Higher Education's Increasing Disdain for Virtue

Richard Vedder

One of the major rationales for public subsidies of higher education is that colleges are supposed to make students more virtuous–better persons. We are told a college education strengthens awareness of the difference between right and wrong, enhances the impulse to help one’s fellow citizens, and reinforces a respect for the rule of law and the negative consequences of corruption. Some cite statistics showing lower crime rates amongst college graduates as evidence of the effectiveness of colleges as purveyors of virtuous behavior. Early in my odyssey in higher education, say around 1960, these civic virtues were reinforced at liberal-arts colleges by mandatory attendance by students at chapel, even at nonreligiously affiliated institutions. Still earlier, the instilling of civic virtues was the ostensible major purpose of higher education. 

Yet today, not only is virtue downplayed, it is actually often disdained, as evidenced by the behavior of the colleges themselves. Bluntly, they increasingly lie to the public. They prefer to avoid lying by imposing a veil of secrecy over their operations, but when forced to reveal information, more and more colleges engage either in out-and-out lying or in softer forms of deception that misrepresent reality. 

This all came to mind again when I read of the Claremont McKenna College (CMC) data scandal–lying about SAT scores of students, not only to US News & World Report, but to the federal government. Both US News and Forbes routinely rank CMC as one of the nation’s top colleges (in case of the Forbes rankings, which I do, SAT data affects the rankings only insofar as it is a control variable in the model used to predict graduation rates). The year that I taught there was probably the most pleasant teaching experience I ever had, and I think the Claremont Colleges have a model for excellence that is unique in American higher education, and one I wish were emulated elsewhere. But that does not excuse lying. 

If this were an isolated incident, one need not be overly concerned. Yet my impression is that deceiving people through lying or otherwise is endemic in higher education. There are other well publicized data misreporting scandals involving, among others, Iona CollegeVillanova, the University of Southern California (USC), and the University of Illinois. Baylor tried to bribe students to retake SAT scores to inflate the average, not strictly speaking a form of lying, but a highly dubious ethical practice nonetheless from a school that promotes its adherence to Christian values. Similarly, Clemson was also engaged in questionable data reporting practices. 

Unfortunately, morally questionable behavior is not limited to admissions issues. The most obvious example here is intercollegiate athletics. Putting aside possible criminal behavior (such as what is alleged about a former Penn State assistant coach), vast numbers of iconic sports programs have had lying incidences or worse in recent years–Ohio State, the University of Miami, and the University of Southern California come immediately to mind, not to mention another sex-tinged scandal at the University of Colorado. 

And then there are the softer forms of deception. Universities, my own (Ohio University) included, often issue press releases that pick up on some positive development but fail to mention negative ones. For example, my school sometimes says we are among the top 60 public universities in America according to some ranking, ignoring the fact that we actually declined in the rankings from the previous year. It is legitimate to accent the positive, but morally dubious to turn what is basically negative news (falling rankings) into something that sounds like positive accomplishment. The intimidation of whistle blowers and the suppression of negative information that they uncover has happened as well–and by its nature probably even more than what is revealed to the public. 

The two things that infuriated me most about the CMC revelations were, first, news accounts of university folks blaming it all on the US News rankings. That magazine, arguably, does a service in giving consumers information about colleges. To ignore the sin of lying and blame someone who is trying to cut through the veil of secrecy is reprehensible. Second, the U.S. Department of Education, according to additional New York Times coverage of the story, sounds like it is none too keen to penalize schools for lying–why not? Should there not be adverse consequences for bad behavior? 

In this age of moral relativism, this behavior of colleges is perhaps not too surprising, but it is sad that one of our institutional bulwarks of civic virtue, honesty, and integrity is itself so morally suspect. The damage at CMC has some adverse spillover effects for higher education generally. 

This article first appeared at the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog on February 7, 2012.

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