The Trouble with “Ethics”

If you are an employee of a higher education institution, you can likely set your watch by it: the dread annual ethics test. Usually presented as a self-paced, online “learning module,” the test is designed, ostensibly, to measure your ability to deal with complex workplace situations. Some of the situations require use of your best judgment, while some best responses are dictated by state or federal law, or University policy. Yet one thing has become clear over the years: many of these ethics tests bear very little resemblance to the kinds of ethical problems those of us working in university environments are attempting to confront, usually through our own teaching and research.

Instead, these tests are exercises in disciplining employees to a particular kind of logic: one that reinforces the supremacy of the administration, the need to unquestioningly follow rules, the mandate to survey and report on coworkers, and a focus on “ethics” at such a micro level (e.g., don’t misuse office supplies; don’t seek reimbursement for a non-business luncheon) as to render the whole process a joke, were it not simultaneously so fundamentally insulting.

Consider the case of the University of Illinois, where all employees, including graduate student teaching assistants, are required to refresh their ethical skills each academic year. In this particular test, employees are introduced to a cavalcade of characters, representing various cultural and ethnic affiliations from a stock art company somewhere, who are confronted with ethical dilemmas to which employees must respond. A wrong answer leads to an explanation of why there is another, better answer, and how the employee should behave when encountering similar tricky situations. Through this test, we get to know Keisha and Amelia and a number of their ethically challenged friends and coworkers and learn, through their foibles, what we ought to do in similar cases.

Such tests are thoroughly commonplace in most higher ed workplaces, but the one for the workers at the University of Illinois comes with an extra dose of irony. This institution has made headlines in past years for ethical problems of its own. Admissions scandals involving influence peddling, cush appointments for disgraced high-level administrators, continued resistance on the part of administration to meet the terms of their graduate employees’ contract, living-wage battles for campus food service employees and graduate employee strikes have marred the integrity and any claims to ethical leadership the U of I may have, at one time, possessed.

Indeed, these training guides appear to be in the service of presenting an alternate reality – one that denies the issues described above by their glaring absence and focuses, instead, on comparative ethical minutiae and on redressing the actions of a few bad actors, rather than examining or even acknowledging the existence of systemic inequities. Further, the tests are visually and culturally mapped into a post-racial discourse of multiculturalism and diversity whose underlying logic wholly negates the lived realities of social inequality, exploding wealth gap, minority scholars fleeing this campus, students living below the poverty line, and racialized crime profiling, and domestic abuse on campus. In short, to take the ethics test every year is to experience a profoundly cynical feeling of cognitive dissonance. In the world of the university ethics test, one office worker making $30,000 per year can stem the tide of a university budget deficit. In the ethics test universe, one groundsworker can tattle on his boss for taking a lunch with a potential service provider, and this somehow competes with cases of graft and corruption at echelons far beyond those of the workers depicted in the modules. In fact, the ethics training is a mechanism for the administrative élites to control and manage employee behavior and maintain status quo, using technological systems and scientific management techniques (e.g., standardized tests) to do so.

Consider this year’s addition of the case of Amelia:

Amelia the adjunct takes on a second job to make ends meet.
Amelia the adjunct takes on a second job to make ends meet.

Amelia, an employee at the university, takes on a teaching job at another state school and is reprimanded when her supervisor (presumably told about this by a coworker of Amelia’s?) learns that Amelia is using her university-issued computer to complete the work. There are two possible choices from which to pick in order to answer the question regarding Amelia’s situation, but none of them ask the one so obvious to my colleagues and to me: why does Amelia need to take on a second job to make ends meet? Why doesn’t the university pay her enough so that that isn’t necessary? And what do we know about the terrible, and often tragic, precarity experienced by people who adjunct full-time? More than the makers of the ethics test, it would seem. Is it any wonder that these ridiculous questions become the punchline to social media posts, or fodder for frustrated blog posts?

From a City of Oakland ethics test.
From a City of Oakland ethics test.

The truth is that the time is ripe for a large-scale discussion about ethics. Many are happening right now, within the walls of the very institutions in which employees are subjected to that _other_ kind of ethical discussion. But these questions tend to focus on police brutality, racism, global inequality, endless war, human exploitation, environmental destruction, the perverse concentration of capital among a few. These questions don’t have easy answers to be plucked from a multiple-choice computer module. These issues have responses that are likely to challenge the status quo, insist that change be made and put tough questions to university administrators and all those in power. Where is our ethics test about these issues? Where can we take a learning module, or MOOC, that will expose our institutions’ ties to corporations, organizations and governments responsible for some of the grossest exploitation of people and resources?

Contrary to what these tests and learning modules attempt to instill, “ethics” and “the best interest of the employer” are not synonyms. Let’s stop lending credence to these ridiculous and insulting exercises in our own self-policing. Let’s decide on our own from where to draw our ethical inspirations, and let that inspiration be more about addressing inequities and injustices than avoiding litigation or embarrassment for our employers.

Our own integrity, and ethics, demand nothing less.

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