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The Ethics of Teaching a Course on Digital Literacy

Increasingly, educational institutions are offering courses in “Fake News.” The reason, no doubt, is concern in society that journalists and news media are playing fast and loose with the ethics rules of good, honest journalism. Making up stories, exaggerating facts, failing to use reliable sources and failing to check with two or more sources of information are all manifestations of fake news.

Fake news was named the term of the year in 2016 by the Oxford Dictionary, and in 2017 by the Collins Dictionary. In 2017, the usage of the term had increased by 365 percent since 2016. Complaints about fake news by President Donald Trump have increased awareness of this unethical practice.

That’s not to say the news is always ‘made up’ when it comes to Trump’s sayings, tweets, and exploits but there’s little doubt that some news media do create imaginative stories, spin statements by Trump and otherwise manipulate the facts. But, let’s face it, without Trump’s incessant charges of fake news, the issue might not have provoked such an outcry.

Enter colleges and universities to the rescue. Courses in fake news, oftentimes under the banner of Media Literacy, are increasing. According to Troy Worden, the University of Michigan confirmed last week that it will offer a course in how legitimate news operations help spread “fake news.” A CNN journalist is teaching the class, “News Media Ethics,” and will critique the media’s biased nature.

The course will ask questions such as: “How do journalists cover the news? Do they report it honestly and truthfully? How valid are claims by critics that news media behaved unethically in their coverage of Donald Trump?

Additionally, the course will cover broader “issues of bias, distortion, lack of perspective and other journalistic failings and journalists’ responsibilities to the profession and the public, and …proposed solutions to ethics violations.”

From an ethics perspective, trust is a big issue. Can we trust the news story? The news source? The reporter?

Moreover, questions should be raised about the approach of academia offering courses in fake news. From the outset I question whether a  CNN journalist should be teaching the course at Michigan. It creates the appearance of bias given CNN’s perceived leaning toward the left. It doesn’t matter whether the journalist is, in reality, fair in his/her treatment of the topic. It may appear to the casual observer that they wouldn’t be if they work for one of the three cable ‘news’ shows, each of which has a distinct bias in their political point of view.

Second, in academia there is a perceived and, in my opinion, bias of professors towards the left and some reporters don’t mind saying things that either can’t be proved or exaggerate the facts. So, who is going to ensure that the course curriculum presents a balanced approach to the issues surrounding fake news? Don't get me wrong. The same thing occurs by right-leaning professors.

Finally, the Media Literacy course must have a module on social media ethics, which the course at Michigan doesn’t seem to have. Facebook users share media stories without regard to its authenticity. According to Jackson Schroeder, in the last few months leading up to the 2016 election, fake news generated more likes, shares, and engagement than major news sources.

Schroeder claims that from August to November 8, Election Day, the top 20 fake news articles provoked 8,711,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook. In contrast, the top 20 stories from the 19 major news sources generated just 7,367,000 shares, reactions, and comments.

I’ve taught ethics for thirty years and have noticed that most ethics courses fall short of their goal to instill characteristics of ethical behavior in college students. Why? It’s because there are no checks and balances over who teaches the course. For example, in teaching tax ethics many professors tell their students how to take advantage of loopholes in the law, which is part of their professional responsibilities. But, is it ethical? The same could be said about digital media ethics.

Finally, every college should teach a course on social media activities and ethics and include digital media ethics, fake news, and lots of other topics related to the need to adhere to a set of ethical standards when posting or sharing something on social media. It’s bigger than one course and when it’s limited to one course, the wrong message is sent that ethics is important just in that narrow arena – digital journalism.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on June 11, 2019. Visit Steve’s website and sign up for his newsletter. Follow him on Facebook and “Like” his page.
 

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Evaluating Conflicts of Interest

Am I guilty of having a conflict of interest in using my own Accounting Ethics textbook for that course? I’ve thought about this a lot in the past and agonized over the answer. Before I share my beliefs, let’s get certain things clear.

The choice of a textbook for a course is solely the prerogative of the professor, although with multiple sections of the same course it may be a committee vote. This is part of academic freedom. But, with academic freedom comes an ethical responsibility to choose a textbook best suited to student learning.

Today, many textbooks are provided in e-book form, as is mine. This makes the decision of what “book” to use more challenging. For example, in e-book form the author provides many questions – i.e., multiple choice, true-false, etc. that students have to answer as part of course requirements. They are graded and the report sent to the professor to track whether students have completed online assignments. These questions enable students to teach themselves certain basics so professors can focus on higher level material including case studies and external readings to supplement the course.

I read a great piece in Psychology Today on using your own textbook by Mitchell Handelsman, a professor at the University of Colorado in Denver. He uses his own book. He points out that professors who have taught a course for a long time and gained experience beyond that of normal teaching bring to the table skills that can be passed along through the textbook that chronicles such matters.

The key ethical issue is not to exploit students for personal gain. I can tell you the royalties are not that good and unless your book is used by thousands of students, the return on investment is minimal. That’s not to say this justifies using one’s book. The reason to do so is it is the best alternative available to facilitate student learning.

One thing that makes my decision different than many other professors is an Accounting Ethics course does not exist in most colleges and universities which means there aren’t many books on the topic in the market. Compare this to a book such as Introduction to Accounting that is required in all business schools, and the decision is less complicated.  

Handelsman provides good advice of when professor might behave unethically in adopting their own book.

  • If the book (or course packet) the professor assigns has nothing to do with the course. 
  • If the book is relevant, but the professor assigns students to buy the book and then never uses the book in the course.
  • If the book is clearly inferior to other available materials. Perhaps the professor self-publishes a book that no other self-respecting instructor would ever adopt.
  • If the professor makes grades contingent upon buying new copies of the book—rather than buying or borrowing used copies. 
  • If the professor forces other (less powerful) members of the department to use a book they would not have chosen. 
  • If the professor puts together a course packet and sells it to students for an exorbitant price—well beyond copying and other costs.

I feel good about my decision not only because I do not engage in any of these practices but because student reaction to my text is generally positive. How do I know? I pass out a survey at the end of the course that is answered anonymously and roughly 90 percent feel the book was helpful in learning the course material, 80 percent said they would recommend using the book again, and virtually all students had no problem with a professor using their own textbook as long as the professor objectively views use of the book as the best way to facilitate student learning. In other words, they trust their teachers to look out for their interests.

Just contemplating these issues is an ethical practice and one that all professors thinking about assigning their own text should do.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on May 30, 2019. Visit Steve’s website and sign up for his newsletter. Follow him on Facebook and “Like” his page.

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Academic Freedom Under Attack

I have previously blogged about “The Selling of American Universities” that points out the increasing trend of private donors like Nike, Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola influencing sports programs through their donations. A more pernicious situation has raised its ugly head, whereby uber-wealthy individuals donate funds with strings attached that raise ethical questions about their ability to exercise control over academic decision-making. Three examples are BB&T the Charles Koch Foundation (CKF), and George Soros.

Let’s start with BB&T, a major bank holding company based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The bank donates large sums of money to promote capitalism courses through their “Moral Foundations of Capitalism” program, which requires the study of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism. This includes reading books such as Atlas Shrugged, a defense of capitalism as a rational economic system. Objectivists promote the laissez-faire concept that government should stay out of business and let it create wealth that, presumably, will trickle down and improve the well-being of all citizens.

Putting aside the obvious conflict between capitalism and various brands of socialism espoused by democratic candidates for President, the promotion of capitalistic theory in universities as the quid pro quo for financial support creates conflicts of interest because BB&T expects in return that the values of capitalism will be taught. A primary value is the pursuit of self-interest, or egoism, an ethical approach that holds individuals should act in their own interests. Objectivism eschews philosophical theories such as Deontology, which holds people should act out of moral duty to others.

Turning now to the CKF, donations by that organization do not focus on specific courses but creating Koch-affiliated centers and institutes on university campuses and staffing them with instructors who reflect the CKF philosophy. The CKF philosophy is decidedly conservative. It refers to its program through the innocuous but misleading term “Structure of Social Change” program.

Charles Koch is a well-known libertarian who believes in small government, minimal business regulation, and little environmental regulation. Obviously, these philosophies are attractive to right-leaning political candidates. Without debating the merits of these positions, it does seem there could be undue influence over academic decision-making by donating money to establish academic institutes with selected faculty members and targeted objectives.

The amount of donations by the CKF are staggering. According to a story in U.S. News & World Report, George Mason University received $117.2 million during the 2008-2017 period. Charles Koch was awarded an honorary doctorate from George Mason in 2002, which certainly accounts for his generosity. The university that received the second most in funding during the same decade was Utah State ($6.9 million).

Questions have been raised recently about the George Mason donation and influence-peddling by CKF. A NY Times story published on April 26, 2019, reports that the Foundation was given input in some personnel decisions leading the school to tighten its rules governing agreements with donors to ensure they don’t infringe on academic freedom. Allowing donors to have input over hiring and tenure decisions is anathema to the long-standing tradition that university departments, colleges, and administrators solely control hiring and tenure decisions.

There are left-leaning donors that exist as well. The largest is George Soros, Chairman of the Soros Fund Management. Soros’s Center for American Progress has given $60 million to Bard College for its “Center for Civic Engagement” to promote progressive causes Soros endorses. He also funds other programs on a much lower level including to study the role of money in the democratic process (Fordham University; a $400,000 grant). He also helped establish Central European University, which, in turn, uses its resources to promote his personal goal of an “open society.”

It does appear that the donations by BB&T and the CKF more directly influence curricula decisions and academic hiring than those by Soros. Nevertheless, there are unintended consequences of all these kinds of donations in that the appearance of bias exists and the process for making curricula and faculty decisions linked to the donations may not be transparent.

I have to wonder what message is sent to students when they see a wealthy person can buy influence over what should be sacred – academic independence. Shouldn’t they rightfully question what is being taught and why? Moreover, doesn’t it send the message that influence can be bought? Aren’t students left with the feeling money talks even at our hallowed academic institutions?

The reason given by public institutions of higher learning for taking donations from private sources is the lack of adequate state funding for public universities, and then there is the increasing financial needs of private universities. I believe the root cause goes much deeper. Over the past twenty years or so the purpose of a      university has changed from largely teaching institutions to research institutions with the goal of bringing academic visibility to the institutions through faculty publications and fundraising to develop and carry out initiatives (i.e., biotechnology research and development).

Funding these activities has become a high priority. The need for high-priced faculty to run them and foster their mission has increased substantially. At the same time, these faculty are given release time from teaching to do their research, apply for grants, publish, etc. That means other faculty need to be hired to teach their classes, and that costs money.

It’s a fact of life in academia today, both in state-supported and private universities, that external fund raising is critical to the mission of the institution. Unfortunately, it seems to have spiraled out of control and it’s the students who suffer the most because tuition levels are, in many cases, unconscionable.

These are ethical questions because we are dealing with whether it’s right or wrong to accept such large donations and commit to establish programs/hire certain faculty in return. Is this good or bad for the institution? For society? We need to debate these issues openly.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on May 7, 2019. Visit Steve’s website and sign up for his newsletter. Follow him on Facebook and “Like” his page.

I am proud to announce that my new book,  Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior, will be published and available for sale by July. It will be listed on Amazon and other outlets. You can find out more about my book and professional services on my website. Follow me on Facebook for updates on the book.

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Is it Time to Institute 'Ungrading'?

I just read about professors who seem to believe going gradeless in college classes is a good idea. There seems to be serious consideration in some corners to change the traditional way of evaluating the work of college students. Quite frankly, this scares me.

Is there something wrong with the way college students are now being evaluated? Why the need for a change? It’s not like graduates are failing to perform in their chosen jobs. There is no valid reason to change a time-honored system of grading unless there’s ample proof the new system produces a better product.

The scary thing for me is this is a manifestation of the entitlement society we live in. According to the proposal, students should be entitled to be graded on nebulous standards that are “student-centered” rather than determined by the faculty. I worry that the work ethic that is so important for success in business and other pursuits will give way to meeting self-serving standards that purport to produce a better outcome.

In an article by Colleen Flaherty in Inside Higher Ed, Marcus-Schultz-Bergin, a professor of philosophy at Cleveland State University, is quoted as saying: “My hope,” for students, “is that the reflection they engaged in, and the discussions we had, will lead to a significant commitment in the second half of the course to really achieve what they set out for themselves so that when they tell me they earned an “A” grade they can really mean it.” So, students will set the rules, decide whether they played by them, and then grade their own performance, if I understand it correctly. Really?

Apparently, one reason for the shift is to suggest that students should be asked “why, when and how they learn, what we [teachers] can get back is way more valuable than any standardized assessment mechanism can reveal.” This quote is from Jesse Stommel, executive director of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies at University of Mary Washington. Stommel refers to the issue “ungrading,” and says it “creates space for that kind of honest reflection and dialogue.”

With all due respect to director Stommel, if a college has to ask its students the why, when, and how they learn, it has, in my view, failed in its abilities to determine these issues through the teaching process, in-class discussions, and grading. It’s the instructor’s job to make these determinations through experience, reflection, and even out-of-class discussions with students.

I liken ungrading to asking student (basketball) athletes whether a basket is worth two or three points without regard to the three-point line. Maybe a two point shot in traffic and contested is worth more than a three point shot when the shooter is not being guarded.

Schultz-Bergin is also quoted as saying, that students would still have to be graded since most institutions require it. But the process is based on students “semiregularly reflect[ing] independently, with their peers and with their professors on their learning and performance in a given course. Those reflections…help students to learn better and equip them to eventually grade themselves.”

Interestingly, but not surprising, Schultz-Bergin says that “Professors who have gone gradeless say that students sometime give themselves higher grades than they deserve [what a surprise!]. But they report that’s it’s uncommon, and that they talk with the student about it when it does happen.

I don’t get the last comment. It seems Schultz-Bergin implies that the professors have evaluated the students. How else could they have those discussions. But, what standards are they using? Their own? Standards set by the students? Is it right to have students develop the standards, assuming this is the case, and then being told they mis-graded themselves? It’s confusing to say the least and possibly counter-productive to learning.

My view is why change a system if it’s not broke. To demonstrate the system is broken there needs to be solid evidence that the replacement “ungrading” somehow produces a better graduate who can contribute more to society when they make up the grading scheme themselves rather than the traditional way.

Finally, have these schools considered that accrediting agencies may balk at the student-centered grading? Will it affect their accreditation standards? I know of no accrediting body that doesn’t have some grading standards (by the professor) included in its requirements.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on April 10, 2019. Visit Steve’s website and sign up for his newsletter. Follow him on Facebook and “Like” his page.

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The Moral Compass and College Admissions Scandal

The college admissions scandal dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues” raises questions about the integrity of the college admissions process across a broad spectrum of institutions. Who’s to blame for the admissions scandal? There’s enough blame to go around but the parents are front and center. Their attempt to get their kids admitted to some of the most prestigious universities in the U.S. through the back door, side door, and every which way smacks of ethical relativism where they have defined what is right and what is wrong for their kids and themselves based on their own sense of morality not commonly-accepted standards such as virtue, fairness, and moral duty.

The operational issues are whether there should be an audit of these processes to ferret out inappropriate decision-making, hold those in charge responsible, and develop internal controls so what happened in the recent scandals never occurs again.

What is the real cause of the admissions scandal and parents’ role? It’s due to ethical blind spots. Ethical blind spots are obstacles that prevented the parents from seeing the ethical issues. They simply acted in their own selfish interests rather than a responsible way. We could attribute it to insensitivity to the ethical issues, which is true. We could say they lacked the inherent skills to think through the admissions scandal issue thoughtfully, which is also true.

However, what it really gets down to is the no consequences society we live in today. Yes, thankfully, the offending parents have been caught and penalties await them. But, in general all too many people ask: Why should they be ethical when it seems so many in society break the rules and nothing happens to them.

Why is this occurring now with alarming frequency? The answer is we have morphed into a society where each of us define our own ethical values. Right and wrong is situational rather than based on time-honored moral principles like honesty, integrity, respect, and personal responsibility.

Let’s hope the outcome of the scandal is a thorough scrubbing of the admission process. Last week Duke University announced it is auditing the last several years of its admissions in the wake of the admissions scandal. We need more universities to do the same. Beyond that, each university should form a select group of professors to serve on an admissions review committee to build checks and balances into the system. Also, there should be an ethics code solely for the admissions process.

The sad part of the admissions scandal is some students who deserved to be admitted may not have been because of the favored treatment of those with money to bribe key players and get their kid admitted, oftentimes to the most prestigious academic institutions in the U.S. Those who played by the rules were not allowed to play on a level playing field. Fairness for all gave way to cheating by some: those with money and the connections.

The admissions cheating scandal is a commentary on what’s wrong with society today. Believing we can get ahead by knowing the right people, bribing those with decision-making influence -- and not through hard work and playing by the rules – and having no conscience about these matters.

The bottom line is we have lost our moral compass.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on March 26, 2019. Visit Steve’s website and sign up for his newsletter. Follow him on Facebook and “Like” his page.

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Closing the “Teaching Gap”

Recently, I’ve read a lot about what makes for a great professor. Having taught for 30+ years, I was very interested to see how I stacked up. I’ve always thought of myself as a good professor – at least in my field, Accounting. It is one where we must explain complex technical jargon in easy-to-understand terms. However, today’s college students expect more.

I wanted to get a balanced view so I first read an article by Russell Herman, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington published in The Journal of Effective Teaching. I then read a posting on a site called “The Odyssey Online.” This seems to be a millennial social media site where these folks can share their ideas, insights, and experiences.

Academic Perspective

Here are four qualities that Herman identifies:                                                                             

Go Beyond the Call of Duty. Be accessible to students, fair and transparent in evaluations, be prompt to class and return graded materials on time and identify learning opportunities.

Know the Material. Be prepared, be passionate about the material, know how to communicate it, be informed about old and new methods, be confident and willing to admit oversights/mistakes.

Teach the Material Well. Be enthusiastic, engaging, interactive, excellent at communication, organized, challenge and motivate students, be innovative and use technology effectively.

Understand the Student. Be caring, attend student events, take an interest in them, listen and respect them, advise and mentor, be approachable and encourage lifelong learning.

Student Perspective

Students have a different view focusing more on how we should treat them, which I call the “teaching gap.” Here are 8 characteristics mentioned in the Odyssey Online piece.

  1. Treat students as a friend, not just a student. Boosts students’ confidence, creates a better learning environment, leave students with a good feeling about the class.
  2. Perfect balance of control. Push students, encourage them to learn, encourage them to push themselves.
  3. Take the material to another level. Try different approaches to engage students, help students develop new ways of thinking – critical thinking skills.
  4. Treat everyone equally. Give everyone the same chance. Don’t prioritize one student over another.
  5. Have a sense of humor. Boosts enjoyability, increases attention level, opens the mind and creates a better attitude towards the class.
  6. Don’t over-expect; understand students. Expect the best, but not too much. Understand that sometimes things happen out of students’ control. Be a mentor.
  7. Stick to your word. Collect assignments when due, don’t make students feel they put in wasted effort, make each task feel rewarding to the students.
  8. Be open to change. Be open to student comments and be willing to change.

Putting aside the teaching gap, there’s a lot of overlap between the two lists. For me it comes down to teaching and treating students in the same way we would wish to be taught and treated had we been the student, not the professor. This is an off-shoot of The Golden Rule.

Herman mentions another important quality, maybe the most important in my mind, which is to be a role model. Perhaps I’m biased because teaching accounting to students, most of whom strive to be Certified Public Accountants, has a role model dimension to it. Accountants are supposed to be trustworthy, reliable, and pursue excellence. I think all professors should strive to incorporate these behaviors into their “teaching character.”

I would add one more activity to teaching effectiveness, which is to incorporate “learn by doing.” This is part of the strategic plan at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where I taught for 10 years. I found it to be the most appealing part of being a teacher at Cal Poly. Time doesn’t permit me to explain the Learn by Doing approach in full so you can click on this link and read more about it.

Briefly, Learn by Doing involves aspects of both “experiential learning” and “discovery learning.” Students should be active participants and learn from their experiences in and outside the classroom. Teachers should set solvable but challenging problems for students and allow them to discover the solution with the role of the faculty being a facilitator.

Learn by doing is an interactive approach to teaching and can incorporate media and technology into classroom experiences. It fits best in the “Go Beyond the Call of Duty” characteristic mentioned by Herman and the “Take the material to another level” item mentioned in the Odyssey Online piece.

Finally, teaching college students today should engage them using social media whether it’s through chat rooms, posting blogs, or out-of-class office hours. The problem for me was when I told students they could contact me by email to discuss anything, they contacted me by email at all hours of the day and night. Still, the journey was worth it.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on February 13, 2019. Visit Steve’s website and sign up for his newsletter. Follow him on Facebook and “Like” his page.

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Do College Students Really Care?

The problem with teaching ethics to college students is they may not care. Some of my students ask me: Why should I care about being ethical now…when it seems people can get ahead in life by taking the easy way, which is not always the ethical way out.

I answer, perhaps this is so but it doesn’t mean you’ll be happier or lead a more meaningful life, two goals of ethical behavior. Happiness and meaningfulness comes from our interactions with others. The quality of our relationships can enhance our physical and mental well-being thereby creating happiness and greater meaning. If we’re not ethical with others, it’s less likely they’ll be ethical with us and achieving happiness and self-fulfillment becomes much more challenging.

Ethical behavior is a journey that begins with one step: it starts with committing to being an ethical person. Much like a commitment many of us make to lose weight and exercise more, being ethical takes practice and discipline. Like most journeys it takes time and effort. However, once you learn the tools of ethical behavior that can be applied to most any situation in life, you can establish a pattern of ethical behavior that serves you well in all life choices.

Ethics is a complex subject that encompasses ethical values and standards of behavior that have been debated throughout the course of history. One simple approach to ethics I use in teaching college students is by using the following decision-making process: (1) recognize the ethical issues (right vs. wrong); (2) identify the ethical values (i.e., honesty, trust, respect, responsibility); (3) analyze the ethical issues (utilitarianism, rights theory, justice and virtue); (4) decide on a course of action; (5) do the right thing. The result of this process is ethical behavior will occur.

Assume Sally had two dates with Bill, whom she met on an online dating site. She realizes the relationship is going nowhere. Bill has sent her numerous texts wondering what’s going on. Up until now, Sally has ignored them. This is a practice referred to as “ghosting:” ignoring the other party even though there’s something important to communicate.

Once I raise these issues in my ethics class, students start to relate better because many have been ghosted or ghosted others. I even have some who said firms they interviewed with ghosted them – no word on how the interview went or whether they would receive an offer. The honest students admit to have ghosted firms they interviewed with after they decided not to accept an offer even if one was forthcoming.

We need to engage students in debates in ethics classes and use topics they can relate to – like dating. Another topic that seems to go over well is using social media at work. Is it ethical to use one’s laptop, or company equipment, to go on social media sites during the workday?  I’m not talking about during breaks or lunch. Most student say there’s nothing wrong with it. They claim they might do work related things at lunch to make up for it or stay later. Many say they work at home. To me, these are rationalizations for unethical actions. However, the burden is on the employer to set clear policies about personal time on social media at work, and most companies don’t have clear policies.

Ethics is all about what we do when no one is looking. Most people are ethical when they know they’re being watched. If someone in front of us on a line drops a $20 bill, we’re likely to return it because those in back of us saw it. If someone walks down a street and drops a $20 bill and there’s no one else around, the likelihood is that we’ll pocket it and move on.

We live in a world where ethical behavior is an afterthought. It’s not likely to change anytime soon because our political leaders, members of the media, those in the entertainment field and sports all seem to have no clue about right and wrong. As college teachers, we must make the effort to teach ethics.

A poem by William F. O’Brien says it well: Better to Try and Fail Than Never to Try at All.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on January 30, 2019. Visit Dr. Mintz’s website and sign up for his newsletter. Follow him on Facebook and “Like” his page.

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U.S. News Data is Skewed Towards the Richest Institutions

Do you look at college rankings to decide which college to attend or where to send your kid? Stop it! It’s a waste of time and the information is not reliable. That’s the opinion of Valerie Strauss, education reporter for the Washington Post. Strauss examined the 2018 U.S. News & World Report annual rankings and concludes the relevance of the data-based rankings are questionable. It’s a case of “garbage in, garbage out.” [My words, not hers].In other words, the devil is in the details.

One problem with these rankings is those who do the ranking decide on the criteria to use. It’s hard to imagine schools are on a level playing field with respect to these rankings. Here are the rankings in case you care.

These are the top 10 national universities in the rankings — and notice the many ties:

  1. Princeton University
  2. Harvard University
  3. Columbia University
  4. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  5. University of Chicago
  6. Yale University
  7. Stanford University
  8. Duke University
  9. University of Pennsylvania
  10. Johns Hopkins University
  11. Northwestern University                                                   

And these are the top 10 for national liberal arts colleges:

  1. Williams College
  2. Amherst College
  3. Swarthmore College
  4. Wellesley College
  5. Bowdoin College
  6. Carleton College
  7. Middlebury College
  8. Pomona College
  9. Claremont McKenna College
  10. Davidson College

The criteria used from my point of view fail to consider some of the most important ingredients in judging the worth of a college. For example, how many hours of direct contact exist between  faculty and students. If you go to a college where teaching assistants teach a lot of the mega-size classes, that’s not a good thing. Students need to learn from their professors, many of whom have great knowledge of their field of study.

Another fault, I believe, is it doesn’t (and really can’t) measure work ethic. Do students going to the highest ranked colleges have a strong work ethic upon graduation? Isn’t this a key ingredient in success in life?

Enough said about that. Let’s look at the ranking criteria used by U.S. News:

  1. Graduation Rates (35%). This is in a six year period. Why six years? What ever happened to four years? Might that indicate a stronger work ethic? Maybe not. Maybe the six-year grads worked during their college years so it took six years. No way to measure this important factor.
  2. Faculty Resources (20%). This looks at class size, faculty salary, faculty with the highest degrees in their fields, student-faculty ratio (does this mean teaching faculty or does it include researchers who teach one class a year?). It also includes the proportion of faculty who are full-time. There’s some bias here towards the richest universities but does that make them the best?
  3. Expert Opinion (20%). Supposedly, this is from “top academics.” I consider myself a top academic; no one asked me. Enough said.
  4. Financial Resources (10%). Another benefit for the rich institutions.
  5. Student Excellence (10%). A new part of this ranking is “social-mobility indicators,” Don’t ask.
  6. Alumni Giving (5%). See my comments in items 2 and 4.

If you still need convincing that these ranking are worthless, on January 7 it was announced that Temple University settled a class action lawsuit from students who were outraged to learn that the business school’s top ranking for its online MBA program by U.S. News was based on false data. The university will pay $4 million to those who were students in that program and several other master’s degrees for false and misleading information.

Finally, I have to question what was in the mind of Temple administrators when it created a $5,000 scholarship “for a student who demonstrated interest in the study of ethics who is enrolled in any of the programs that are part of the settlement.” Can they afford the $5,000 with an endowment of $513.6 million as of 2016?

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on January 16, 2019. Visit Steve’s website and sign up for his newsletter. Follow him on Facebook and Like his page.

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What Ever Happened to the Fundamental Value of Academic Integrity?

Having taught at the college level for over 30 years, I thought I had seen it all but along comes hoax scholarship – papers written by academics solely to get publications without regard to the accuracy of statements/facts in these papers. The reality that some of the publications accepted the papers speaks volumes about what’s wrong with the quest for published research under the guise of academic scholarship.

In an expose in The Atlantic, Yascha Mounk, a lecturer on government at Harvard University, reports that it all started in the late 1990s when Alan Sokal, a professor of physics at New York University, began a paper that was published by setting out some of his core beliefs: that there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed humanity as a whole; that these properties are encoded “eternal” physical laws; and that human beings can obtain reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative knowledge of these laws by hewing to the “objective” procedures and epistemological structures prescribes by the (so-called) scientific method.”

Don’t bother reading it again. It’s nonsense.

Sokal went on to “disprove” his credo using somewhat politically correct language: “Feminist and poststructuralist critiques have demystified the substantive content of mainstream Western scientific practice, revealing the ideology of domination concealed behind the façade of ‘objectivity,’” he claimed. “It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical ‘reality,’ no less than social ‘reality,’ is at bottom a social and linguistic construct.”

Sokal’s paper was published in the then-respected academic journal, Social Text. Why, you might ask? My guess is the paper was so confusing and difficult to discern his ideas that the reviewers figured Sokal was the smartest guy in the room and published the paper on that basis.

This became known as the Sokal hoax and critics claimed that postmodern discourse is so meaningless that not even “experts” can distinguish between people who make sincere claims and those who compose deliberate gibberish.

Fast forward to the current where three scholars – James A. Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose, and Peter Boghossain -- wrote 20 fake papers using politically correct language to argue for ridiculous conclusions and tried to get them published in prestige journals in fields including gender studies.

The authors sought to rerun the Sokal hoax so let’s be clear their motivation was not to get unreliable papers published. By the time they reported the hoax publicly, seven of their articles had been accepted for publication. Seven more were still under review and six were rejected.

The issue is not the validation of gender studies/gender study research or any other emerging field of academic research. This can happen anywhere. I once read a paper in accounting where the professor claimed debits do not always equal credits. Huh?

Those in the academy know about the “publish or perish” environment. It creates an incentive to have anything published, regardless of the academic rigor or validity of its claims, in order to move up the ranks to full professor. It also has led to maximizing published research by sending the same paper to two or more journals with the hope of getting more than one “hit.”  I once read several papers of an academic up for tenure that were virtually the same except for different titles.

The pressure to publish has also spawned boutique publishing houses, some of which are connected to academic conferences where if you pay the registration fee and an amount of money to have the paper published in the conference journal, you have another published paper. Most academic institutions see right through this but some do not perhaps because those on the tenure and promotion committee have done the same thing. They don’t want to devalue their own work.

The moral of the story is that it’s become harder to distinguish between what is right and what is wrong in academic research. Honesty and respect for oneself and others has fallen by the waist side much like civility and ethical behavior in our society. People are driven by self-interest, not the truth; carelessness, not due diligence; and they fail to take personal responsibility for their work. They claim the pressure to publish made them do it. This is a far cry from the fundamental value of the academy – academic integrity.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on December 5, 2018. Visit Steve’s website and sign up for his newsletter. Follow him on Facebook and Like his page.

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“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” (Aristotle)

There are many good expressions to use in teaching ethics to college students. I find students remember important points by using expressions; writing them on the board; and discussing them every day so it is etched in their mind that these are ways of being ethical.

Using Quotes to Teach Ethics to College Students

Here are a few of my favorites:

Ethics is about what we do when no one is watching (American author Aldo Leopold).

Goodness is about character – integrity, honesty, kindness, generosity, moral courage, and the like. More than anything else, it is about how we treat other people (American writer, talk show host Dennis Prager).

There is a difference between what we have the right to do and what is right to do is (former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart).

What is wrong is wrong, even if everyone is doing it. Right is still right, even if no one else is doing it (William Penn was the son of Sir William Penn, and was an English nobleman, writer, early Quaker, and founder of the English North American colony the Province of Pennsylvania). 

Day by day, what you choose, what you think and what you do is who you become (Greek philosopher Heraclitus).

Even the most rational approach to ethics is defenseless if there isn't the will to do what is right (Russian Novelist and Nobel Prize Winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn).

We make choices in everyday life that reflect our true character. Our choices say a lot about who we are and what we do. Since the goal in life is to achieve happiness and lead a purpose-driven life, our choices should be ones that guide us in that direction. Through practice making ethical decisions, students can sharpen their ethical sensibilities, strengthen their ethical reasoning skills, commit to acting ethically, and be an ethical person.

Can Ethics Be Taught?

One thing I've noticed during my 30+ years of teaching ethics is some faculty feel uncomfortable doing so. They don't want to seem preachy. They aren't sure ethics can be taught. Well my experience teaching ethics tells me you don't "preach" ethics. Instead you should sensitize students to some of the ethical dilemmas they may face in life; in the workplace; and in their online activities. Second, you can teach ethics. Whether students learn the lesson is less clear. It's just like teaching any subject matter. I can teach psychology but whether students learn it is a matter of working hard and opening their mind to new ideas -- the essence of learning.

Here are some overriding questions about ethics that I ask my students to consider.

  • How far are you willing to go to do the right thing?
  • How much are you willing to sacrifice to do what you believe is right?
  • We may say that we would do the right thing, but when pressures in life and in the workplace exist to do otherwise, how can you summon up the moral courage to follow through with right conduct?

These questions address our moral intentions which the foundation of ethical behavior are. Our moral intentions are the basis of our moral character and commitment to ethical action. If you don’t intend to be ethical, no amount of ethical reasoning will get you to that point.

Building Character

The following quote addresses these issues and is attributed to a variety of people, including former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 2011 movie titled “The Iron Lady.” Meryl Streep speaking as Margaret Thatcher:

“Watch your thoughts for they become words.

Watch your words for they become actions.

Watch your actions for they become habits.

Watch your habits for they become your character.

And watch your character for it becomes your destiny.”

Ethics All the Time

Another misconception is there's a lower bar for ethics in business than in one's personal life. That shouldn't be the case. Ethics is not like a faucet you can turn on and off as you choose. It requires dedication, practice, and a commitment to do what is right all the time. None of us is perfect, missteps will occur. But, an ethical person tries to do the right thing in all circumstances. 

The Hippocratic Oath of physicians is: First, Do No Harm. I’ve heard ethics professors use it to teach ethics. That’s fine but I have a different viewpoint, which is: Do No Harm AND Make Things Better. We’re only on earth for a short time and are ethically obligated not only to improve our lives but the lives of others.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on November 15, 2018. Visit Steve’s website and sign up for the newsletter. Follow him on Facebook and Like his page. And, thanks for reading!!

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