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Barbara Brooks Kimmel: The Ethics of Higher Education

A recent report highlights issues of ethics and trust in America’s college admissions process.

The report by Reuters focuses on Shanghai-based Dipont Education Management Group, a company that has engaged in practices to influence college admissions officers and gain acceptances for their Chinese students to U.S. universities.

We asked our Trust Alliance members to read the article and offer their perspective on what some might call the “dark side” of higher education.  The answers we received were both diverse and thought provoking.

*     *     *

Bob Vanourek offers the following perspective:

Given our broken K-12 education system, it’s wonderful that U.S. college campuses are still so highly sought after by foreign students. Our long-term relationship with China will benefit the more exposure we have to each other’s country.

But Dipont’s alleged practices are reprehensible:

  • Bribing admissions officers with trips to China and cash to opine on how to submit applications,
  • Having Dipont employees alter recommendation letters or student essays,
  • Altering high school transcripts, and more.

I warmly remember the honor system at my university where we pledged on our honors that we had neither given nor received assistance. Our faculty members handed out tests and then left the room, trusting no one would cheat. I never witnessed a cheater in four years of college.

What to do? I recommend the National Association of College Admission Counseling clarify better what practices are acceptable by college admissions officers. But the real solution comes through having people; students and adults clarify their moral compasses by defining the personal values that guide their behavior.

*     *     *

Charlie Green interprets the report through the following trust lens:

This is a great case example of “trust in the real world.” Both the problem and the solution are complex and multi-dimensional; simplistic solutions only make things worse.

At the most minute level, there are mostly-technical issues: a plane ticket to Beijing is one thing — the choice of business class or cash reimbursement is another, because it blurs the personal and the corporate (much as did income-reporting for frequent flyer miles decades ago when it first came out).

More substantively, there are agency issues. Is the Chinese company accused of unethical practice a hands-off enough agent to serve as the source of funding for research into unethical practices? And what of the USC entity accepting such funding? This is similar to the issue faced in the pharmaceutical industry-by-industry contributions to journals, and to the old practice of paying practitioners as “consultants” for making “informational presentations.”

Perhaps most complex of all is the cultural lens. Without any judgment about “rightness,” it’s fair to say that the Chinese players in this drama probably see ethical issues differently from US players. The same is true, by the way, in British vs. U.S. views of the degree of “hands-off” that is appropriate to ensure objectivity.

Real-world cases like this do not submit to simple evaluations based on intentions, or even rules-dissemination. The one thing that can be said categorically is that, absent clear principles and guidelines, ambiguity reigns — and where there is ambiguity, ethics violations and mistrust flourish.

*     *     *

And finally, Kevin McCarthy offers yet a third perspective:

Ah-h, the free enterprise system, the Chinese, and trust! It is an all too familiar pattern across industries. The lure of money in exchange for influence and advantage is nothing new in an open economy. This Dipont story proves that the hallowed halls of academia are no exception.

Private college prep companies and coaches have been around for decades helping students study for entrance exams and complete applications. This assistance is marketing placing students’ best feet forward in a very practical part of the full educational experience.

In the case of Dipont, however, money and access chums the waters of the college admissions system to reveal a dark side of academia. No doubt, each case needs to be assessed on its own merits, but Dipont appears to be acting like a pack of “Tiger Mom Mercenaries” who have moved from advocacy and marketing to manipulation and misrepresentation. Foul!

The NCAA has stringent recruiting roles and enforcement for the colleges, coaches, players, parents and boosters. Will the college admissions office soon have to adhere to standards on par with the athletic office? Hopefully, no; but they better police themselves first, or risk the loss of trust of all applicants and their families.

*     *     *

What say you readers of the FCPA Blog? Has academia been given too large a trust and ethics “pass” for too long? Is so, what do you propose as a solution?


Barbara Brooks Kimmel is the CEO and Cofounder of Trust Across America-Trust Around the World whose mission is to help organizations build trust. Now in its seventh year, the program’s proprietary FACTS® Framework ranks and measures the trustworthiness of over 1500 U.S. public companies on five quantitative indicators of trust. Barbara also runs the world largest global Trust Alliance, is the editor of the award winning TRUST INC. book series and a Managing Member at FACTS® Asset Management, a NJ registered investment advisor.

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1 Comment

  1. Great post Barbara! The college admissions process must maintain a high degree of trusT and credibility in order to elicit a steady stream of applications. Signs that the system is rigged in any way hurts the entire American secondary education agenda- so its advocates must attend immediately to any threats to the integrity of the process.

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