Continuing my series of responses to the New York Times’, The Ethicist, without imposing values, here is my take on today’s post, “Should a Teacher at a Sketchy College Help Recruit Students?”
I am a professor at a university that has experienced serious financial problems in the last five years. As a result, our university has brought in a number of “consultants,” many of whom work largely for for-profit universities. In response to their advice, the university has significantly shifted its profile, its mission and its ways of doing business. In short, we now accept everyone who applies to the school, and professors and administrators have been strong-armed into passing almost everyone, regardless of how shoddy their work is. I am embarrassed that people are being issued degrees and sent into the work force without the prerequisite skills to do their jobs.
I have applied for several other jobs, but, because of family circumstances, cannot move from the area and have thus not been successful in finding a new job. But here’s my main problem: As part of my job, I am required to meet with and call prospective students to discuss our program and encourage them to apply. I feel that I’m lying to them about the program and the benefits they will receive. I’m concerned that I am talking them into uprooting their families and moving to our area to pursue a degree that is perhaps worthless. Furthermore, I’m encouraging them to take on a great deal of debt for this degree that will affect their lives later in terms of saving for retirement and buying a house, etc. What would you suggest someone in my situation do, given that quitting my job is not an option? Name Withheld
My response: Your phrases “have been strong-armed“, “As part of my job, I am required“, “cannot move from the area and have thus not been successful in finding a new job“, and “given that quitting my job is not an option” paint you as powerless to do anything except what you’re told.
I would start by questioning that belief. I suggest starting with my post, Don’t look for blame but take responsibility for improving things to the extent you can. Changing your belief will lead you to see options you never could before. You’ll create independence for yourself to solve problems making your life worse.
I also recommend thinking of role models who overcame greater challenges with fewer material resources. His challenges were different, but for some reason Frederick Douglass comes to mind as someone who seemed more locked in by his circumstances yet overcame them. What would he do, or whoever your role models are?
The New York Times response:
It sounds as if your college should not be in business. You probably can’t get it closed down, and that’s not your responsibility, in any case, unless you have evidence of actual fraud. But given that the problems you’ve mentioned are, alas, not limited to your institution, we might hope for some action on the part of state and federal authorities. One thing you might consider is letting the media know some of what you’re describing here.
In the meantime, you are faced with a classic salesman’s problem. Your job is to sell a product you don’t believe in. Caveat emptor is a sound principle of prudence for buyers, but it doesn’t excuse dishonesty on the part of a seller. If you believed what you were asked to tell the prospective students, it would be up to them to decide whether the degree is worthwhile. But you don’t.
It’s worth distinguishing between two issues here. One is whether it’s possible to get a decent education at your college. Let’s assume that it is. The other issue is about the meaning of the diploma. If the college is passing everyone, however incompetent, you’re misleading at least some students and employers who think a degree means something. Then again, if word gets out that the diplomas are worthless, employers will no longer be misled but competent students will be disadvantaged. While you’re not directly responsible for either scenario, you are implicated in both.
All in all, there’s no avoiding the conclusion that your job involves you in a lie. Many people are doing jobs that are ethically compromised in this way. They’re part of a dodgy enterprise, because they can’t find anything else to do that’s as well remunerated and more ethical. All of you have my sympathy. But the world would be a better place if you moved on.
Shortly after I started work at the company at which I am now employed, I became the victim of intense and prolonged sexual harassment by a senior executive. Over time and through sustained effort, I managed to put a stop to the harassment, but I have since learned that he has targeted other women, all subordinates, resulting in the resignation of at least one of them. I suspect that he may be targeting another young woman who recently joined the company, though I do not have conclusive evidence that this is the case. I have at this point become close with the head of the business. I have shied away from telling him about what happened, given what I have seen happen to other women (in the world at large) in these sorts of situations and also because the perpetrator has shown signs of emotional instability, and I worry that he might retaliate — professionally, personally or even criminally — if he were to learn that I shared this information. In addition, he is the only source of financial support for a young child, and it’s very likely that if I share what I know, he will lose his job. Given the gravity and consistency of the threat he poses, however, do I have an ethical responsibility to disclose what I know? Do I have a responsibility to the head of the company, who is now a friend and who I think would be appalled by this behavior, to warn him of the liability? Name Withheld
My response: Instead of asking other people’s opinions on what you should consider your responsibilities of a short list of possible actions, I recommend you think of how to create more options and change the rules of the game. Then improve your relevant skills (communication and negotiation, mainly) to create the outcomes you want. I guarantee you have more options than you’ve considered so far and that improving your skills will reveal yet more.
I read in your letter that you are looking for others to justify what you consider right, which looks like you’re trying to absolve yourself of responsibility: “The New York Times told me to!”
The New York Times response:
You’re concerned about the possibility that the executive — who must know his behavior is a firing offense — may retaliate, and you’re concerned about the welfare of his child. But the latter is his responsibility, and retaliation against a person who has made an accusation of sexual harassment is illegal. Right now this man is not only a risk to women in the company; he’s exposing the company itself to risk. So yes, you have a duty to pass on what you know.
About 25 years ago my uncle by marriage — he is married to my mother’s sister — asked my husband and others to invest in a real estate deal. He even targeted my grandfather. It was a scam, and when he was caught, he tried to commit suicide. He was and still is a lawyer, and he repaid his employer, whom he also swindled. This put a big strain on our family. My aunt promised to repay me, and she did pay back some of the money but never the full amount. I just found out that her husband came into a large sum. I could certainly use the remaining thousands that he stole from us. I would gladly give it to my elderly parents, who need financial help. How can I go about rectifying this situation? I feel as if my aunt has an obligation to me and my husband. Name Withheld
My response: Someone else has money that you would like to come to you. You feel you have a right to it or that it should be yours. Maybe you’re right in some absolute sense. Maybe everyone in the world agrees. If he doesn’t agree, none of that matters. He acts on his beliefs and motivations, not theirs.
You have a matter of negotiation. I recommend reading Getting To Yes, which I consider the best book on negotiation, then practicing your skills with simpler cases, preparing in every other way you can, and then negotiating with him.
The New York Times response:
Your uncle may have only recently come into a large amount of cash, but he could have given you and your husband recompense in smaller amounts over the years. When people have done a shameful thing, sometimes the way they live with it is to become inured to their offense. It sounds as though the shame he felt all those years ago never turned to remorse. If it had, he would have tried to put things right with you. But your uncle doesn’t seem to be that kind of guy. At least your aunt saw that something needed doing, though she hasn’t taken her obligations very seriously, either. Maybe she’ll be able to wrest this sum from her husband and finally try to make you whole, but I wouldn’t put my money on it. Yes, she should have tried to keep the promise she made — that’s the basic ethical situation here. But after 25 years, you may need to make peace with the likelihood that she will come up short. You can make another effort to stake your claim, but at some point you may owe it to yourself to let it go.
I have been very close friends with a woman for a little more than a decade, and we have shared a deep nonromantic intimacy that has been a precious part of my life. Recently she announced, out of the blue, that she needed a break from our friendship because of something that she had been told about me and that she needed time to come to terms with. After a few weeks, she told me that she was ready to reconnect but made it clear that in order to continue our friendship, she could not disclose the nature of the information that prompted her sudden change of heart. This has been a relationship-changing juncture, not to mention heartbreaking, and I often find myself wondering about the ethical aspect of her proclamation and my own reluctance to continue our friendship on those terms. Name Withheld
My response: You didn’t ask any questions, so I’ll only thank you for sharing this vignette from your life.
The New York Times response:
Your friend appears to believe that the terms of your relationship should be set by her. But friendship is reciprocal. Though I am mystified as to what can have been going on, I am certain that take-it-or-leave-it is not how friends speak to each other. Sad as it is to say, unless she can give you an account of what happened that makes sense to you, your friendship is over.
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