The Seventh Annual Ethics Alarms Awards: The Best of Ethics 2015, Part I

Sweet Briar montage

Welcome to the Seventh Annual Ethics Alarms Awards, our blog’s retrospective of the best and worst in ethics over the past year, 2015.

It was a rotten year in ethics again, it’s fair to say, and Ethics Alarms, which by its nature and mission must concentrate on episodes that have lessons to convey and cautionary tales to consider probably made it seem even more rotten that it was. Even with that admission, I didn’t come close to covering the field. My scouts, who I will honor anon, sent me many more wonderfully disturbing news stories than I could post on, and there were many more beyond them. I did not write about the drug company CEO, for example, who suddenly raised the price of an anti-AIDS drug to obscene levels, in part, it seems, to keep an investment fraud scheme afloat. (He’ll get his prize anyway.)

What was really best about 2o15 on Ethics Alarms was the commentary. I always envisioned the site as a cyber-symposium where interested, articulate and analytical readers could discuss current events and issues in an ethics context. Every year since the blog was launched has brought us closer to that goal. Commenters come and go, unfortunately (I take it personally when they go, which is silly), but the quality of commentary continues to be outstanding. It is also gratifying to check posts from 2010 and see such stalwarts who check in still, like Tim Levier, Neil Dorr, Julian Hung, Michael R, and King Kool.  There are a few blogs that have as consistently substantive, passionate and informative commenters as Ethics Alarms, but not many. Very frequently the comments materially enhance and expand on the original post. That was my hope and objective. Thank you.

The Best of Ethics 2015 is going to be a bit more self-congratulatory this year, beginning with the very first category. Among other virtues, this approach has the advantage of closing the gap in volume between the Best and the Worst, which last year was depressing. I’m also going to post the awards in more installments, to help me get them out faster. With that said….

Here are the 2015 Ethics Alarms Awards

For the Best in Ethics:

Most Encouraging Sign That Enough People Pay Attention For Ethics Alarms To Occasionally Have Some Impact…

The Sweet Briar College Rescue. In March, I read the shocking story of how Sweet Briar College, a remarkable and storied all-women’s college in Virginia, had been closed by a craven and duplicitous board that never informed alums or students that such action was imminent. I responded with a tough post titled “The Sweet Briar Betrayal,” and some passionate alumnae determined to fight for the school’s survival used it to inform others about the issues involved and to build support. Through the ensuing months before the school’s ultimate reversal of the closing and the triumph of its supporters, I was honored to exchange many e-mails with Sweet Briar grads, and gratified by their insistence that Ethics Alarms played a significant role in turning the tide. You can follow the saga in my posts, here.

Ethics Heroes Of The Year

Dog Train

Eugene and Corky Bostick, Dog Train Proprietors. OK, maybe this is just my favorite Ethics Hero story of the year, about two retired seniors who decided to adopt old  dogs abandoned on their property to die, and came up with the wacky idea of giving them regular rides on a ‘dog train” of their own design.

Ethical Mayor Of The Year

Thomas F. Williams. When the Ferguson-driven attacks on police as racist killers was at its peak (though it’s not far from that peak now) the mayor of Norwood, Ohio, Thomas F. Williams, did exactly the opposite of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio in response to activist attacks on the integrity of his police department. He released a letter supporting his police department without qualification. At the time, I criticized him for his simultaneously attacking activists as “race-baiters.” In the perspective of the year past, I hereby withdraw that criticism.

Most Ethical Celebrity

Actor Tom Selleck. In a terrible year for this category, Selleck wins for bravely pushing his TV show “Blue Bloods” into politically incorrect territory, examining issues like racial profiling and police shootings with surprising even-handedness. The show also has maintained its openly Catholic, pro-religion perspective. Yes, this is a redundant award, as “Blue Bloods” is also a winner, but the alternative in this horrific year when an unethical celebrity is threatening to be a major party’s nominee for the presidency is not to give the award at all.

Most Ethical Talk Show Host

Stephen Colbert, who, while maintaining most of his progressive bias from his previous Comedy Central show as the successor to David Letterman, set a high standard of fairness and civility, notably when he admonished his knee-jerk liberal audience for booing  Senator Ted Cruz

Sportsman of the Year

CC Sabathia

New York Yankee pitcher C.C. Sabathia, who courageously checked himself into rehab for alcohol abuse just as baseball’s play-offs were beginning, saying in part,

“Being an adult means being accountable. Being a baseball player means that others look up to you. I want my kids — and others who may have become fans of mine over the years — to know that I am not too big of a man to ask for help. I want to hold my head up high, have a full heart and be the type of person again that I can be proud of. And that’s exactly what I am going to do.”

Runner-up: MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, who dismissed the ethically-addled arguments of Pete Rose fans to reject his appeal to be have his lifetime ban for gambling lifted.  For those who wonder why football never seems to figure in this category: You’ve got to be kidding.

Ethics Movie of the Year

SpotlightTIFF2015

“Spotlight”

Runner-up: “Concussion”

Most Ethical Corporation

Tesla Motors, the anti-GM, which recalled all of its models with a particular seatbelt because one belt had failed and they couldn’t determine why. Continue reading

Women And Education, Part 2. Comment of the Day: “Ethics Heroes: The Sweet Briar Alumnae And Their Supporters”

BoysGirlsI held back on Humble Talent’s Comment of the Day because I wanted the get his context posted here first, which I did to some extent in Women and Education, Part 1. HT began with this, in response to my salute to the Sweet Briar alumnae for winning their battle to foil the school’s board and keep the all-women’s college open:

I’m…. I don’t know. I’ve stayed far away from this one, because while I understand and agree with everything you said; That the administrators have a duty to you know…. administer. That they were wrong to try to close the college for the reasons stated, that it was lazy, and cowardly, that in a vacuum this victory is a great thing…. I just can’t get past the fact that this school caters exclusively to women, directly breaks title IX, and generally feels ick to me. I just don’t think that it’s right for this school to operate the way it does.

This ‘victory’ comes directly on the heels of Tim Hunt, who was arguing for sex-segregated laboratory space, saying in part “what happens? You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and then they cry when you criticize them.” What he was saying, in context was that workplace relationships make the workplace more complicated than it needs to be…. What the media ran with was “He said that women cry and shouldn’t be in the lab!” It was a horribly awkward statement, and the idea of sex segregating labs is of… let’s say…. dubious merit… at best. But the blowback from this was so intense that Dr. Hunt, a Nobel prize-winning laureate who discovered the protein responsible for cell division, thus contributing directly to cancer research in a way more meaningful than any other living human being on Earth, was forced to resign. And this was also called a victory.

So let’s juxtapose that for a second. Sweet Briar sex segregates itself, and that’s OK. Hunt suggests sex segregating labs, and is harangued out of his job.

To this, Amy Tabb, a Sweet Briar alum, replied..

This is a tough one. I’m a SBC alum who also has a PhD in Engineering. Dr. Hunt’s comment was pretty idiotic, he may have meant it in jest, but he chose the worst possible time to deliver those comments. The rapid backlash has a lot to do with the speed of social media, and the backdrop of Biology labs where the PI has the power to kick you out, give you a dead-end project, or help you publish enough to get your own lab.

In the same week at the Dr. Hunt comments, in Science magazine’s (yes, THAT Science) advice column concerning an advisor who kept on looking down a post doc’s shirt during their meetings, the advice columnist — a woman — advised the post doc to suck it up because the advisor’s influence on the post doc’s career was too great to risk offense. And yet Biology has great numbers of women getting PhDs. I don’t know what the problem is, but clearly there is one. I mean, come on, people, it is 2015!

To address your other points, attending a single-sex college is the choice of the student. There ARE men’s colleges, still, though fewer since the military academies (such as VMI) were made co-ed, as they should have been since they are publicly funded. The remaining schools are privately funded. There are historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) too, and they are privately funded.

My experience at a women’s college is that all that static about gender norms is removed — what to study, career choice, how to act, etc., giving me a lot of freedom to decide how to spend my adult life.

Now here is Humble Talent’s Comment of the Day, in response to Amy, in response to Humble Talent, on the post Ethics Heroes: Sweet Briar Alumnae and their Supporters. I’ll have my own post on the topic of “gender segregated” higher education in Women and Eduction, Part 3.

“Hunt’s comment was pretty idiotic, he may have meant it in jest, but he chose the worst possible time to deliver those comments.”

Agreed. 100%. But do you think that it’s appropriate to remove a Nobel laureate from his lab for stumbling over a bad joke?

“There ARE men’s colleges, still, though fewer since the military academies (such as VMI) were made co-ed, as they should have been since they are publicly funded. The remaining schools are privately funded. There are historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) too, and they are privately funded.”

Awful argumentation. Both variants of Rationalizations 22 and 24, and factually untrue. I called out women’s only schools because we’re talking about SBC, but any group that caters exclusively to people based on race or gender would be on the top of the list of organizations I think are inherently unethical, that other groups might be doing the same thing doesn’t make the behavior right…. Which is why it’s important to differentiate between what’s “Right” and what’s “My right to do”.

As to the facts of gender and racially segregated colleges…. 48. That’s the number of women’s colleges in America. Compare that to 3 men’s colleges and 0 exclusively black colleges. (HBCUs started accepting people from different races decades ago.) I’d also, as a matter of splitting hairs argue that no college is exclusively privately funded, between bursaries, scholarships and assistance programs, I’d genuinely be surprised if there was a college out there that didn’t accept some kind of public money if we considered indirect payments. I know that isn’t how we look at it, but the taxpayer is basically awarding students money to give that money to organizations that discriminate, and that sits poorly with me.

“My experience at a women’s college is that all that static about gender norms is removed — what to study, career choice, how to act, etc., giving me a lot of freedom to decide how to spend my adult life.”

Your experience, and I’m sorry, because this is probably going to be offensive… But your experience is weak. Even if you want to argue that you didn’t have that freedom outside of a segregated environment (which I reject on it’s face…. between 55 and 60% of the college population is female currently, and women are in every. single. field. I’d bet that if there was a situation where a woman in a normal college felt that she was being discouraged from chasing her goal in almost any imagined way it would be front page news and someone would get fired.), what you’re describing isn’t freedom… it’s something akin to laziness, with undertones of entitlement. The college experience isn’t just learning what’s in the books, it’s also learning how to deal with people in an adult setting, segregated colleges bypass that learning.

 

Ethics Heroes: The Sweet Briar Alumnae And Their Supporters

victory

What an inspiring story! I hoped, and I so wanted to believe, but I confess that I really thought that the traitorous, unethical Sweet Briar College board had delivered a fatal blow to this storied all-woman’s college by operating by surprise and stealth, waiting to announce its plan to close the institution so late in the academic year as to render counter-measures futile.

Like that disgraceful crew, I underestimated the determined women of Sweet Briar and their allies.

From the Washington Post:

Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring’s office announced Saturday night that an agreement has been reached to keep Sweet Briar College open next year.

The agreement, which requires court approval, involves a $12 million commitment from an alumnae group and permission from the attorney general to release $16 million from the school’s endowment.

The president of the private women’s college in rural Virginia shocked many in March when he abruptly announced that the college, which is more than 100 years old, would close in the summer. Since then, supporters have been working feverishly to save the school, protesting, raising money and filing lawsuits challenging the closure.

On Saturday, Herring’s office announced that — if Bedford County Circuit Court Judge James W. Updike Jr. approves the agreement — Saving Sweet Briar, the alumnae group, would give $12 million for the operation of the college for the 2015-2016 year, with the first $2.5 million installment to be delivered in early July….

Both the alumnae group and other challengers to the closure say the funding would be enough to keep the school operating for the 2015-2016 academic year.

The agreement comes barely a month before the historic school was slated to close — and in advance of court hearings on multiple lawsuits. It does not resolve the ongoing issues that the school’s current leadership cited in making the decision to close, such as concerns about enrollment and revenue. It does not explain where next year’s class will come from, since accepted students were told to apply elsewhere and current students were told to transfer. But it provides a stopgap…

Leadership would change: If the agreement is approved, at least 13 board members would resign, and 18 new ones would be appointed — a majority that would control the board… Continue reading

Sweet Briar College’s Fate And Fait Accompli Ethics

high-noon-clock

 UPDATE (6/15): I am officially nominating this post as the Most Typo-Riddled Ethics Alarms Article of 2015. At least I hope it is—alerted by a reader, I just found and fixed about 10, and I have no idea what happened. I suspect that I somehow pasted the next-to-last draft instead of the final. My proofreading is bad, but not THAT bad. I am embarrassed, and apologize to all: that kind of sloppiness is never excusable, but I especially regret it on a topic this important.

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Sweet Briar College was officially scheduled for termination, date of execution later this summer, by a board that chose not to offer alumnae and other interested parties a fair opportunity to raise objections, propose solutions, or mount a rescue effort. Indeed it was almost an ambush.

Although the distinguished graduates of Virginia’s unique and venerable all-female college have mounted a spirited effort to reverse this dubious move, time is not on their side. Amherst County Attorney Ellen Bowyer, working with the passionate opposition to Sweet Briar’s closing, argued in court that this would violate the terms of the will upon which the college was founded, and that the college’s board has engaged in malfeasance or misfeasance, violating its fiduciary duties and misusing charitable funds. A circuit court refused Bowyer’s request for a temporary injunction that would at least delay the closing —Tick-Tick-Tick!—and the case was appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court. Those  justices concluded that the lower court, in denying the injunctive relief, erred by concluding that that the law of trusts do not apply to a corporation like the college.  It does. So now the case returns to the circuit court to reconsider the merits.

Tick-Tick-Tick!

I find this infuriating and heart-breaking. As I’m certain the college’s treacherous board knew in March, legal challenges and court decisions take time, and the realities of the academic year halt for no man, or woman. It’s June now, and Sweet Briar has no 2015 entering class. Its sophomores and juniors are seeking, or have found, other schools as well. One of Sweet Briar’s problems—not an insuperable one to a board appropriately dedicated to is traditions and mission—was increasingly lagging enrollment. Whatever the solutions to that may be, skipping a year of entering freshman is not one of them. Faculty have to eat: presumably most, if not all of them, and the staff, are seeking employment elsewhere. The battle to save Sweet Briar, as noble and as important as it is, may have been lost from the start, simply because the clock, and the calendar, keeps moving.

This was, I fear, a fait accompli of the worst variety, an unjust, unfair, even illegal action that is successful because once set in motion, there is no way to stop it. Using the fait accompli strategy is intrinsically unethical, and the mark of an “ends justifies the means” orientation. It is based on the principle that an omelet, once made, cannot be unmade, because eggs can’t be put together again. In a situation where the ethical, fair, procedurally just approach is to debate and challenge a proposed policy action before it takes place, the fait accompli approach operates on the practical maxim that if you have no options, you have no problem. In essence, it says, “Yes, you may be right, but what are you going to do about it?” Continue reading

Ethics Alarms On The Air!

onair

I have been on the radio a lot recently. The opinions expressed there will not surprise anyone who is a regular reader of Ethics Alarms, but for those curious about whether I speak with a British accent or a bi-lateral lisp, or those who are aurally inclined, below are links to three radio shows that had me as a guest of late, and one that interviewed me as background, and included some of my comments.

Here you go:

1. This is WGAN’s examination of the Hillary Clinton e-mails scandal, delivered by me while in shock after listening to Karen Finney spin herself sick on CNN, ably hosted as always by Arthur King…

2. Here is national host for the Local Job Network, Tim Muma, a terrific interviewer, on a podcast chatting with me about the “Ick!” and “Awww!” Factors and their relationship to ethics.

3. Tim again, this time cross-examining me about the Brian Williams mess and related issues.

4. Finally, NPR reporter Hawes Spencer’s report on the Sweet Briar closing.

Comment of the Day: “Why The Sweet Briar College Fight Matters”

Sweet Briar2

Ethics Alarms has been graced with a wave of new commenters, prompted by this post and its predecessor, “The Sweet Briar Betrayal.” The issue is the ethics of a college board surrendering to adversity without a fight, with millions in the bank, a beautiful campus, and an important mission, and doing so before fully informing and involving the larger college community, especially alumnae. I opined that the board had an ethical duty to both  mission and the school itself not to euthanize Sweet Briar College prematurely, at very least, not before a last ditch capital fundraising campaign.

Thousands of readers seemed to agree, and my posts on the looming Sweet Brier closing have become part of the effort to promote and coordinating a growing movement by concerned alumnae and others to reverse the board’s decision. A few, in contrast, accused me of being unfair to the board, arguing that it has taken an unpopular but responsible course, and was courageous to do so. SBCFan2000, a new  commenter who arrived in the crowd of Sweet Briar supporters, reinforces my assumptions in this revealing Comment of the Day: Continue reading

Why The Sweet Briar College Fight Matters

sweet-briar-collegeEthics Alarms has been besieged by interest in the threatened Sweet Briar College closing, with the recent post on the topic already the third most viewed essay in the history of the blog. I was surprised; I shouldn’t have been. From an ethics and societal perspective, what the controversy stands for is as important as any covered here. It is also central to the nation itself.

When a business fails, the casualties include ambitions, opportunities, dreams, financial resources, community assets, and jobs. That is serious and tragic. Non profit organizations, however, exist to turn ideas into reality, to strengthen them, bolster them, and prove that they deserve to survive and flourish. The death of Sweet Briar will also mean the loss of ambitions, opportunities, dreams, financial resources, community assets, and jobs. Far more important, however, is that it will mean the death of an idea, or at very least the serious wounding of one.

This is why non profit boards should not be, as they so frequently are, merely comfortable curriculum vitae-stuffers  and networking forums for prominent dilettantes. Non profit boards are stewards of ideas, and they must also be willing and able to be warriors in defense of those ideas, if an idea is imperiled. It is not a job for the faint of heart, and the consequences of failure, or, as in the case of Sweet Briar, fearful and premature capitulation, are catastrophic, not just for the organization, institution and its constituents, but the entire U.S. culture.

Sweet Briar exists to nurture a particularly vital idea, the mission of training young womenContinue reading