spectacle of a higher education community that cannot agree within itself and its regions on commonly held beliefs about higher education. I have a friend who keeps an all-purpose picket sign that can be taken out for any cause. The sign says simply, "Shame." Shame on us if we don't manage to save peer accreditation and have it mean something again to a public that believes us when we say that we and our institutions are engaged single-mindedly in the pursuit of truth and knowledge and its communication to the world.
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Last updated: July 22, 1997