Right, wrong and gray
Broadly defined, ethics are understood to be the moral principles that shape a society’s rules of conduct. But societal structures in a bottom-line world can complicate an individual’s value system. Susan R. Madsen, Ed.D., a Professor of Management in the Woodbury School of Business and the Orin R. Woodbury Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Utah Valley University, has seen some of her MBA students wrestle with ethical concepts.
Steven Ouellette, an instructor at the University of Colorado Engineering Management program, writes of such scenarios in his 2009 article “Morals? Ethics? The Law?” in the online publication Quality Digest. He proposes a dilemma in which an employee is aware his or her company has consciously sold a defective, potentially harmful product to a customer.
While some of Madsen’s students might argue that the employee’s loyalty to their company should trump any urge to warn the customer, Ouellette writes that informing the customer is the ethical course of action.
Socially acceptable?“Often there aren’t clear cut right and wrong answers,” Madsen says. “But sometimes I push back at my MBAs and say that sometimes it really is black-and-white. There are some things people do that may not be illegal, but they’re just not right, and when you know the majority of the population would say ‘That’s not right,’ you shouldn’t try to justify it.”
Understandably, students today might feel disconnected from a strict ethical code. They need only look at the actions of leading business and political figures, including executives at Enron Corporation, Ponzi scheme operator Bernie Madoff and impeached Governor of Illinois Rod Blagojevich. And let’s not forget celebrities like Kim Kardashian, a woman guesstimated to have raked in $18 million for a 72-day marriage many say was all for the cameras.
“That kind of behavior is socially accepted among students. Their rationale is ‘everybody does it.’ And then they look outside their peer group at politicians, doctors and lawyers—all these people giving lip service to ethical behavior who are cheating—so why not? Why shouldn’t they as well?” says April Cognato, Ph.D., Assistant Professor in the Department of Zoology at Michigan State University. “It’s not about the ethical high ground; it’s about the almighty dollar and success.”
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Codes of conduct: Accessible? Yes. Read? Maybe.
Universities each have ethical guidelines for faculty and students, usually available in their respective handbooks. “As faculty, you’re put into a mentorship program that is very hands-on quality-reviewed,” explains University of Phoenix faculty member Bruce Johnson, Ph.D., College Of Humanities. “We’re all taught the Student Code of Conduct. The issue of plagiarism is discussed with students in their workshops and entry-point classes.” He notes that University of Phoenix faculty members become well-versed in classroom ethics via training.
Others feel that although such codes are easily accessible, their language is alienating. “The [MSU] Student Handbook looks like a legal document. The student is never going to read that,” says Cognato of Michigan State. “And from a faculty perspective, I’m always hard-pressed to find what I’m looking for when dealing with issues of academic integrity. I have to call the ombudsman all the time and ask, ‘What is the policy on this side and the other?’ MSU is not an exception. These policies are in place and it’s just assumed students and faculty will read them.”
Dealing with ethical infractions
The scale of consequences for code infractions varies by institution. On the whole, faculty are responsible for reporting student code violations to bodies such as the dean’s office or academic affairs, which often will determine consequences. Depending on the severity and circumstances, transgressions such as cheating or plagiarism can warrant repercussions including a warning, a failing mark on an assignment, a dismissal from the program, and, in the most extreme cases, expulsion from the university.
A rise in violations has increased instructors’ own ethical dilemmas: do they report all these perpetrators or not? “The institution might have sanctions you should follow, but faculty members often don’t want to deal with the process so they turn their head,” says Utah Valley’s Madsen. “Many of them say ‘I don’t want to have to deal with this so we’ll just let it slide this time.’ I would say that ethical faculty members must step up and deal with these issues, yet I’ve found many don’t want to analyze or discuss their own ethical behaviors.”
High school foundations
Research indicates that while most high school students understand what constitutes cheating, that doesn’t always stop them from doing it. A 2010 study from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln authored by Kenneth Kiewra, Kelly Honz and Ya-Shu Yang shows that while 89 percent of high school students surveyed agreed that looking at someone else’s answer during a test was cheating, 87 percent admitted to having done it.
But in other situations students often do not understand that they are acting unethically. Kacie McCollum, Ed.D., associate dean with the College of Humanities at University of Phoenix, feels that many high school graduates are simply not able to absorb written codes of conduct. “They often don’t have the reading comprehension to help them figure out what to do in an ethical dilemma,” she explains. “And if you don’t have that level of comprehension by the end of high school, then you’re not college-ready, and that’s pretty scary. But our role as instructors—whether in high school or university—is to educate, and where someone might not be prepared, it’s for us to help them become prepared.”
Ethics in the Digital Age
In the recent study The Digital Revolution and Higher Education by Kim Parker, Amanda Lenhart and Kathleen Moore for the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 55 percent of college presidents surveyed noted an increase in plagiarism in the past 10 years, and 89 percent of those attributed the Internet as a major factor. It has become temptingly simple to cut and paste content from a website, if not purchase essays and exam answers outright.
“The longer a course is taught and the longer a school has been in existence gives paper mills and other websites a better chance to accumulate assignments and information about the course,” says University of Phoenix’s Johnson. “I can now type a course number in a search engine and find websites that will sell papers for that course. This happens with on-ground students, but it’s more so for online.”
The way today’s digital-native students are taught and the way they research have created a new information value system. “These students really don’t understand what it’s like to have to go to a library and pick up a book,” says Michigan State’s Cognato. “The first place they go for information is the Internet. But when information is online there is a distance placed between it and the student—and an even greater distance when a student is not physically with others in a classroom. There seems to be a greater incidence of plagiarism from Internet sources in distance learning because the student feels removed by a couple of degrees from accountability.”
Academia and the business world
Institutions of higher education have traditionally been viewed as existing apart from the work world. But given recent corporate controversies, the public can’t help but consider the link between the ethics of business-school grads and those of some high-ranked executives. The widely reported results of a 2006 study for Duke University’s Center for Academic Integrity revealed that 56 percent of MBA students surveyed admitted to cheating—tops among U.S. graduate students.
“Many students separate their ethical behaviors in the college setting versus what they think their ethical behaviors in the workplace will be,” says Madsen. “You cut corners. You plagiarize because it saves you time. If you’re going to engage in these kinds of behaviors as a college student, why would you suddenly change? They become habit. Do you really think you’re not going to do that in the workplace?” Richard Holloway, JD, Program Director of Criminal Justice at Colorado Technical University, notes his school has a strong online learning component and an average student age in the thirties. Holloway feels this makes a difference in terms of students’ grasp of issues such as plagiarism. “They’ve been out in the workforce for some time, so this is a topic that could be very far removed—if it was, in fact, ever addressed at their high school—and they may not remember much,” Holloway says. But countering that, he adds, is their life experience. “There are a lot of contexts in which giving credit where credit is due can be important to someone in the work world. Even if they don’t know specifics on plagiarism, many older students are better prepared, and that comes with maturity.”
“There are a lot of contexts in which giving credit where credit is due can be important to someone in the work world. Even if they don’t know specifics on plagiarism, many older students are better prepared, and that comes with maturity.”
—Richard Holloway, JD, Program Director, Colorado Technical University
New approaches to an age-old issue
Academic dishonesty has been a problem as long as there have been exams, and the willingness of certain students to take that ethically wrong path will always exist. But there are various approaches institutions can take to stem the growing trend. One is more stringent exam proctoring, especially in distance learning. For example, the Software Secure solution insures the right student is taking the test through fingerprint and photo authentication. A 360-degree camera records the entire room where the student is writing the exam, and the students’ desktop is digitally locked down.
An alternative to stricter policing is to rethink the nature of students’ assignments. “If we write assignments where they can just go to the book and copy the answer, it’s easier for them to fall prey to accidental plagiarism if not intentional plagiarism,” says Walden’s Keen. “It’s important to design discussion questions so that students have to analyze what they’ve read in light of what they’ve experienced in life. This is the classic approach to keeping students from plagiarizing, and it’s a better cognitive activity for them.”
Reinforcing ethics: worth the effort
Faculty members, Keen adds, have a huge role to play in helping their students find that moral compass. “Ethical development comes from settings designed to encourage students to reflect on their own, with each other and their instructors—formally and informally—about questions that matter very deeply to them. You want your students to develop as fully as possible and not just walk away from a class with the content knowledge you offer,” says Keen. “It doesn’t mean colleges should be imparting values, but rather supporting the exploration of values and individual discernment of what will be driving students’ personal and professional choices.”
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