Ethics and morality suffer

Universities should act as role models for sound governance and promote the development of moral standards in society as part of their central mandate. Yet South African universities have slowly abdicated their role of influencing moral behaviour in society.

They comply with legislation and higher education policy but fall short of addressing those less easy to articulate and often subtle practices that render espoused values meaningless. This omission sets a poor example to students who pass through these institutions.

One of the overt symptoms of something going wrong is the extent of dishonesty in society. Unethical business practices continue to grow. Ethical employees are crucial for the development of ethical organisational cultures. Universities are the most readily available source from which such employees are recruited. Accordingly, the current levels of corruption reflect the diminished influence of universities in society.

A strong correlation exists between student misconduct and later unethical behaviour in business. Locally and internationally there is a growth in student academic dishonesty such as cheating during tests, plagiarising, buying assignment papers, falsifying data, using fraudulent excuses and having others write term papers and examinations. Universities themselves may be complicit in facilitating such behaviour.

Studies indicate a lack of academic enforcement of integrity policies and codes, with the checking of student dishonesty being regarded as too time-consuming and a career threat in terms of lower student ratings.

Institutions avoid confronting student academic dishonesty for fear of the risk to reputation that might affect enrolment and private sector funding.

Direct transgressions by academics are commonplace in South Africa and internationally, as witnessed by academics being stripped of their degrees for plagiarism and other acts of academic dishonesty. Faculty dishonesty directly affects the ethical behaviour of students and is empirically linked to student dishonesty.

Areas of gross transgressions on the part of academic staff, such as data manipulation and overt race and gender discrimination, should be easy to address. But the more subtle transgressions that have a direct effect on governance are often disguised within university culture and its structures and systems.

A university’s culture fundamentally determines the behaviour of members of staff as well as its governance and decision-making. The ethical climate of a university has a direct impact on student behaviour.

Defining corporate governance is generally difficult, all the more so when the concept is extended to hybrid and complex institutions such as universities. In South Africa the Council for Higher Education notes that governance in universities involves “ensuring the efficiency of institutions to deliver with regard to teaching and research output to benefit society at large”.

There is an accepted blinkered concept of governance in universities—an adherence to legislated practices and structural processes, a necessary condition for the smooth functioning of universities and the governance within them, but not a sufficient condition for all-embracing governance.

Governance in universities has shifted over the decades from the “collegial model” evident at the earliest universities to the “new managerialism model”. Universities approximate corporate institutions, where a culture of results as opposed to a culture of values is often the norm, and where institutional values and integrity are often lost, as manifested in the reduction of knowledge to a commodity, in externally dictated research agendas, in the loss of the “lonely and extravagant thinker”, in the rise of career administrators and in competition between employees for financial rewards and “corporate” status.

In a quest to compensate for low salaries universities tend to permit their academics to supplement income through consulting and contract research. In addition, to address financial pressures, universities have also introduced revenue-generating executive education activities with few guidelines to govern their practices or the transparency of such operations in the interests of all stakeholders. This has resulted in favouritism in teaching allocations and the de-prioritisation of mainstream academic work—research and teaching. A two-tier academic system is promoted in which favoured staff, who contribute less to the development of the university, are remunerated more handsomely than those who take their formal teaching and research responsibilities seriously.

Often no action is taken against academics and administrators who use the system for personal gain and transgressions are overlooked as the university derives significant revenue from such operations.

Other passive practices that challenge sound governance are embedded within organisational culture, such as the documented harassment and aggression sometimes perpetrated within universities, leading to the breakdown of collegiality. The humiliation and marginalisation of high-achieving academics is common. Frequently young academics are left to “sink or swim”. Challenging authority in universities may lead to retribution, career damage and marginalisation, regardless of work quality. Systems are not in place for a junior faculty to challenge senior faculty when members close ranks against such whistle-blowers.

In South Africa suppressed subtle racism has surfaced at many institutions as open conflict, such as that symbolised in periodic student unrest. It is not uncommon that academics, “different” to the norm in terms of race, culture or language, are subtly excluded from the “inner circle”, leading them to seek alternative employment.

It is not uncommon that hostile cultures are perpetrated by “untouchable” tenured professors and senior academics for whom “collegiality” is no longer a term that characterises relationships within departments. Researchers have referred to these practices as the “dark side” of academia and a “passive evil”, where colleagues, through inaction and the sacrificing of higher-order moral principle, support such acts.

What is essential is academic leadership that promotes the development of an organisational culture in which internal ethical behaviour, both of the institution as a whole and of its members, leads to comprehensive governance and institutional practices that are an example of the values and attitudes conveyed to students.

Universities should be role models and so the development of institutional “moral responsibility” is critical. Moral responsibility is founded in institutional integrity or what an institution’s moral commitments ought to be, what it ought to value and to which it ought to be committed.

Current practices need to be debated against a background of the values of honesty, trust, fairness, respect and responsibility to develop organisational cultures that promote collegiality, a common understanding of university culture and the academic “ethic”.

Ideally, the organisation of a university is based on communities of academics united by the same ideals which advance the quest for truth and knowledge by requiring intellectual and personal honesty in teaching, research and service. By default, such action demands adherence to a renewed responsibility for internal self-governance that must emanate from academics themselves.

Confronting difficult questions can contribute to the development of institutional moral competence and institutional culture, carefully crafted by leadership, leading to the translation of institutional values into governance practices that are evident in the attitudes and behaviours of the institution.

This will create an environment of integrity that provides a context for students who later have the potential to influence society.

Thomas is professor of management at the University of Johannesburg

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