Ethics in Higher Education - Setting the stage


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Since the late sixties, there has been a growing public concern about moral standards. In both Canada and the United States there has been a surge of highly publicized scandals which have caught the public eye. In the U.S., Dennis Levine made $2.6 million on illegal trades and Ivan Boesky was fined $100 million for trading on tips from Levine. The case of A.H. Robins and the Intrauterine Device blamed for countless deaths and infertility is yet unresolved. The Exxon Valdez oil spill illustrated the high cost of not playing by the rules. In Canada, the Quebec Securities Commission brought insider trading charges against several individuals associated with Memotec Data Inc. of Montreal. The Ontario Securities Commission stopped a takeover deal for Canadian Tire Corporation which it described as, "grossly abusive" and the founder of the company, Alfred Billes, described the "greed" of his children in the overturned affair(Dalglish, 1987). Further examples of unethical practice include the decision by Conrad Black to remove $62 million from the pension plan of Dominion Store employees and the case of Chrysler Corporation unhooking odometres enabling it to sell used cars as new.

Public knowledge of events, such as those above, has created pressure on business schools to add an ethics component to their curriculum. The United States Securities and Exchange Commission donated a $30 million gift to the Harvard Business School to finance a new programme in Ethics and Leadership. In Canada, the University of Waterloo recently received a $500 thousand grant to study ethics in the accounting profession.

The theme that there is a crisis in higher education is not new. Reports have come in the U.S. from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, The National Commission on Excellence in Education, The National Endowment for the Humanities, The Association of American Colleges and in Canada the Smith Report (1991). These reports, however, fail to discuss the ethical component of the crisis.

This paper will discuss the role of universities in inculcating a culture of ethics as a prelude to the integration of ethics into the business curriculum. In the author's opinion this requires an analysis of the following variables: the business school as a social system, power and micro-politics, culture, and leadership and cultural change.

The Business School as a Social System

An organization is simply a group of people united for some common purpose (Garrison, Chesley and Carroll, 1995). According to classical principles of organizational structure an organization could obtain its purpose (goals) through rational decision making under conditions of certainty. The organization was viewed as a closed system unaffected by external forces. By contrast, modern organization theory views organizations as open systems that can only by defined in terms of interactions with their environment. The environment of modern organizations is often composed of other organizations. For example, the university can be viewed as the focal organization of which the school of business is a sub-set. The university's survival and effectiveness depends on inputs. One input is money from the provincial government, industry, foundations and alumni. Another input is students which come from high schools and other universities throughout the country as well as from other countries. Its output is educated students and published research which flow to industry, government and to other universities. The credibility of the university is determined by the judgment of community groups, scholarly societies, alumni, employers and funding agencies. Constraints are imposed upon the university by government and agencies such as the Nova Scotia Higher Education Commission.

Drawing from the concept of role set (Merton, 1957) a university can fall into role conflict due to different expectations from various interest groups. For example, demands from scholarly associations for research can lead to a neglect of teaching while students, employers and taxpayers may want a renewed emphases on teaching. This seems to be the thrust of the Smith Report (1991). With respect to ethics education, Hosmer (1985) suggested a conflict due to a perception by some that it is by its nature non-empirical and consequently non-scientific. Business decisions are seen as being made in an objective manner and ethical decisions in a subjective manner. Therefore, they see no place for ethics in the curriculum of business schools. It is arguable, however, that subjective is not synonymous with unimportant and that much of our knowledge is in fact socially constructed (Kuhn,1970).

A given social system, such as a School of Business, must be bounded in some way to separate it from its environment (Hoy, 1991). The boundary includes physical barriers between the school of business and the rest of the university and with the environment external to the entire university. Boundary entails differences in norms, language and intensity of interaction. A member of the business school, for example, would be less formal when speaking with a colleague from her own department than with a colleague from another department which would be less formal still than speech with an official from business, government or industry. These boundaries serve a variety of key functions. Boundaries serve as a buffer by smoothing or balancing input and output transactions. Boundaries also serve to filter out inappropriate inputs. For example, students applying to the School of Business with less than a 70 percent high school average would not be admitted. Boundaries are socially constructed requiring deliberate human action to sustain themselves. Perhaps a case can be made that university boundaries have been breaking down under pressure from a variety of social and political pressures so that its distinctive mission has taken on a much broader dimension.

Boundaries, of course, are merely metaphors. Organizations do not actually interact with their environment, people interact; and people interact with other people. In fact, people often interact with others in official boundary roles and people in these roles experience a high degree of role conflict (Adams, 1976). The boundary role person(BRP) is often faced with conflicting goals and values when the expectations of his immediate group differs from those of his/her counterpart BRP.

When the environment has a high degree of interconnectedness among its component elements, and the elements themselves change rapidly,the environment becomes turbulent (Emery and Trist, 1965). For the university these components consists of students, faculty, administration, technology, curricular and external constituents. Each component has its own environment which is interrelated to the others. To preserve its technical core the organizational boundary functions may be forced to loosen. Burns and Stalker (1961) stress that organizations in such an environment must be able to adapt throughout their structure. This organic form of organization has the following characteristics:

According to the Smith Report, universities have not been adaptive. They are not meeting the needs of a changing environment and are not responding to demands from its constituents. Smith (p.32) quotes Michael Robb,"The quality of undergraduate education in our universities has deteriorated rather badly and universities don't seem to show many signs of arresting this deterioration, much less even acknowledging it. Specifically,these "research institutions", fuelled by an internal dynamic often antagonistic to the promotion of teaching excellence, are reacting to tougher times by attaching, undervaluing and scaling back the most vulnerable component of their mission - teaching undergraduates."

What is at stake here is essentially an ethical issue. Students paying time and money deserve quality teaching. Moreover, in its neglect of the student, the university is, in effect, setting itself up as a poor role model. It seems hypocritical for universities to attempt to integrate ethics into the curriculum without first living up to its own ethical responsibilities. By not adapting, universities may be sowing the seeds of their own diaster. Higher education can be gradually taken over by others leading to decreased funding and the ultimate demise of the university. Ironically, universities are probably far better equipped to provide a meaningful education and of graduating students who show both intellectual and moral growth - if only they would adapt.

Power and Micro-politics

No educational practice takes place in a vacuum. Educational practice exists only in a real context influenced by historical, economic and political considerations. An understanding of the political dimension and role of power may provide some insight into the problems of building an ethical school. Bertrand Russell (1939) has stated that power, along with glory, remains the highest aspiration and the greatest reward of humankind. In the Republic Plato described power as an innate drive. Power has also been described as the essence of all social and political interaction (Astley, 1984). March (1966) described power as a "messy" concept that has become a tautology to explain that which cannot be explained by other constructs and ideas and is not capable of being falsified as an explanation for social and individual actions. There seems to be little agreement on any precise definition of power, and it was noted by one author (Cartwright, 1959) that most writers take pains to provide a definition but each felt compelled to insert one of his own.

A useful construct for analyzing why the School of Business (and the rest of the university for that matter) fails to live up to its ethical responsibilities to students is to examine power as an integral component of micro-politics. According to Eric Hoyle (1986) micro-politics is best perceived as a continuum ranging from legitimate conventional management practices to illegitimate, self-interested manipulation. Mayes et al. (1977) define micro-politics as the management of influence to reach ends not sanctioned by the organization or to attain ends through non-sanctioned means. An action is dysfunctional if a member acting in his or her own self-interest behaves incompatibly with the goals of the university. For example, a dean may withhold information or distort performance measures. Faculty members may manipulate grades to make themselves look better and hide their failures where possible. Many problems could be corrected by putting greater effort into improving the quality of teaching but this would take time away from research which is much more valued by the university reward structure. To be manipulative, to indoctrinate, to be "Machiavellian" reflect a negative aspect of power that is indeed distasteful. Students may see through such actions but often feel helpless to do anything about it. Worse still some students may be strongly influenced by these negative behaviours and begin to emulate their role models.

Fortunately, micro-politics does have its positive aspects. Pfeiffer (1981) argues that organizational politics involves those activities taken within organizations to acquire, develop, and use power and other resources to obtain preferred outcomes. He goes on to say that politics is the study of power in action and that preferred outcomes can be reached through politics even in situations characterized by uncertainty and dissension about choices. This provides hope that by understanding micro-politics a consensus can be reached through open communication and deliberation as to how to build an ethical climate. Bacharach and Lawler (1980) saw the understanding of micro-politics in terms of three basic themes:

An understanding of organizational politics requires an analysis of power, coalitions and bargaining. The power relationships is the context for political action and encompasses, the most basic issues and underlying organizational politics. As the primary mechanism through which individuals and subgroups acquire, maintain, and use power, coalitions crystallize and bring to the foreground the conflicting interests of organizational subgroups. Through bargaining, distinct coalitions attempt to achieve their political objectives and protect themselves from encroachments by opposing coalitions. Power, coalitions, and bargaining, therefore, constitute the three basic themes in our theoretical treatise on organizational politics.

A theory of organizational power,however, cannot finally give an organization a clear purpose or direction (Brown, 1990). According to Brown, understanding systems of power can help prevent the shutting down of constituencies and can help in the design of systems which empower these constituencies. A prescription cannot be obtained from simply describing power. Instead, Brown suggests, we must turn to the normative ethical criteria of justice and rights to prevent organizational power from doing harm. Rights can restrain power when the unequal distribution of power harms others (i.e.) prevents students from receiving a good quality education. Justice can guide the distribution of power according to the shared meaning of those who have a stake in the university.


To act within an ethical framework requires some way of getting at assumptions of shared meanings. The literature identifies two research traditions; each of which views culture very differently. Both traditions have their roots in anthropology. One is a functionalist tradition (Malinowski, 1961) which views culture as a component of the social system and is manifested in organizational behaviours from the viewpoint of the researcher. It focuses on how practices, beliefs and values interact to maintain social control. The other is a semiotic tradition (Gerth, 1973). This approach looks at language, rituals and symbols as the principle artifacts by which a "native's point of view" is described and views culture as residing in the minds of individuals.

Differing assumptions cause individuals to choose different types of justice or to stress different rights over others when making decisions. Edgar Schein (1990) defines these basic assumptions and beliefs that are shared by members of an organization and that operate unconsciously in a taken for granted fashion as organizational culture. Schein goes on to describe organizational culture as:

a pattern of basic assumption- invented, discovered, or developed by a given group as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration- that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems. (p.9)

A university culture consists of institutional characteristics such as size and location, curricular structure and academic standards, student-faculty relationships, student characteristics, faculty characteristics, the physical environment and the mission of the university. It is the underlying assumptions about how all these characteristics relate which actually constitutes university culture.

Of interest is how university culture differs from other institutions. Austin and Gamson (1983) say that there is a mythology of academic culture that views higher academic institutions as, "places in which administrators, professors, and staff members gain satisfaction from their contributions to the intellectual development of students and to the production of knowledge for society" (p.9) and that university culture is linked to compliance. Borrowing from Etzioni they see compliance as power used by superiors to control subordinates which can be classified as normative, utilitarian or coercive. Austen and Gamson argue that universities are highly utilitarian and have an essentially normative culture and that reward systems are based primarily on the belief that what universities do is good and valuable. Such a system, they say, attracts individuals with high intellectual curiosity who are willing to give up greater financial rewards to enjoy academic freedom.

Cultures, however, often exists within cultures. Biglan (1973) identified three features which distinguish academic subject areas: a) concern with practical application, b)a single research paradigm and c) concern with life systems. Without getting into the details of Biglan's analysis, the point is that errors can be made when generalizations about the entire university are made from studying in only one academic unit. Even within a School of Business, subcultures within one functional area (i.e.) accounting many differ from that of another area group and students, of course, may have their own subcultures. The culture of the School would be considered strong if there exists a high degree of congruence among the subcultures. The presence of sub-cultures raises the possibility of reflecting on our own taken-for-granted assumptions and evaluating their relevance and appropriateness. According to Schutz (1973) the types of assumptions that have particular ethical implications are those which are determined by a "pragmatic motive". These are assumptions of how to get things done. For example, two groups may use justice as a value judgement but may have different assumptions about how to promote justice. One group might promote rules while another might promote social interaction.

Schein (1984) suggests that cultural strength can be either an asset or a liability. It can lead to lack of innovation and groupthink or to innovation and creativity. The current culture in university is very strong that academics should pursue the frontiers of knowledge. Other forms of scholarship such as the integration of ideas accross disciplines, connecting thought to action (application) and inspiring students is deemphasized. Boyer (1990) refers to these as the scholarships of research, integration, application and teaching. It is the contention of this paper that universities have a moral responsibility to develop a definition of scholarship which reflects the great diversity which characterizes its stakeholders.

In a School of Business, as in most faculties, faculty members are socialized to value research over teaching and other forms of scholarship. Faculty members may already hold this view as a consequence of socialization from their Ph.D. studies. Their peers talk about teaching loads and research opportunities and it becomes clear that research publications is the form of scholarship that must be pursued for tenure and promotion. By the time tenure is obtained this value is usually well entrenched. Culture, in this context can be defined as, "the way we do things around here"(Arnold & Capella, 1985).

Albert North Whitehead (1955) wrote prognostically about over emphasizing written products in higher education:

Mankind is as individual in its mode of output as in the substance of its thoughts. For some of the most fertile minds composition in writing...seems to be an impossibility. In every faculty you will find that some of the more brilliant teachers are not among those who publish. Their originality requires for its expression direct intercourse with their pupils....Such men exercise an immense influence; and yet, after a generation of their pupils has passed away, they sleep among the innumerable unthanked benefactors of humanity. Fortunately, one of them is immortal-Socrates. Thus it would be the greatest mistake to estimate the value of each member of a faculty by the printed work signed with his name.

Leadership and Cultural Change

Cultural change doesn't come easily; especially when shared assumptions are firmly established. However, new cultures are created and even changed under strong leadership (Clark,1968). Cultural change is more easily attained in new institutional settings but the challenge is great when assumptions have been held for a long time. Change is likely to be highly resisted because many faculty members are motivated by power which is derived from status in the academic marketplace. Unless there is change in the entire university system or at least in a substantial number of universities, faculty members will be reluctant to accept forms of scholarship which may make them less marketable.

Leadership is needed which will take actions to send strong signals throughout the system that teaching will take on new prominence. According to Kerr (1982) the university president is the most important figure in the life of the institution. On the other hand, Guskin and Bassis (1985) found that while there were individual cases of "problem-solving heroes" , in most cases morale suffers unless there is an approach to leadership that is participative. They also report that change is more easily accomplished when the university has a clear set of goals, integrating mechanisms exist and faculty have a sense of pride, security and ownership than when there is an environment of conflict, insecurity and fragmentation. There is also evidence that faculty tend to be quite conservative and resist non-traditional directions adopted by their institutions (Thousand, 1985).

As a culture manager a leader embodies the espoused values of the organization (Schein, 1990). Working with the assumption that university administration, in its leadership capacity, accepts the thrust of broadening the definition of scholarship, specific steps can be taken to inculcate a culture of teaching. Several of these are briefly discussed below:

The real test of whether such measures will create a new culture is in the actual decisions involving rank, assessment, tenure and promotion. This confirms whether effective teaching is truly valued. Strong ethical responsibilities are imposed upon such committees. There is a duty to make decisions which are consistent with the messages which are articulated by university spokepersons. The core values of university culture will be articulated through decisions made by this committee. Values are the most dynamic elements of culture- more strategic than organizational symbols, communication rituals, work rituals, patterns of assumptions, and rules of the game (Pastin, 1986). In addition to the fact that students have a right to receive good teaching, faculty have a right to be evaluated on the bases of effective teaching especially when such views are espoused by the university. Recently at UCLA effective teaching was promulgated as a priority of the university. A faculty member who spent her entire research time in designing innovative ways of teaching accounting was granted tenure. This was a first, in recent history, for UCLA and the message is clear at that institution that teaching meets the test of scholarship. Behaviour was congruent with espoused values; a key to building a strong morale and being ethically responsible.


This paper has taken the view that the inculcation of ethics into business school is a complex process. It requires an understanding of the business school as a social system composed of a number of constituencies including, students, faculty, administration, technology, curricular and external environments. Each of these environments interacts in a maze of complexity that can be comprehended, in part, by paying attention to key variables such as power, micro-politics, culture and leadership.

The underlying theme has been that an ethical curriculum is best constructed in an environment which itself is built upon sound ethical principles reflecting the interests of each of its major stakeholders. An ethical university environment thus sets the stage for dealing specifically with the issue of ethics in the curriculum. The reader is cautioned that the author is strongly committed to the research function within the university. Other interests however should not be neglected in achieving research goals.


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Copyright RAY F. CARROLL, PH.D

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