March 18, 2019

10 Ways Universities Can Commit to an Ethical Organizational Culture


Growing up a first generation immigrant of Indian parents, I felt the cultural pressure to be at the top, but I also had a mountain of self-inflicted burden to conform to the traditional high-achieving definition of “success.”  When I was a senior in high school, I applied to the top 12 schools based on some list that I had seen, most likely in a national magazine that publishes a “ranking” of the best schools as interpreted and set forth by….well, I actually had no idea who decided the rankings and based on what parameters.  But, at the time, that didn’t matter to me.  I believed that what school I got into would define me, not only to my parents, but also to others around me.

I can vividly remember sitting in our family room at a desk with my typewriter and diligently filling out each application with “White Out” conveniently close by.  I waited anxiously at the post office to dutifully mail out each application timely.  The process for college admissions has changed significantly since then.  But the pressure on high school students for college admissions has not.  I had easily accepted the societal definitions of success based on accolades that necessarily included universities with name recognition, as had many of my peers.

The 2019 College Admissions Bribery Scandal

The recent college admissions scandal has brought to light, however, the very real flaw in university organizational culture, some family cultures, and our larger societal cultural notion of achievement.  At its core, the corruption that has shocked the nation, from east to west coast, reveals a lack of ethical decision-making, lack of moral awareness and similar behavioral ethics concepts, and lack of an ethical university corporate culture.

In essence, individual people employed at specific universities around the nation took it upon themselves to make bad decisions for their own personal gain, at the expense of the university and the athletic teams that they coached.  The raw power of such coaches to enable such activity is disturbing.  However, such authority would be considered appropriate and necessary if the organizational culture for which they worked was rooted in integrity.  A university culture must be committed to ethics and compliance at its core in order to foster leaders amongst its faculty and administration that live by this principle.  The culture cannot be rhetoric or preached, but must be practiced, role modeled, and put into action from leadership all the way to the students.  Did the universities in question have programs in place to train all employees of the university, including the coaches?  Was it ongoing and constantly evolving to adapt to changes?  What could the university entities have done to be proactive?  The bigger question is– what needs to be done to effectively carry out a comprehensive risk assessment and then implement an ethics and compliance program to prevent such a disaster from happening in the future.

There has been much discussion as to the outrageous behavior of the parents and businessmen who thought themselves invincible, thus enticing them to make bad decisions without even a thought as to the morality of what they were doing.  They were so focused on a goal of getting their child into a specific school, nothing else matters.  Unfortunately, the real victims are the students who were denied spots at these schools because of these bad acts.  I also believe that the children of these families involved in the scandal will have much work to do in understanding their own self-worth that is not tied to which school they graduated from.

Improving University Ethics

Here are 10 Ways a University Can Commit to an Ethical Organizational Culture:

  1. Initiate a comprehensive risk assessment across all departments and hierarchies.
  2. Hire a Chief Compliance Officer who reports to the Board of Directors.
  3. Implement an ethics and compliance program that is supported by the Board, CEO and all other C-Suite.
  4. Roll out an ethics and compliance program in department specific vocabulary, exercises, retreats, and summits that includes training on behavioral ethics issues
  5. Create a Hotline for Ethics issues to be discussed at all levels, including students.
  6. Incentivize ethical behavior in annual feedback, reviews, and evaluations.
  7. Include Behavioral Ethics, Business Ethics, and similar courses for students to take and offer such classes to faculty to observe.
  8. Commit to an ongoing, ever-evolving, constantly changing discussion regarding ethics and compliance
  9. Commit to a verification and overview process and clarify actions be taken if violations occur
  10. Require execution of annual ethics validation statements


Rashmi Airan‘s mission is to help organizations create cultures focused on integrity, authenticity, and accountability by connecting these efforts to human performance, behavioral ethics and emotional intelligence.  Rashmi is a keynote speaker and consultant specializing in organizational culture, reputational risk, and human performance. Contact Rashmi to see how she can help your organization.

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