Sunday, May 17, 2015

Do University Administrators Have an Ethical Obligation in Developing and Defending Decisions on Benefits?

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2015)

The first decades of the 21st century has seen the rise of ethics as an important tool for university governance.   These serve both as guiding principles for conduct and as rules, the violation of which may indicate more serious breach.  

Indiana University, a respected member of the CIC (Committee on Institutional Cooperation) provides an example of the approach state and state assisted universities have come to embrace respecting the application of ethics to the conduct of university personnel. See Indiana University, Principles of Ethical Conduct (the "Ethics Principles"). Unlike other CIC universities, Indiana University sought and obtained the approval of the relevant university faculty governance institution before final approval by the Indiana University Board of Trustees. And that, perhaps, marks the ethical practices of Indiana University beyond the words of the Ethics Principles themselves, in the sense that they appear to practice what they preach. 

This post considers briefly the contours of Indiana's Ethics Principles as an exemplar, and then attempts to apply it to sketch out the boundaries of ethical conduct that may constrain administrators when they  seek to develop and defend decisions related to university benefits for employees. To that end a hypothetical is considered.  The discussion may be useful to other CIC institutions considering ethics principles--Penn State University, Ohio State University, Rutgers, etc.

Indiana's Ethics Principles apply to all "Community Members," defined to include

a. Members of the Board of Trustees;
b. Any employee of the University, including administrators, faculty, staff, temporary, and student employees;
c. Any individual using Indiana University resources or facilities or receiving funds administered by Indiana University; and
d. Volunteers and other representatives when speaking or acting on behalf of Indiana University. (Ethics Principles § 1 Scope).
They are presented as "high level statement of values and expectations at Indiana University. The Principles themselves do not create additional or different rights or duties; rather, they help to promote an organizational culture that encourages ethical conduct and a commitment to compliance with the law and University codes, policies, and procedures." (Ibid.). As such, they do not create new rules, they frame the rule system already in place, and provide a structure for interpreting and applying those rules to Community Members, including administrators of every rank.

The Guiding Principles of the Ethics Principles are organized around 10 values:

a. Excellence and innovation;
b. Discovery and the search for truth;
c. Diversity of community and ideas;
d. Respect for the dignity of others;
e. Integrity;
f. Academic freedom;
g. Stewardship and accountability for resources and relationships;
h. Sharing knowledge in a learning environment;
i. Application of knowledge and discovery to advance the quality of life and economy of the state, region, and the world; and
j. Service as an institution of higher-learning to Indiana, the nation, and the world. (Ibid., Section II, § 1 Guiding Principles, Values).
 These values are to be advanced in "carrying out the research, teaching, and public service mission of Indiana University." (Ibid.). Advancement of the Ethical Principles likewise compels a commitment to the highest standards of ethics and integrity.  These then have a significant relationship to the legal and regulatory obligations of Community Members. "The standards of conduct in these Principles, supported through policies, procedures, and workplace rules, provide guidance for making decisions and memorialize Indiana University’s commitment to ethical conduct and behavior." (Ibid., § 2 (Commitment to These Principles).  Section III of the Ethics Principles then elaborates on each of the 10 core values, not as ideals but as standards of conduct. The standards of conduct are set out below.

Now let us consider how these Ethical Principles might apply to constrain the conduct of administrators in a fairly common circumstance--the development and defense of benefits policies and decisions.  To that end let us consider a hypothetical problem:

Assume that the Provost, the Executive Vice President of Finance and the Vice President of Human Resources of State U have determined that they will seek to substantially reduce the university's costs of benefits. The decision was based on a weighing, by them, of the relative "costs" of alternative reduction schemes and they determined, in their judgment, to follow this one. There was substantial opposition both to the policy choice and to the means chosen to implement it. In the midst of this controversy, the Provost addressed a meeting of the university faculty governance organization. In those remarks he told them that State U was assuming that healthcare costs would rise 8% each and every year. That figure was based on reports received by an outside consultant firm that State U had retained for purposes of overseeing the policy of reducing benefit costs. It was not clear how Consultant Firm derived that number, nor were administration officials inclined to challenge that assumption, at least publicly.

As it turned out, it was also reported that other nationally prominent health insurance providers and consultants publicly predicted, and based their own pricing for the current year, on assumptions that private health insurance premiums were projected to grow 6.8 percent, largely a result of higher per-enrollee spending and increased insurance coverage through the health law’s online marketplaces, or exchanges, and individually purchased insurance. For future years, they projected that average premium growth for private health insurance would increase 5.4 percent per year."

If national consensus projections are correct, then State U's consultant would be overstating the health insurance growth by almost 50%. While that would make it easier to justify the proposed changes to State U's benefit programs, it is not clear that the protections are justified. To what extent are State U administrators ethically obligated to disclose these differences in projections and justify their choice of projections, a choice with significant consequences for faculty, staff and students?  Was there an ethical obligation to present the benefits proposals differently?  What ought to be the consequences for administrators whose conduct appears ot violate the Ethics Principles?

Let's take these one at a time.

To what extent are State U administrators ethically obligated to disclose these differences in projections and justify their choice of projections, a choice with significant consequences for faculty, staff and students?

The action might well constitute a violation of the Ethics Principles. The administrators would have  to communicate "ethical standards of conduct through instruction and example." (Ethics Principles, Section III, ¶ 1.d). They might also, depending on their motives and the degree of knowledge or reckless disregard of reasonable information gathering, also have failed to "Speak candidly and truthfully." (Ibid., § 2.b.). Moreover, it is not clear that such activity constitutes the sort of responsible management contemplated in §3 (especially §3.e, to "Promote a healthy, innovative, and productive atmosphere that encourages discussion and is responsive to concerns." ). 

It is clear that the consultant's projections serve the purposes of advancing policy that administrators would like to implement.  At the same time, it is also clear that those projections might be substantial higher than justifiable.  There is a difficult ethical question here.  While administrators could justify using the consultant's numbers they have paid for, it is also clear that to do so might, at the most innocent be negligent, but could also be characterized not just as reckless but as bad faith.  The reason the actions might be in bad faith is because there is a deliberate attempt to use information in furtherance of a decision already made and to pass that off as justified by something that might seem like neutral data.   At a minimum, full disclosure might have been the most ethical action--the administration might have been open about the projections they chose and why. Sharp practice, and manipulation in the service of policy is not ethical.  And, of course, it does little to inspire confidence, either in the ethical character of administrators or in the commitment to shared governance.  Rather, it appears that consultation, to the extent it is invoked, is just another means of managing expectations, and socialization of workers.

Was there an ethical obligation to present the benefits proposals differently? 

If the Ethics Principles are robustly applied, then it is likely that the answer here is yes as well. How might the ethical administrator present information to Community Members in an ethical way?  That is fairly clear--the ethical administrator would produce both the results proposed by their consulting firm as well as the data otherwise used in the community.  The information might then have been presented in the form of a range of results dependent on the forecast for benefit expense growth, form best top worst case.  And then an argument could be made about which scenario it might be most prudent for the university to embrace. That action, quite common in business, appears wholly absent from the hypothetical and is itself another indication of the potential bad faith that may underlie administrative actin. Note, as well, how simple it would be for administrators to move from ethical to unethical action--the mere inclusion of a range of projections itself solves the ethical dilemma posed in the hypothetical.  Lamentably, many administrators fail to understand the ethical dimension of their action when they seek to manage expectation by a strategic deployment of facts in favor of the preferred policy.  But that, as we have seen, is fundamentally unethical.

What ought to be the consequences for administrators whose conduct appears to violate the Ethics Principles?

This is a most difficult question.  Universities tend to focus on disciplining the unethical faculty or staff member.  They tend to assume that the issue only rarely arises among administrators or board members.  Yet, there is no reason to think that any of the various classes of stakeholders making up the Community Members would be any more or less prone to ethical breaches.  Indeed, given the nature of their responsibility--and the substantially absent monitoring oversight and accountability mechanisms for higher level administrators, it would seem that ethical standards ought to apply with greater force among administrators than other classes of university stakeholders. That does not mean that breaches of Ethical Principles ought to constitute termination offenses.  Rather a rule fo proportionality, combined with a rule fo harm ought to apply.  In the context of our hypothetical, the remedy should target fixing the problem the ethical lapse produced.  In this case that would go to the unethical determination of benefits policies.  The breaching administrators ought to acknowledge their ethical lapse and produce an approach to resolving the issue in a way that meets ethical behavior standards--with oversight and monitoring both by the board of trustees and the faculty governance organization. 

The issues are important not just at Indiana University but at other universities with similar ethical structures. Consider for example that Penn State University has moved in a similar direction to Indiana University.  It too has developed a set of ethical principles:

Penn State Values

Among the major outcomes of the Penn State Values and Culture Survey released last September is the creation of a draft statement of core values for the University. Called the Penn State Values, the list directly represents the feedback of students, faculty and staff at all Penn State locations.

The draft values are:

INTEGRITY: We act with integrity in accordance with the highest academic, professional, and ethical standards.

RESPECT: We respect and honor the dignity of each person, embrace civil discourse, and foster a diverse and inclusive community.

RESPONSIBILITY: We act responsibly and hold ourselves accountable for our decisions, actions, and their consequences.

DISCOVERY: We seek and create new knowledge and understanding, and foster creativity and innovation, for the benefit of our communities, society, and the environment.

EXCELLENCE: We strive for excellence in all our endeavors as individuals, an institution, and a leader in higher education.

COMMUNITY: We are Penn State, one University geographically dispersed, committed to our common values and mission, working together for the betterment of the University and the communities we serve and to which we belong.
Universities considering ethics principles ought to keep these ideas firmly in mind as they devise principles and as they seek to target where ethics leadership by example would do the most good.


Indiana University
Ethics Principles
Section III--Standards of Conduct

Indiana University holds itself and Community Members to the following standards of conduct:
§ 1 — Act Ethically and with Integrity.
Ethical conduct is a fundamental expectation for every Community Member of Indiana University. In practicing and modeling ethical conduct, Community Members are expected to:
  1. Act according to the highest ethical and professional standards of conduct;
  2. Be personally accountable for individual actions;
  3. Conscientiously fulfill obligations toward students, advisees, colleagues, and the public in performing duties as part of the University community; and
  4. Communicate ethical standards of conduct through instruction and example.
§ 2 — Be Fair and Respectful to Others.
Indiana University is committed to inclusion, tolerance, diversity, and respect for differences. When dealing with others, Community Members are expected to:
  1. Be respectful, fair, and civil;
  2. Speak candidly and truthfully;
  3. Respect and defend the free inquiry of associates, even when it leads to findings and conclusions that differ from their own;
  4. Strive to be objective in their professional judgment of colleagues;
  5. Avoid all forms of harassment, discrimination, threats, or violence;
  6. Provide and promote equal access to programs, facilities, and employment;
  7. Accept their share of responsibility for the governance of their institution;
  8. Acknowledge and in good faith follow direction from those to whom they report; and
  9. Promote conflict resolution.
§ 3 — Manage Responsibly.
Indiana University entrusts Community Members who supervise or instruct employees or students with significant responsibility. Managers, supervisors, instructors, and advisors are expected to:
  1. Ensure access to and delivery of proper training and guidance on applicable workplace and educational rules, laws, policies, and procedures, as well as these Principles;
  2. Ensure compliance with applicable laws, policies, procedures and workplace rules;
  3. Review performance conscientiously and impartially;
  4. Foster intellectual growth and professional development; and
  5. Promote a healthy, innovative, and productive atmosphere that encourages discussion and is responsive to concerns.
§ 4 — Protect and Preserve University Resources.
Indiana University is dedicated to responsible stewardship. Community Members are expected to:
  1. Use all University property, including equipment, finances, materials, electronic and other systems, information, and other University resources only for legitimate University purposes and in accordance with University policies;
  2. Not harm University property;
  3. Prevent waste and abuse;
  4. Promote efficient operations;
  5. Follow sound financial practices, including accurate financial reporting, processes to protect assets, and responsible fiscal management and internal controls; and
  6. Engage in appropriate accounting and monitoring.
§ 5 — Promote a Culture of Compliance with Applicable Laws, Regulations, and Policies.
Indiana University is committed to meeting legal requirements and to fostering a culture of ethics and compliance.
A. Expectations — Community Members are expected to:
  1. Learn and follow applicable laws, regulations, contracts, environmental health and safety policies, and all Indiana University policies and procedures applicable to their University duties and responsibilities;
  2. Be proactive to prevent and detect any compliance violations or noncompliant activities;
  3. Report violations or noncompliance to supervisors or other University officials with the assurance that Indiana University policy prohibits retaliation against anyone who does so in good faith; and
  4. Ensure that reports of violations within their area of responsibility are properly resolved, including disclosure to sponsors or other state or federal authorities as appropriate.
B. Prohibition — Community Members are prohibited from:
  1. Willfully violating applicable laws, regulations, and policies; and
  2. Retaliating against another Community Member for reporting a suspected compliance violation.
§ 6 — Preserve Academic Freedom and Meet Academic Responsibilities.
Academic freedom is essential to achieving Indiana University’s mission. Community Members are expected to:
  1. Promote academic freedom, including the freedom to discuss all relevant matters in the classroom;
  2. Explore all avenues of scholarship, research, and creative expression;
  3. Meet academic responsibilities to seek and state the truth as they see it;
  4. Develop and maintain their scholarly competence;
  5. Foster and defend intellectual honesty, and freedom of inquiry and instruction;
  6. In the exchange of criticism and ideas, show respect for those with differing views and allow others to express their views;
  7. Submit their knowledge and claims to peer review;
  8. Work together to foster the education of students;
  9. Speak or write as a public citizen without institutional restraint or discipline; and
  10. Acknowledge when they are not speaking for the institution.
§ 7 — Ethically Conduct Teaching and Research.
Indiana University researchers have an ethical obligation to the University and to the larger global community as they seek knowledge and understanding. Community Members are expected to:
  1. Propose, conduct, and report research with integrity and honesty;
  2. Protect people and humanely treat animals involved in research or teaching;
  3. Learn, follow, and demonstrate accountability for meeting and ensuring compliance with the requirements of sponsors, regulatory bodies, and other applicable entities;
  4. Faithfully describe and transmit research data and findings;
  5. Protect rights to individual and University intellectual property;
  6. Ensure originality of work, provide credit for the ideas of others upon which their work is built, and be responsible for the accuracy and fairness of information published; and
  7. Fairly assign authorship credit on the basis of an appropriate array of significant intellectual contributions, including: conception, design, and performance; analysis and interpretation; and manuscript preparation and critical editing for intellectual content.
§ 8 — Refrain from Conflicts of Interest and Commitment.
Indiana University is an institution of public trust. Community Members have an obligation to be objective and impartial in making decisions on behalf of the University.
To ensure this objectivity, Community Members are expected to:
  1. Prevent individual or institutional conflicts of commitment in their assigned duties for the University;
  2. Disclose potential conflicts of interest and adhere to any requirements created to manage or eliminate any conflicts of interest;
  3. Ensure personal relationships do not interfere with objective judgment in decisions affecting University employment or the academic progress of a Community Member or a student; and
  4. Ensure their assigned duties for the University receive their full effort, attention, and commitment.
§ 9 — Carefully Manage Public, Private, and Confidential Information.
Indiana University Community Members are the creators and custodians of many types of information. The public right to access and the individual’s right to privacy are both governed by laws and University policies. To meet these responsibilities, Community Members are expected to:
  1. Learn and follow laws and Indiana University policies and agreements regarding access, use, protection, disclosure, retention, and disposal of public, private, and confidential information;
  2. Follow document preservation, retention, and destruction guidelines; and
  3. Maintain data security using electronic and physical safeguards.
§ 10 — Promote Health and Safety in the Workplace.
Indiana University Community Members have a shared responsibility to ensure a safe, secure, and healthy environment for all students, faculty, staff, volunteers, and visitors. Community Members are expected to:
  1. Follow safe workplace practices, including participating in applicable education sessions, using appropriate personal safety equipment, and reporting accidents, injuries, and unsafe situations;
  2. Maintain security, including securing University assets and facilities;
  3. Report suspicious activities and suspected abuse;
  4. Protect the environment, including learning and following applicable health and safety policies and protocol, and carefully handling hazardous waste and other potentially harmful agents, materials, or conditions; and
  5. Protect the health of others and themselves by not smoking or using tobacco on campus, and maintaining a substance-free workplace.
(Approved by the University Faculty Council October 29, 2013, Approved by the Board of Trustees December 5, 2013)

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