(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2014)
Ethics has become an increasingly import aspect of governance cultures in public and private institutions. Once a principal concern of economic enterprises and governments, universities have sought to inculcate cultures of "ethics" within their operating environment. The intensity of these efforts, like those of other public and private institutions, has intensified as the common cultures that serve to ground an understanding of the nature and character of ethics has fragmented.
But it is precisely because of this fragmentation of the grounding culture that efforts to memorialize the framework of ethical conduct has encountered difficulties. These difficulties sometimes produce ethical codes that may appear as generalized gesture. (e.g., University of Illinois Code of Conduct). They invariably are reduced to short hortatory statements that are sometimes burdened with double duty as mandatory rule (a role to which they are ill suited). In either guise, these codes sometimes may produce either traps for the unwary or appear to impose radical new obligations that may produce cultures of mandatory mutual spying rather than ethical cultures among the affected university stakeholders.
Many times these efforts are generated as a response to outside pressure--from regulators, governments or as a result of scandal that suggests some sort of moral failure among employees, athletics staff, administrators or trustees. Often times the determination to proceed with these efforts as well as the drafting and management of its development is conducted by administrators, either through administrative staffs or under cover of a committee well larded by individuals who are described as "representatives" of most of the important sectors of university stakeholders. Often, institutional representative organs, like a faculty senate, are given a brief and pro forma opportunity to comment on wording only after the Code is ready for imposition, an opportunity that is expected to produce no substantive change and timed to make it virtually impossible for effective consultation on the embrace of the policy or the premises for the construction of the Code in the first place. Still, even this nod ion the direction of engagement ought to be gratefully received with hopes that a more effective relationship might emerge--in the future.
This post considers a generalized "typical" product of this next generation "Code of Responsible Conduct". It suggests that Codes of this type, reversed engineered int he sense that they are generated in the usual case in what might be understood to be hermetically sealed environments in which inputs are carefully screened o conform to the expectations of the form of the final product, may create some substantial traps for the unwary and provide a wide space for discretionary discipline which in the hands of unethical administrators can be used as a cover to punish faculty and staff (and lower tiered administrators) indirectly. This is most likely with respect to Codes that impose a positive obligation to report "wrongdoing." This is not to suggest that hortatory Codes are wasted efforts--indeed the opposite is true. But the analysis that follows suggests that Codes that purport to add a mandatory element may prove more troublesome than helpful, even in the short run.