By Richard Vedder
One of the many justifications of public funding of universities by proponents of such subsidies is that higher education promotes higher moral and ethical standards, building a better community. I have always thought the argument was rather amorphous and fuzzy, and I think a good case can be made that universities actually promote moral relativism and a decline in the implicit behavioral standards inculcated by most world religions, and certainly by the Christianity that dominates in the U.S.
When moral standards decline, economic growth falls. The rule of law depends not only on police and courts for enforcement, but on a moral code that most citizens instinctively follow that puts an emphasis on honesty, following rules and laws, and personal integrity. Where corruption is endemic and laws are flouted (e.g., in much of Africa), people are impoverished, economically if not spiritually.
Back to universities. Let me outline just four areas where dishonest, illegal, or ethically suspect conduct has been observed in recent months or years.
1. UNIVERSITY ADMISSIONS --- The University of Illinois is rightly getting pounded for showing preferential admissions for children of prominent politicians. Yet the U of I in one sense is being unfairly singled out, as the same sort of thing, albeit perhaps to a lesser degree, is widespread in higher education, as Dan Golden showed in his great book The Price of Admission.
2. FINANCIAL AID -- Universities were embarrassed a year or two ago when it was revealed that many of them took kickbacks from private loan providers for steering students their way to borrow money. Some admission officers went farther -- Columbia University, for example, fired its director of financial aid for allegedly promoting loan companies in which he held stock.
3. LYING ABOUT PERFORMANCE INDICATORS -- Clemson, the University of Southern California, Baylor --and other schools, all have somehow tried to portray misleading information to the public or to ranking organizations like US News & World Report, all in order to improve institutional reputation. USC, for example, apparently exaggerated the number of full time faculty belonging to the National Academy of Engineering.
4. ATHLETICS --NEBRASKA. The scandals in intercollegiate athletics are so universal, so all encompassing, that it is a serious blight on all of higher education. But let us just take one recent scandal --the Paul Donohue suspension from the Nebraska wrestling team. Donohue is a first rate wrestler who got in trouble for posing for a gay porno web site (I wonder if it had been a heterosexual site whether he would have received the same treatment?). As my great Ohio University colleague and sports reformer David Ridpath put it on Outside the Lines (ESPN), this is an example of "situational morality." It turns out, according to an ESPN investigative reporter, that 14 of 44 wrestlers have committed some sort of crime in the last year or two --and, I suspect, Donohue's offense is not even criminal. Enforcement of ethical standards in sports is sporadic, limited, and designed to minimize public exposure and damage to team competitive prowess.
Shame, shame, shame. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Would you buy a used car from a senior university administrator? If universities lose public trust, their claims on public subsidies will be correspondingly reduced.