Monday, January 18, 2016

Leading by Example--Ethical Decision Making at Penn State; Guiding Questions and High Level Decision Making at the University

The President of Penn State University has recently and quite publicly announced an embrace of a final version of what is called the Penn State Values. There is no doubt that the entire university community applauds the culmination of what this senior administrator has described as a complex four year progress producing a document, and its values, which, though merely "aspirational in nature" are meant to "guide our actions and decisions as members of the Penn State community".   

The university president encourages everyone "to use and incorporate the Penn State Values in their activities, planning and discussions" for which it has developed toolkits, an ethical decision making model, and a set of guiding questions. The Penn State community is promised examples of the application of these values gleaned from what were called Town Hall meetings and will recognize ethical model citizens from among the university community. 

Most important, perhaps, the university president noted that these Penn State Values now form part of the core of "the recently approved University strategic plan, which is currently being implemented." And plans are in the works to "further integrate" these aspirational values "more fully into University life at all levels." 

This post considers this valuable exercise and considers its application to the working lives of senior leadership.  In a university, like other leading American public universities, in which senior leadership ought to be committed to leading by example in a transparent way that enhances accountability, Penn State values culture might provide a useful mechanism for better decision making at the highest levels of administrative life. 

(Ethical Decision Making guiding questions)

1. The Guiding Questions and Ethical Decision Making Model provide an excellent template for high level decision making, especially with respect to decisions that profoundly touch on important policy--benefits; character of faculty hires; budget; athletics and the like.  It might be useful to consider whether application of these tools ought to be made mandatory for decisions central to university life.

2.  Whether or not mandatory, the use of the Guiding Questions provide a useful framework within which shared governance might be better implemented. For example, the significant changes to benefits policies that the Penn State University has been embracing might be most usefully justified and engaged with from the perspective of these Guiding Questions--yet that exercise remains to be undertaken.

3.  Decision making through the Guiding Questions framework cannot be done in secret.  It is the essence of the value of ethical decision making for such decision processes to be undertaken in a transparent way.  In the absence of that there can be little hope for the sort of engagement that inevitably leads to better decision making and, importantly for senior administrators--ones that can be more easily socialized within a subject population. 

4.  There is no reason that shared governance institutions, like the University Faculty Senate or other groups, cannot make use of these Guiding Questions and the Ethical Decision Making Model to test and review senior decision making.  And this should be undertaken transparently and publicly.

5.  Reports justifying senior administrative decisions put to the Board of Trustees for approval ought to be accompanied by a well reasoned engagement with these Guiding Questions. That itself might provide a better basis for Board of Trustee oversight and administrator accountability. 

6.  It is regrettable that, with the announcement of these project, that senior administrators have not taken the opportunity to lead by example--by showing how at the senior level administrators have taken these aspirational projects seriously enough to mold their own conduct strictly to its structures. 

 7.  Now might be an appropriate moment for senior administrators to review its own recent programs and decisions in light of these Guiding Questions. That exercise would serve as a template for the lower level employees to help them understand the worth of Penn State Values at its highest levels and to adjuyst their conduct accordingly.

8.  Lastly, it is ethically important that, if a conduct code is rolled out as aspirational, it must not be used as a tool for employee review and assessment unless and until it is robustly and transparently used to that purpose for senior level administrators--first. Otherwise one might wonder whether the embrace of this model is itself ethical.

Ethics should not be a stick with which to beat subordinate level employees into conduct norms that are not as deeply and effectively embedded in and applied to the highest level administrative officials.  To do otherwise is to make a mockery of the process and to expose it to what it surely cannot be--the establishment of dual track ethics, one for lower level employees and one for administrators.  

Nor should exercises in institutional ethics making serve as a  means of policing the ethical lives of individuals, at whatever level they serve, in their lives beyond the university.  The fact that one engages in a worthy profession at the university does not mean that one must give up deeply held personal ethical codes in all aspects of one's life. Nor does it mean that the university--as an ethical matter--ought to transform itself into the institution that controls the lives of its employees  beyond that necessary to define the relationships between the individual and the institution.

Well implemented--and from the top--there is no doubt that any effort to inculcate appropriate and sensitively applied systems of business ethics to the life of the university ought to be welcome.

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