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The Trouble With Ethics Tests

If you work in higher education, you can set your watch by it: the dreaded annual ethics test. Frequently presented to university staff and faculty in the form of self-paced, online “learning modules,” the tests are designed—ostensibly—to measure your ability to deal with complex workplace situations. Introductory material explains that you will be responding to questions that require you to use your best judgment and understanding of university policy or state or federal law. The tests are often mandatory (sometimes so for all state employees). There is no option to write in an alternate response to those offered. There is no clear mechanism to opt out. The half-hour or so of mouse-clicking on multiple-choice responses begins.

Throughout my own trajectory from university employee to graduate student to faculty member, I have been called upon numerous times to participate in these exercises, and one thing has become clear to me over the years: These tests bear little resemblance to the kinds of ethical problems those of us working in university environments are likely to confront, either in our workplace experiences or in the context of our own teaching and research.

Instead, these tests are exercises in disciplining employees to a particular kind of logic. They reinforce the supremacy of administration, the need to unquestioningly follow rules, the mandate to survey and report on co-workers, and they focus on “ethics” at such a micro-level (don’t steal office supplies; don’t seek reimbursement for a nonbusiness luncheon) as to render the whole process a joke—were it not simultaneously so fundamentally insulting.

Consider the case of the University of Illinois system, where all employees, including graduate-student TAs, are required to refresh this very specific type of ethical skills test each academic year. In this test, employees are introduced to a cavalcade of characters, representing various cultural and ethnic affiliations apparently culled from stock art imagery, who are confronted with ethical dilemmas. A wrong answer, typically from a list of two to four multiple-choice possibilities, leads to an explanation designed to instruct the employee in similar tricky situations.

Such tests are common in academic workplaces, but the one for 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, cushy appointments for disgraced high-level administrators, continued resistance on the part of the administration to meet the terms of their graduate employees’ contracts, living-wage battles for campus food-service employees, and graduate-employee strikes have marred the integrity and any claims to ethical leadership the university may have, at one time, possessed.

Furthermore, these training guides appear to be in the service of presenting a reality focused on comparative ethical minutiae or on redressing the actions of a few bad actors. There is no acknowledging the existence of systemic inequities. The tests are visually and culturally mapped into a postracial discourse of multiculturalism and diversity whose underlying logic wholly negates the lived realities of social inequality, the exploding wealth gap, minority scholars fleeing campuses, students living below the poverty line, racial crime profiling, and domestic abuse on campus. These are the ethical topics that circulate in campus classrooms and conversations, yet make no appearance in the mandated ethics training. In short, to take the ethics test every year is to experience a profound cognitive dissonance.

Consider one case from this year’s test: an employee at the university takes on a teaching job at another state school and is reprimanded when her supervisor learns she 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 the situation, but neither asks the question so obvious to my colleagues and to me: Why does she need to take on a second job to make ends meet? Is it any wonder that these ridiculous questions become the punchline to social-media posts and fodder for frustrated bloggers?

In the ethics-test universe, one office worker making $30,000 per year can stem the tide of a university budget deficit by reporting the lifting of some office supplies. A facilities worker can tattle on his boss for taking a lunch with a potential service provider, somehow overshadowing cases of graft and corruption at echelons far beyond those of the workers depicted in the modules.

In the context of the ethics test, the university avoiding litigation is a stand-in for an employee’s ethical behavior. In fact, the ethics training is a mechanism for the administrative elites to control and manage employee behavior and to maintain the status quo.

The time is indeed ripe for a large-scale discussion about ethics on university campuses and beyond. The questions ought to focus on issues pertinent to the contemporary campus environment and the world we all live in: inequality, racism, environmental destruction, and the perverse concentration of capital are but a few that spring to mind. These questions don’t have easy answers to be plucked from a multiple-choice computer module. Instead, responses to these issues may challenge the status quo and put tough questions to university administrators and even to ourselves. Where is the ethics test for these issues? I know of no learning module, mandatory test, or MOOC that will expose our institutions’ ties to the corporations 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 self-policing. Let’s decide on our own from where to draw our ethical inspirations—our integrity demands nothing less.

Sarah T. Roberts is an assistant professor of information and media studies at Western University.

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