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January 20, 2006

Agreeing with The Ethicist for a change

Randy Cohen tackles the ethics of hiring decisions.

Q: Our university's faculty club gives members a $2 discount on lunches. A colleague, not a member, habitually cheats the system by claiming the discount. He is now up for tenure. Based on our department's criteria, he is indisputably qualified, yet I'm inclined to vote against him because of his dishonesty and its potential extension to his research. May I reject him professionally because of his lunch behavior? Anonymous, California

THE ETHICIST: If you're eager to respond disproportionally to a colleague's petty transgression, why not just go over to his house and shoot him? That'll teach him to cadge a $2 discount.

I realize that his repeated paltry swindles must rankle, and they do add up. Under the circumstances, you may deny this fellow your friendship, but you may not deny him his job. A tenure vote is not a means to settle small grievances or rate someone's private life. It is, as you note, something to be decided according to your department's established criteria. If you had evidence that your colleague conducted dishonest research, that would be a reason to vote against him and to take more immediate action. But you do not.
The place to respond to your colleague's $2 turpitude at the faculty club is at the faculty club. You're free to alert officials there to his chiseling or, if you're reluctant to name names, to criticize their slipshod checking of membership. But if your colleague meets the professional standards for tenure, then he's entitled to your vote.

Sounds right to me. I bet the questioner would be embarassed to explain to her colleagues that she was voting down an "indisputably qualified" candidate for abusing faculty lunch discount policies. However, I disagree with The Ethicist when he says that the questioner owes the candidate her vote. If the questioner believes that lunch chiselling is indicative of a deeper moral turpitude that is likely to affect the candidate's scholarship, then she's within her rights to vote against the offender.

However, if she were to do so, she would be making a very bad decision. As a member of the tenure committtee, she is responsible for dispassionately weighing the pros and cons and reaching the best overall decision for the department. The questionner agrees that there is overwhelming evidence that the candidate is a well-qualified scholar.

The questionner has no idea what the correlation between lunch cheating and academic fraud is. She just thinks it's possible that there might be one. Well, there might be, but the suspicion of a correlation is not enough to scuttle a promising career. Michael Froomkin* disagrees with The Ethicist and me. He argues that fraud is a perfectly good reason to deny someone a job and that the only question is when a fraud becomes too petty to worry about.

*Correction: Earlier I misidentified Michael Froomkin the blogger as Dan Froomkin.


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An interesting question. I think I have to agree with both you and the Ethicist on this question. Chiseling the faculty club is a petty wrong, and it is an offense against the faculty club, not scholarship. It has no direct reflection on the quality of the person's scholarship, any more than the fact that someone regularly travels 5 mph above the posted speed limit or runs a stop sign when no one is coming (a greater wrong, because of the possibility that you may miss oncoming traffic and cause someone bodily harm). I might find such petty chiseling reason to not associate with someone socially, but I don't think it's justification to deny tenure.

I don't think this merits denying someone tenure. Voting against tenure seems overly petty and vindictive for a $2 discount. What I don't get is, if this individual has a problem with their colleague cheating the faculty club, why don't they call him/her on it directly? Seems to me that if you know someone is doing something dishonest for significant amount of time, and you ignore or remain silent about it for that duration, you have no business complaining about it later.

Should a petty cheat be tenured? I'd vote No; he should be cut loose to make a place for a candidate of integrity.

Dabodius, what makes you think that the next candidate would have greater integrity? This level of bad behavior is practically universal. (That doesn't excuse it, but you should consider the likely baserate in the applicant pool before you throw away an otherwise desirable candidate.)

A person would have to be a saint to be entirely without low-level vices of this kind. Everyone has petty moral lapses. The questionner happens to have observed the candidate gaming the system.
It's overwhelmingly likely that the next guy or gal will have at least one foible on a comparable level.

A person would have to be a saint to be entirely without low-level vices of this kind.

I wonder if this is true. I haven't read anything that really goes into it, and I don't know how one really could. But this strikes me as a hair above everyday transgressions, since it involves regular, premeditated lying to gain an economic windfall.

I'm a little puzzled by the person's argument that this led him/her to doubt the integrity of the lunchthief's research. That research, presumably, was done within professional standards specifically designed for transparency and verifiability. The appropriate response to doubts about the integrity of the research would be to spend the shoeleather to actually check it. I guess it would help if we knew more of the details of the lunchthief's work.

Voting against tenure on this, though, would be both stupid and pretty close to indefensible. There are already plenty of avenues through which the complainer can address the faculty club issue in a proportional and directed manner.

This is the perfect illustration of why I'm getting the hell out of academia.

Years of effort. Hundred-hour weeks. Very low pay. Thousands of papers graded, dozens of rejected manuscripts reworked and resubmitted. Your vacations sacrificed, your kids postponed, your spouse neglected...

...and your career gets torpedoed because some committee member saw you get a parking ticket. Or perhaps you published a paper that they didn't like, wore ugly shirts to work or -- God help you -- wrote a blog. Oops! Too bad about that six years you invested! Good luck getting the opportunity to waste another six years at another university! Have you considered law school?

Tenure review is like placing your life in the hands of the "popular" clique at your high school.

Here's hoping that the Anonymous complainer gets audited, every year, for a decade. Karmic balance demands no less.

Also, I wonder how Froomkin's analysis extends to filesharing, especially filesharing where the user has, along the line, agreed to a software license that included an agreement not to use the software for any illegal purpose. I see no reason why that wouldn't also disqualify someone from a law teaching position under his rubric.

I agree with Dabodius. Screwing the faculty club out of $2.00 is as evil as lying about getting a blowjob from a consenting adult in the office. Both should be impeached...uh, I mean denied tenure. Had this tenure candidate only taken bribes from corporations to alter his research findings, lied to his students, and labelled his peers with whom he disagreed as 'traitors'...uh, I mean 'academic frauds', then this person should be given tenure because, well, every professor does that, right? ;)

I believe the psychological studies that have been done on this have suggested that the correlations between different kinds of intuitively dishonest behavior are extremely low, indeed negligible, so unless there are specific studies on lunch fraud/research fraud correlations showing them to be an exception, the default assumption should probably be lunch fraud is not evidence that research fraud is more likely.

Anal beyond Anal. Would not suprise me greatly if the Persecuting Professor had other issues with the Piddlin' Prof,, the
Avenging Adjunct, having already Suffered various vicious slights at the hands of the Two-bit Teacher, (noticed the gender of the Pious Protagonsit is not allured, so I'll have to stick with vague generic mutterings) thought,' This is the last Free- FricAssee that this jerk is getting', Off with his Chisling Craniun. Off I say.

Do you have any examples of this Prof plagiarizing other work or making
stuff up? If not then extrapolating from lunch to academic work is a stretch.
If a prof cheats on his income tax--- should he get tenure? --If he has unpaid parking tickets? --An affair with a grad student?
Ridiculous exagerration. All academics have some skeleton or other---you want to dig it up and condemn them publicly? Let him who is free from sin cast the first stone. If it was murder or massive embezzlement-- but lunch? Give me a break.

I dunno... character matters. If the candidate's sole slip up is cheating at the faculty club, maybe that's forgivable. On the other hand, it may well be part of a pattern of behavior that is wrong. Even if the research is impeccable, a sleazebag is a sleazebag. It would be relatively straightforward to find out more about the character of the candidate - in my experience genuine sleazebags are unaware of their sleaziness. I know that there are professors at my alma mater who are brilliant researchers but who regularly engage in behavior that is simply wrong. In most cases they see themselves as better than the hoi palloi, which IMO is incompatible with the mission of an educational institution. It's not just a matter of research - it's a matter of teaching and mentoring. Promoting scumbags with excellent research records does nobody any favors. Except the scumbag, of course.

I would contend that the tenure committee member that observed the faculty club thing and did nothing is also guilty of cheating the faculty club and should therefore resign his/her position due to poor ethical behavior.

Here's a question: what does it say about an aspiring academic's intellect if he publishes paper after brilliant paper, yet is too dumb to avoid getting caught by a peer doing something so petty? I guess I could understand if the person truly did not believe that his actions were wrong (say, because of lax community standards--if he knows tons of people who get away with the same kind of cheating, and nobody is ever reprimanded, maybe he assumed that his behavior wasn't considered so bad, and thus cheated openly under the assumption that nobody would care).

"Years of effort. Hundred-hour weeks. Very low pay. Thousands of papers graded, dozens of rejected manuscripts reworked and resubmitted. Your vacations sacrificed, your kids postponed, your spouse neglected... "

*glances down at grad-school application*

... *sigh*

I'm not sure I think there's anything wrong with what he's doing. Who, exactly, is he wronging? The stupid faculty club? Maybe the food is overpriced anyway.

It's kind of like stealing from Wal Mart. There's nothing wrong with that, and not just because it's petty theft.

Years of effort. Hundred-hour weeks. Very low pay. Thousands of papers graded, dozens of rejected manuscripts reworked and resubmitted. Your vacations sacrificed, your kids postponed, your spouse neglected...

I'll pretend I didn't hear that, in order to postpone my depression till the day I start grad school.

Damn you, Lindsay! I'm tired of you and your commenters making me think so much. Why can't all of you take the soma like everyone else and blend in, for crying out loud! Critical reasong is passé. Please just watch the 700 Club and let Pat Robertson do the thinking for you. You'll be so much happier, and manageable. Conform; and together we can win this war against 98% of the planet. You're not human, you're an AMERICAN. You owe it to the remaining 2% (the True Believers) to come around and start playing for the home team.

You're not traitors, are you?

I gotta agree with John. My first thought was this is the same as saying that Clinton was a bad president because he cheats on his wife. I thought it said more about the state of his marriage than his governing abilities...and the majority of Americans agreed with that. Heck, everyone knew about the bimbo eruptions before he was voted into office in the first place, you'd think the Republicans would have noticed that.

People do compartmentalize their ethical lapses, and I would bet that everyone does something petty like this, taking an undeserved discount, filesharing, taking office supplies, not returning a mistake in change from the cashier, etc; but it's a rare person that would jeopardize their job.

By the way, what does Dan Froomkin have to do with this? When I clicked on the link, it says it was posted by someone named Michael at Is this Michael a pseudonym for Dan Froomkin?

I had no idea there were so many Froomkins.

a somewhat related note:

can ethics/moral be seperated from law?

Third, within analytical jurisprudence, Austin was the first systematic exponent of a view of law known as “legal positivism.” Most of the important theoretical work on law prior to Austin had treated jurisprudence as though it were merely a branch of moral theory or political theory: asking how should the state govern? (and when were governments legitimate?), and under what circumstances did citizens have an obligation to obey the law? Austin specifically, and legal positivism generally, offered a quite different approach to law: as an object of “scientific” study (Austin 1879: pp. 1107-08), dominated neither by prescription nor by moral evaluation. Subtle jurisprudential questions aside, Austin's efforts to treat law systematically gained popularity in the late 19th century among English lawyers who wanted to approach their profession, and their professional training, in a more serious and rigorous manner. (Hart 1955: pp. xvi-xviii; Cotterrell 2003: pp. 74-77)

Legal positivism asserts (or assumes) that it is both possible and valuable to have a morally neutral descriptive (or “conceptual”—though this is not a term Austin used) theory of law. (The main competitor to legal positivism, in Austin's day as in our own, has been natural law theory.) Legal positivism does not deny that moral and political criticism of legal systems are important, but insists that a descriptive or conceptual approach to law is valuable, both on its own terms and as a necessary prelude to criticism.

If there is no evidence for scientific fraud in his previous conduct then the fact that he cheated to get the discount should be regarded as something positive.

He cares about money and is willing to cheat the system to save money. So, if he is given some fixed budget to finance his research, he would probably be able to get more done than others with that money.

I'm surprised no one has mentioned the (to me) obvious parallel to drug testing job applicants in other fields. The reasoning for that seems just as specious.

This level of bad behavior is practically universal.

It bloody well isn't.

A person would have to be a saint to be entirely without low-level vices of this kind.

They bloody well wouldn't.

I'm no saint, not by a long stretch, and it would never even occur to me to do what the Lunch Chiseler does. It's unambiguously wrong and it's ridiculously petty. Even if "everyone does this" were not a false claim, it still wouldn't be grounds for overlooking the behaviour. It's petty fraud, and that tells in any realistic assessment of the Chiseler's character; and one of the main things a tenure committee member is asking him- or herself is, "Do I want to be working with this person for the forseeable future?" The "best overall decision for the department" is not based solely on scholarship.

(That said, I agree that the lunch chiseling doesn't, in and of itself, constitute grounds for denying tenure.)

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