Why we need ethical leadership in international HE

Is ethical leadership in international higher education in crisis or not? Increasing coverage of the shortcomings of executive leadership in higher education institutions in glocal (local and global) geographical spaces suggests that this may be due to the failure of executive leadership teams to uphold the moral code.

COVID-19 is not the reason for the current malaise in academia, which is decades old. But new cases of financial mismanagement, sexual harassment and unethical leadership are emerging during the pandemic. If anything, institutional executive leadership should be more vigilant and compassionate at this time.

Given that the focus is often on higher education institutions in developing world communities about their inadequacies on various levels, this article reflects the dilemmas of ethical leadership in higher education institutions in Western democracies.

Academia should mobilise and reclaim its voice as an advocate for truth, justice and good faith. Stakeholder communities around the world should be emboldened to challenge instances of moral decay in academia and establish provincial or state and federal offices of ombudspersons to monitor executive leaderships’ and their boards’ commitment to high standards of integrity.

Unethical behaviour

Some recent cases of unethical behaviours date back decades, only recently receiving media attention.

In North America, the spotlight over the past year has brought attention to the allegations of sexual harassment against Martin Philbert, the former provost at the University of Michigan, and against Wayne John Hankey, former professor at the University of King’s College, Canada.

Martin Philbert’s sexual harassment behaviour started while he was an assistant professor and continued through his time as provost, spanning two decades. The University of Michigan reached a US$9 million settlement last November with eight women who were sexually harassed by him.

Wayne John Hankey was charged in February 2021 with sexual assault for an incident that occurred in 1988 but is now facing multiple charges related to other earlier incidents and is due to face trial next year.

In Australia, the case of former vice-chancellor of the University of Adelaide, Peter Rathjen, shocked the higher education community when he was found guilty of serious misconduct, including sexual harassment.

It took nearly three decades, after he had worked in three Australian universities (Adelaide, Melbourne and Tasmania), for his predatory sexual behaviour to come under scrutiny during the investigation by South Australia’s Independent Commissioner Against Corruption into his term as vice-chancellor at the University of Adelaide which had found him guilty of “egregious conduct”.

Rathjen was found guilty of “sexually harassing and inappropriately touching two female colleagues after a University of Adelaide function in 2019”; “serious sexual misconduct against [a woman] while he was the dean of science between 2006 and 2008” at the University of Melbourne and he was the subject of an independent investigation by the University of Tasmania, which apologised for what it described as a failure to protect people during his tenure.

The former vice-chancellor was also the subject of reports about his US$277,000 travel bill.

Some students at the University of Adelaide are seeking to have his signature scratched from their degree certificates.

Financial mismanagement

Other cases are of more recent transgressions include that of law professor Jonathan Black-Branch from the University of Manitoba who was under investigation when he took a job at the University of Southampton as their law school’s new head of school.

A week after he was appointed, amid concerns about financial mismanagement at Manitoba, a spokesperson for the university said that Black-Branch would no longer have the job.

Then there is the financial crisis at Laurentian University in Canada in which the university’s insolvency proceedings have led to job lay-offs and programme cuts bringing the institution to a grinding halt. The Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario reported that the Laurentian situation is “due to administrative mismanagement and a lack of adequate provincial government funding”.

Higher education expert Alex Usher states that there is reason to question the lack of transparency about the university’s financial health; and that “fault lies with management, period. Management’s job is to keep the ship afloat, and collectively, they failed. So did the Board...” He maintains that it was also the “responsibility of the provincial government” to proactively step in and rescue the university.

Ethical education, accountability needed

In light of the growing list of ethical transgressions among the executive leadership at some international higher education institutions, critical questions emerge: What has enabled such transgressions to take place? How should stakeholders demand accountability from presidents, vice-chancellors, provosts, financial administrators and boards of governance? And how can the sense of impunity which protects executive leadership transgressions be removed, thereby making their organisational operations, around finances and forms of harassment, more transparent?

International higher education research agendas might also question whether there is a correlation between the ongoing programme cuts in the humanities as a first line of attack and the lack of morals and ethical behaviour among stakeholder groups.

Further, it might interrogate how and when future generations of executive leaders will uphold and demonstrate ethical behaviours, if not through their engagement with the critical discourses within the humanities.

It is encouraging to note that stakeholders are striking back. One of the boldest protests against a lack of transparency in the selection process for higher education presidential candidates came from the faculty association at Memorial University in Canada.

The chair of the faculty association asked how the president of a higher education institution could be selected for office without careful scrutiny and examination of their character in a public forum to ensure they are suitable.

At Medicine Hat College in Alberta, Canada, the faculty association has filed seven complaints in regard to contract negotiations stating that “the university had improper conversations with its members, was coercive and directed them not to engage the association on employment issues”.

A final case in point: a professor in New Brunswick alleges “negligent misrepresentation” and that the president “failed to abide by promises made to recruit him”. The case has been given the green light to proceed by the Court of Queen’s Bench justice. It might set a precedent with regard to the recruitment drives to appoint academics, staff and students in various roles.

Greater transparency and oversight of executive leadership responsibility and accountability are essential when it comes to the initial selection and ongoing performance review regarding the suitability of university boards, presidents, provosts and vice-chancellors, particularly considering the range of transgressions emerging over the past year.

Ethical leadership is the least international higher education stakeholder groups should expect. If not at universities, where ethics are still studied – as the foregrounding for future academic, learner and professional activity – then where?

Dr Fay Patel has over 30 years’ experience as an academic, researcher and an international higher education consultant in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, USA, South Africa, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Hong Kong. Patel contributed to the UNESCO Forums (by invitation of UNESCO Bangkok) in Bangkok, Thailand and in Chengdu, China on online learning, distance learning and MOOC design; as external peer reviewer and workshop facilitator in the World Bank programme (by invitation of the coordinator in Malaysia) for the Bangladesh higher education quality assurance training and development programme; and as senior case manager at the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency in Australia.