The University of Illinois Law School Statistics Scam and the Responsibility of Being a Corporate “Person”

The scandal itself is self-explanatory. The ethical issue I am most concerned with is not, but it is more important than the scandals.

The University of Illinois has confessed that its law school reported and published inaccurate admissions data in six of the last ten years. An investigation determined that the law school reported false LSAT and GPA data for the class of 2008 and the classes of 2010 through 2014, and fabricated the acceptance rate data for the classes of 2008, 2012, 2013 and 2014, as a result of  both overcounting the number of applicants and undercounting the number of admissions offers the law school made. The purpose of all this, of course, was to enhance the school’s rankings to bring it better applicants, which translate into more successful alumni and bigger gifts.

Solely responsible for the deceptions, the school says, was Paul Pless, the law school’s assistant dean for admissions and financial aid during that period, who resigned last week. Naturally, the 114-page report concludes with recommendations to improve the school’s oversight and controls and ensure a “culture of integrity and ethical conduct.”  This will help persuade the American Bar Association, which is looking into the matter, not to punish the law school, since it has now seen the light…having been caught. Pless, you see, was most of the problem.

Except that he wasn’t. The school was careless and negligent, and quite possibly willfully ignorant. Often, in such cases, a high administrator says something like, “I want to see our rankings go up, and I don’t care how you do it, just do it.” In other cases, a supervisor insists on  impossible standards that can only be met by actively cheating. In all such scenarios, the top administrators or executives deny culpability when their subordinate’s dishonesty is uncovered, saying, “Well, I certainly never approved that!”

One of the many mantras in the “Occupy” protests is that corporations (which also means universities, non-profits, associations and unions) should not be treated by the law as “persons.” This argument is an off-shoot of the criticism of the Citizens United case, which relied on corporations’ rights of free speech, but it is more than a little bit ignorant and a lot irresponsible. If collective groups of people who come to together to pool their assets, talents and energies don’t have the same substantive rights of due process, free speech, freedom from unreasonable searches, rights to a fair trial and the rest, the individual right of free association will be permanently minimized, and productive society itself will be threatened. In short, it’s a facile position that relies on a basic misunderstanding of what legal entities are and why they are important. The fact that Mitt Romney has been mocked for saying “Corporations are people too” shows the depth of this ignorance. He was absolutely correct.

Yet organizations can’t be permitted to have it both ways. When an institution like the University of Illinois perpetrates a long-standing deception and fraud in its name, it should not be permitted to say, in essense, “Well, that wasn’t the University, that was him” and duck accountability by firing one “person.” The legal entity, the “person,” responsible for the scam is not Pless, because he was acting as part of the corporate “person,” the University of Illinois. It should not be permitted to cleanse itself of accountability and punishment by firing one employee and announcing that everything is fixed, or will be fixed.

The University hired Pless; it allowed him to continue his sham reports for years; it exercised inadequate supervision and oversight while accepting, happily, the dishonest benefits of his fraud. The University should be punished as being directly responsible for everything Pless did. If it is a “person,” then Pless was one of its arms or part of its brain: we don’t just sentence bad body parts to jail, the whole person goes. With the legal right to be treated by our laws as a person goes the responsibility to be as accountable as one.

7 thoughts on “The University of Illinois Law School Statistics Scam and the Responsibility of Being a Corporate “Person”

  1. Would it also be true that a corporation has much more responsibility to be accountable as a whole, because when it acts unethical the repercussions are so much larger? For example, if I knowingly take a bad risk (like playing the slots), I’m the one who pays. But if a corporation takes a bad risk, it’s hundreds of stockholders who pay.

  2. “If collective groups of people who come to together to pool their assets, talents and energies don’t have the same substantive rights of due process, free speech, freedom from unreasonable searches, rights to a fair trial and the rest, the individual right of free association will be permanently minimized, and productive society itself will be threatened.”

    Absolutely correct, but how does that make a corporation a person, exactly? What constitutes a person? Why can’t separate rights and limitations be delineated for corporations?

    • Well, they are. A person’s rights are the starting point, and we have adjusted from there. It could have been done a different way—we could have a separate Bill of Rights for organizations. But I think the presumption of full rights was a wise decision, all things considered.

      • “they are” is a bare assertion. There is an easy to understand difference between a *person* and a *group of people gathered together for business purposes*. How does that make a corporation a person, *exactly*?

        How are we defining “person”? Does this definition greatly differ from common sensibility of what the term means?

        An appeal to consequences won’t cut it, either, just to be sure we’re on the same page.

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