Emory University's Dishonest Data Reminds Us That Ethics Don't Come From A 'Policy'

from the ethics-policy dept

I know that for many universities, where they end up in the various “rankings” lists can make a big difference in terms of the type of students they attract, the money they can bring in and the professors they can get. So it’s almost surprising to me to find out that Emory University’s admission that it effectively fudged the numbers it sent to US News & World Report (the pre-eminent listmaker of university rankings) was really the first of its kind. The article does note a few other questionable uses of data by some universities — such as Baylor paying already admitted students to retake the SATs, hoping they’ll score higher and boost the rankings — but Emory went a bit further. It didn’t quite make up the numbers, but chose to send in the data for all the students they admitted, rather than the students who enrolled. And, of course, many students with higher GPAs and SAT scores may have been admitted to Emory, but chose to go elsewhere.

Of course, what struck me as extra interesting about this, is that we always hear about universities disciplining students based on an “ethics” code or something like that. So I figured Emory probably had something like that as well… and it did. There’s the Emory University Undergraduate Code of Conduct, which includes lines like:

Emory University expects that all students act honorably, demonstrating a keen sense of ethical conduct. The University expects that its students behave respectfully, providing particular consideration for other people and for property. As members of a community, Emory University expects that students act responsibly, being accountable for the safety and wellbeing of themselves and others. University students are expected to be trustworthy, demonstrating honest character upon which others may rely with confidence.

That same policy also forbids “intentional misrepresentation,” including “providing false or misleading information to a University official” or “filing a false or misleading report.”

I also found that the school has a Code of Business Ethics and Conduct for employees, which includes this tidbit:

Emory University has adopted an overarching Statement of Guiding Ethical Principles that applies to Emory employees and all other members of the Emory Community. Emory employees should strive to adhere to these principles in carrying out their job responsibilities, and in particular any responsibilities they have in connection with Federal Research/Contract Activities.

That pointed me to the Statement of Guiding Ethical Principles (pdf) which, among many other things has lines like the following:

Members of Emory are expected to strive for the highest degree of integrity.

All of this has me wondering about these kinds of “ethics” policies and “honor codes” and the like. So many universities have them, but I’m curious if they actually do any good at all. Most of them say things that are basically common sense, and I have trouble believing anyone actually considers “oh, but the ethics policy!” before violating them. So what is the purpose of such policies? It seems that ethics aren’t the kind of thing that you write down in a policy, but that you demonstrate by how you act and what you do.

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Comments on “Emory University's Dishonest Data Reminds Us That Ethics Don't Come From A 'Policy'”

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Zakida Paul says:

Re: Re:

“Bring back the apprenticeships so people can actually learn something.”

I have been saying that for many years. Degrees are worthless bits of paper and employers are starting to see that because they are forever complaining about University leavers who lack the skills they want to see. With apprenticeships, employers can give people the skills they need in their employees and employees get valuable experience that will help their careers develop. Everyone’s a winner.

Jay (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I disagree. The problem with US education comes from how we’ve changed our schools and curriculum from what worked in the 60s and 70s. Education became less about teaching and more about a systematic attack on higher education. I believe the statistic is 50% of those with degrees in education have little to no healthcare, and teach as a last resort. The entire process is slowly becoming privatized with students being unable to find jobs to pay off their debt. The vibrant communities that flourished under those foregone eras have been replaced by communities of felons, the underprivileged, and destitute. Apprenticeships won’t help by themselves. Increased taxation, better schools, more vocational studies, an improved public sector, and less
student debt will help.

Berenerd (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I attempted to go to college twice. Its far too expensive and the stuff they were teaching me, I already knew. I can’t justify to myself spending large sums of cash to be either taught something I already know (and sometimes knew better than the professor) or classes where someone teaches me how they THINK something should work when they have never put it to practice. It wastes my time and my money.

abc gum says:

I love the smell of hypocrisy in the morning.

The same mindset can be found in most other hierarchies, from corporate to government. One might expect academia to hold themselves to a higher standard and maybe some do but I am not surprised at this. It is interesting to note who in society is, by choice, more ethical – not because of laws or threats of punishment but because that is they way they like it. Honestly, I don’t know how some of the ethically challenged sleep at night.

ltlw0lf (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The same mindset can be found in most other hierarchies, from corporate to government.


We have a President who has absolutely no qualms about disclosing national security information for the sake of politics who in turn is allowing his administration to prosecute people who have legitimate complaints about fraud, waste, and abuse within the government and report it through their chain of command and get threatened for whistle-blowing. We have companies who participate in schemes to defraud their customers and their producers alike (copyright infringement) while complaining that the pirates are ruining their business, even when that does not appear to be the case.

Honestly, I don’t know how some of the ethically challenged sleep at night.

Very easily, apparently. What keeps us awake at night doesn’t seem to effect their sleep at all.

Lord Binky says:

Re: Re:

Pretty much this. As long as it’s written down, and the more ways they reword it the more it’s written down to refer to, it can be used against employee’s/students that would otherwise not be punishable or punished to such a desired degree without breaking the ethics policy. It is merely the catch-all of rules and makes lets them appear/feel like the better person for enforcing rules, regardless of how stomach churning skeletons they have stuffed in their closet that overflowed to the basement and all the pictures of them on their laptop.

Colin Davidson (profile) says:

The obvious reason for a written policy...

Is to avoid lawsuits. You can get rid of a “trouble maker” and point to the written policy. So long as you can demonstrate a violation, the policy is reasonable and legally sound and the policy was in force when the individual arrived, there is very little the “trouble maker” can do through the courts.

Anonymous Coward says:

“It seems that ethics aren’t the kind of thing that you write down in a policy, but that you demonstrate by how you act and what you do.”

It appears that the more socially conscious a country is the more repressive it it. Wittiness Stalinist Russia, Mow’s China, Pole Pot’s Cambodia and others including the US which has a higher rate of people in jail than the rest of the world. Based on those examples it would appear that socialism is a euphemism for repression.

This raises the question “Does this apply to socialist too?”

We know it applies to the right. The left is always telling us this. But does it apply to the left. The left never admits their part in any of the financial scams, especially the housing collapse.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I think he meant that the more socially aware one country is the more repressive. I’d take Japan as an example. They are so focused on social standards and what’s socially accepted that they have pretty repressive laws and people respect them in spite of it because of the social pressure.

Actually I don’t get what he tried to say, I’m just taking that out of thin air.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Unethical behavior knows no political party or affiliation. It’s a human characteristic…some would call it a flaw.

There are plenty of examples on both sides. In this day and age, in order to attain a position where one has power and authority, one has to be unethical. You either lie to the people who vote OR you lie to the people who give you money to run. Either way, you’re unethical.

orbitalinsertion (profile) says:

Such policies are like mission statements

Mission statements, culture statements, and their ilk are there for people to look at and nod in approval. They don’t mean anything, and sometimes they are outright dishonest from creation.

Of course, rules and policies only apply if you get caught. I don’t imagine that those people who even read these things stop for a moments reflection and think about behaving more ethically in the future, or examine their behavior and ethics to make sure that they are actually behaving as they believe they should behave.

certainly, someone who may have actually believed these things, or believed them in a certain context, may have written policies like Emory’s. But this hardly means that everyone involved gives a crap, or isn’t hypocritical. They probably mostly exist in the structure for convenience when someone feels like selectively enforcing the rules.

Chris ODonnell (profile) says:

My son starts college in 2 days, (holy crap!) I’m fairly certain some of the schools recruiting him were just doing it to get him to apply so they could bump up their numbers. Percentage accepted is one of the things US News & World Report looks at, so schools do massive direct mail campaigns trying to jack up the application numbers so they can reject more kids and look good in the rankings.

Tony MC (profile) says:


I have seen this before. My good friend has studied in London Metropolitan University, and it got into similar trouble a few years ago. The problem was they have reported all the students who have registered rather than those who actually studied. It was actually ridiculous sometimes, because they had reported students as attending classes who were long gone from the university, or even dead. They also didn’t do their book-keeping properly and filled their electronic system with random data (and not marking it as such, making it difficult to distinguish bullshit from real data afterwards). There were also all sorts of other funny things around that. Basically, it was a disaster.

The problem was that the university was overtaken by managers, MBA’s, lawyers and such. For every member of the teaching staff there was three or four managers, HR’s, accountants, lawyers etc. Naturally, when UK government found out about it, they demanded the money back (in UK, universities are partially funded by government for UK citizens), and this resulted in a lot of teaching and IT staff being fired, but not a single manager or exec has lost his job. In fact, the number of them increased.

Why does this happen? Pretty simple. The government is pushing for everyone having a degree. Aside from the fact that this doesn’t make sense in the first place, there are two ways of doing that – either find good teaching staff, pay them properly and make students attend or be kicked out; or try to pass everyone so that every idiot will have a degree.

Naturally, everyone chooses the latter. This results in atmosphere with extremely lax rules. A student can come once a month, don’t study shit, watch youtube throughout the whole lecture, talk, eat and listen to music in class, et cetera. They can’t kick them out because this will affect the numbers, and the numbers determine the amount of funding.

Now, the big question is, who’s dumb idea it was that everyone has to have a degree?

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Managers

It is interesting how ppl that only go up to technical school are incredibly undervalued in the market (that level between high school and college that you have very good professionals). And that when they are usually much better than the ones with a degree at actually executing a job.

The result is everybody is going for a degree and degrees are losing their face values. It’s not uncommon to see companies requiring post-graduation or even masters degree from their new entrants as if it would change a thing. If anything these “degrees” will also get devalued as our overall professional quality plunge into record lows. Mais c’est la vie capitaliste qui fonctionne tr?s bien, oui?

Anonymous Coward says:

Policies of this sort are useful in protecting the institution and blaming individuals. As in “the institution had adequate controls in the form of a policy that the individual agreed to follow, but did not. Therefore blame the individual for breaking policv because the institution did its due diligence in defining said policy.”

Anonymous Coward says:

Smith College has an ethics policy that they back up with actions. No test is proctored in the school, which allows for really flexible final exams (take them in any room at any time). In my time at Smith, I didn’t see anyone cheating because there was serious social stigma attached to it – “what, do you want to make them proctor all exams?!”

I’m sure cheating still happened, but it had to be much more covert as nearly all students were looking for it.

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