Higher Education Leaders and Governing Boards Must Demonstrate Ethical Decision Making

Higher Education Leaders and Governing Boards Must Demonstrate Ethical Decision Making

John P. Pelissero and Ann G. Skeet

John P. Pelissero (@1pel) is director, government ethics and Ann Skeet (@leaderethics) is the senior director of leadership ethics, both at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Views are their own.

This article originally appeared on Medium.com and is reprinted with permission. In this Moment, Higher Education Leaders and Governing Boards Must Demonstrate Ethical Decision Making


If there is one positive idea that we can take away from recent turmoil on college campuses it’s that University leaders should have a plan and be prepared to manage conflict and controversy that lands on campus. Harvard University’s management of the controversy surrounding President Claudine Gay’s tepid testimony before Congress and plagiarism in her scholarly work may provide some important lessons for other presidents and trustees about the need for ethical decision making.

There is no doubt that this is a challenging time for colleges and universities. That was a common statement during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic; a frequent characterization of college campuses in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder and the protests over racial injustice and police brutality; and, again, following the rise in antisemitism after the October 7 attack on Israel and protests about the conduct of the war in Gaza. The challenges and controversies may change but will not go away. 2024 will bring a heightened political awareness amidst congressional inquiries into the environment on college campuses, the continuing political drama over Donald Trump and his looming trials, and the backdrop of a presidential election at a time of low trust in institutional leadership.

The recent controversies involving several elite universities provide a window into what may be the near-term future for higher education. In some respects, there is nothing new here, as campuses have long been centers of vigorous debate and protest about national and world issues. Those unhappy with the perceived liberal bias and wokeness of college campuses are ramping up their efforts to dismantle the liberal-leaning environment. Internally, faculty and students will demand more accountability of their leaders, greater shared governance, more protection for free expression and academic freedom, and timely action from leaders in response to the emerging issues of the day.

How do university presidents lead and how should university governing boards discharge their responsibilities in these “challenging times?” Each must recognize the imperative to act in the university’s best interest, protecting its mission, reputation, and academic excellence. Doing so enhances public trust in the university and its leadership, which is critical to future support and success. And trust advances an overarching ethical standard of acting for the common good.

Looking at the Harvard board’s decision from an ethical framework suggests that multiple lenses were being applied to its actions. In the days immediately after Gay’s congressional testimony and the initial charges of plagiarism, the Harvard Corporation appeared to focus on the rights of those impacted, including Gay, students, faculty and the university’s other stakeholders. The board admitted that mistakes were made, but they wished to demonstrate fairness and support to a leader who took responsibility for her testimony and lack of proper citations to the work of others in her scholarship and was only six months into her presidency.

Just weeks after publicly supporting its president, the board accepted her resignation, seemingly shifting its decision making to rely more on the ethical lenses of virtue and utilitarianism. The board and President Gay came to an understanding that the plagiarism issue was not going away and was a distraction from the essential work of the university. Recognizing that the virtues of honesty, truth and academic integrity are essential to a university leader, the board accepted Gay’s resignation. From a purely utilitarian perspective, it would appear that Harvard’s board determined that it would be too challenging for Gay to lead effectively in the future and that there would be less harm to the university to have her resign from her brief tenure as its leader.

Other institutions of higher education can learn from the way Harvard’s leader and board approached the crisis that it faced and plan now for the leadership demanded in this moment. Those plans should begin with familiarizing board members with the approaches to ethical decision making so they are ready to use the approaches that best fulfill the organization’s mission and suit the circumstances. With Gay’s resignation, the Harvard board prioritized the institution’s long-term sustainability over other matters and, in doing so, fulfilled one of the tenets of ethical leadership, as it is the institution’s interests they are charged with protecting. Leaders who cannot meet the standards they set for others damage institutional interests and erode confidence in their organizations.

Had the board followed this same litmus test in its own independent review of Gay’s scholarship, it could have arrived at its own decision of whether or not Gay met appropriate professional standards earlier. By hurriedly doubling down on its support of her without more fully exploring the claims, the board put the institution at risk in an apparent attempt to confirm that the board’s choice to hire Gay was a good one. Now the board faces ongoing interest from Congress and criticism from others for its role in the debacle.

When political pressures and the interests of influential donors are in the mix, it can be hard to see clearly a path forward. Using a framework for ethical decision making, however, lights the way.


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