Facing up to the C word – corruption in higher education

Higher standards. shutterstock

By definition, corruption is any type of deviation from an ideal. Ideals, as well as ideas, are core business for higher education. So when we fall short it matters.

Reputation is becoming ever more important to universities, who keenly watch how they and their peers perform in lists such as the Times Higher Education’s World Reputation Rankings. Universities strive to behave well: to be, as former Harvard President Derek Bok put it, “ethical beacons” in their communities. However, they can, and do fall below this high standard in big, middling and smaller ways.

Corruption proper

All around the world, there is evidence that universities can behave badly in big ways.

These are often connected with a wider context – especially political – that is demonstrably corrupt. Examples are complicity with ethnic cleansing, religious and other forms of discrimination, and promotion of partisan political priorities and policies.

In many circumstances, those responsible inside the university plead force majeure. An example would be Malaysia’s New Economic Policy (NEP), which has privileged ethnic Malay over Chinese and other entrants since 1971. Institutions can find it hard to maintain their ethical compass in the face of pressures relating to funding, both public and private.

There are also other pressures on participation – not only who gets in as a student but also who gets the jobs – and issues around the “right people”, including dominant ethnic and/or economic groups. As Michael Daxner and others have argued, it seems that universities operate more ethically when they are at some distance from the state but in tune with civil society.

Scholarly integrity

In an intermediate zone are all sorts of questions about scholarly integrity.

The siren call of business sponsorship operates here. A recent spotlight is on medical academics putting their names to articles ghost-written by drugs companies.

Another concern centres on fund-raising. When there is money on the table – or even the whiff of money around the corner – institutions can lose their ability to make sound collective judgements. A recent example is the treatment by the London School of Economics (LSE) of the doctoral candidacy of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the deposed Libyan leader.

LSE got into hot water over its relationship with Saif al-Islam Gaddafi. Sean Dempsey/PA Archive

Several elements came together here: domestic political pressure, the prospect (and the delivery) of lucrative contracts, the use by a high-profile student of external consultants in the preparation of a thesis, and concerns about the standards set in a doctoral examination.

An increasingly sensitive area is marketing and the promotion of both institutions and courses, where the UK sector is just waiting for a high-profile “mis-selling” case to be brought.

Meanwhile, there are two other especially hot areas of concern. The first is the intensification of institutional rivalry about research, not least because of the concentration of competitive funding in most established systems. “Research integrity” is increasingly monitored and assessed by national and international bodies. There is early evidence that attention and adherence to the standards set by these bodies is correlated both with positive outcomes and with reputation.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe there is concern that progress in Chinese university research – the recipient of huge swathes of public investment – is being slowed up by patronage and scientific misconduct.

The second current area of concern is the claimed collapse of student authorship standards in the face of the internet. Plagiarism now has a technical face, and the fear is that the teaching (and assessing) community will always be behind the game.

We must, however, put student lapses into a context where their elders and betters might be said to behave just as badly. Take the delicate interface between graduate (or research) student and supervisor. Here there is not only evidence of bullying, broken promises, dashed expectations, power games, sexual exploitation, and a special form of intergenerational tension, but also a growing casebook of simple theft.

Gradual, but slippery slope

Finally, universities can also fall short of their ideals in apparently smaller ways, and when they do so the notorious slippery slope comes into play.

Following Bok’s work, scholars such as Andrew Delbanco, Howard Gardner, Daniel Golden, Daniel Greenberg, Jerome Karabel, and Deborah Rhode have shown American institutions failing to live up to their ethical corporate ambitions. The problems identified have included the behaviour of sports teams, and “hazing” practices of college initiation. There are also problems surrounding endowments and “legacy” admissions, the brokering of private funding, manipulation of league tables, undermining free speech and academic freedom, and grade inflation.

Minor misdemeanours, failures of judgement, and especially their cover-up can escalate into a corporate culture of bad behaviour. Student groups are among the first to seize on the double standards of zero tolerance for students and apparently infinite tolerance for employees (especially academic staff). Some double standards are very odd indeed. Eric Schwitzgebel discovered that academic ethicists are the group most likely to steal books from their university libraries.

It is a mistake to assume that corruption is solely, or largely, a presence in the developing world or “global south”, connected with the wider failures of governance, the poor distribution of resources, and the absence of Western-style institutional and professional traditions.

The West has its own problems. In France, the government has stepped in to take over the management of Sciences-Po, following a highly critical audit.

In Germany, two cabinet ministers stepped down in 2011 and 2013 because their doctoral theses were found to have been plagiarized. In Italy, high levels of nepotism are seen as undermining scientific competitiveness. In Spain, whistle-blowers claim to have exposed widespread networks of research misconduct.

Dutch higher education, meanwhile, has been rocked by the unmasking of the social psychologist Diederik Staple as a career-long fraud, including in his own autobiography. Moving east, professors in prestigious Japanese universities can use the “juku” (crammer) system to increase their income and undermine open admissions. Moving south, the Israeli government has subverted its rules and procedures on academic approvals to use a military edict to upgrade an institution (Ariel University) on the occupied West Bank. And so on.

Perhaps most dangerous to the higher education project is unawareness of the possibility and the presence of corrupt behaviour.

Many scholars have pointed out that academic communities are much better at critique than at self-awareness. By behaving well, and by taking care of their core business of telling truth not only to power but also to themselves, universities should be on the cutting edge of reducing corruption, with a view to eliminating it. It is a tough requirement, but one which we ignore at our peril.

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