Ethical Collapse in Higher Education

by Ronald Goetz

Dr. Goetz, a Century editor at large, holds the Niebuhr distinguished chair of theology and ethics at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois.

This article appeared in the Christian Century June 6-13, 1979, p. 627. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Colleges and universities face ethical difficulties primarily because they are reflections of the moral aimlessness of our society as a whole. Children are mirrors of their parents.

With commencements at hand, a generational comparison seems in order. Ten years ago the campuses of our colleges and universities were inflamed with idealism and protest. Intellectual passion was all the rage. Could that have been just ten years ago? It seems like a different world now. Students aren’t angrily aggressive anymore. For the most part they are politically passive and seem worried, especially about jobs; they appear to be scared that perhaps they were born one generation too late to continue cashing in on the American Dream.

Maybe much of the idealism of the ‘60s was self-righteous. Maybe the political protests were sometimes inspired by feelings of personal guilt (for evading the draft by going to school) and thus were less “political” than was claimed. In any event, we are out of Vietnam, the protests are over and calm has been restored. Yet in a number of ways American higher education is in greater difficulty now than it was when students were in foment.


This observation is underscored with a special pointedness in the 1979 report of the Carnegie Council on Policy Studies in Higher Education, titled Fair Practices in Higher Education and somewhat ominously subtitled “Rights and Responsibilities of Students and Their Colleges in a Period of Intensified Competition for Enrollments.” When the report was recently highlighted in the press, the negative findings, not surprisingly, were given greater prominence than were the positive ones. Though it is probable that the positive indications will have the greater long-term significance for American life, the negative side of the report is so disturbing that it’s not easy to see through the immediate ethical dislocations to the longer view.

For example, among the “positive aspects” is an attitudinal study which shows that 82 per cent of the faculty members and 93 per cent of the students “are committed to developing ethical values in college.” Yet the distressing facts are out of phase with such idealism; the report documents “a significant and apparently increasing amount of cheating by students . . . a substantial misuse by students of public, financial aid. Theft and destruction by students of valuable property. . .”

Or consider the following finding: 76 per cent of undergraduates trust their faculties, and yet this “trust” is surely strained by the “inflation of grades by faculty [as well as by] competitive awarding of academic credit by some departments and by some institutions for insufficient and inadequate work.”

Another supposedly “hopeful” note: “Colleges are improving the state of educational justice.” Many schools are recruiting adults over age 22, along with part-time students and minority or disadvantaged students. Yet there is evidence of “inflated and misleading advertising by some institutions in the search for students.” There is even an eager pursuit of foreign students, who too often are hopelessly unqualified academically.

All this is evidence of the present and intensifying crunch in higher education. With the end of the draft and the yearly decreasing size of the 18-year-old population, the inflated campus enrollments of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s quickly declined. This loss caused many institutions which had overexpanded during this period to suffer painful withdrawal symptoms. Even senior, tenured faculty members lost jobs, and many faculties experienced demoralization.

The survival of institutions in the ‘80s will be linked to their ability to admit and retain students, both in the traditional 18-to-21 age bracket and in the “nontraditional” categories; i.e., anybody who missed out on a college education the first time around. If this situation requires “hucksterism” to attract enrollees, and if it means grade inflation to keep them from flunking out of school, there are certainly those who will resort to such means.

But the pressures on colleges and universities are not caused simply by declining enrollments. The national mania for proper credentials is also corrosive to ethics. The credential-granting institutions have become the “farm system” for commerce and government, for health care and the education profession itself. Credentials are sine qua non for candidates to fill the upper job slots. Despite attacks on the economic practicality of higher education, most students see a college degree as a prerequisite for financial success -- a union card, as it were. The result is that many students go to college with something less than a passion for knowledge. There they are, sometimes “invincibly ignorant”; but they paid their tuition money and “you can’t flunk them all.”


It isn’t only the Carnegie report which signals the present moral malaise. A recent editorial in Change, a journal for higher education, reviews not only the Carnegie findings but cites other indications of various breaches of ethics. It discusses the market as one in which the “student is king,” in which some administrators are pressuring faculty to “give students what they want”; i.e., essentially empty though impressive-sounding new programs. There are even rumors that some administrations have hired public-relations firms to design curriculum. There is “plagiarism by both teachers and students,” and “abject submission by the institution to groups that would deny open discourse.”

When a society’s most hallowed institutions stand so seriously accused, we must be concerned. It had always been hoped that educational institutions would leave students at least not more corrupt than when they entered. However, we ought not understand the present dilemmas in too moralistic or simplistic a light. The very fact that these studies with all their disturbing candor come from within higher education itself is a sign of a certain health. Further, though widespread cheating, self-serving grade inflation, theft of books, reneging on debts for educational loans, plagiarism and hucksterism are all too widespread, they are far from universal.

Without attempting to absolve individuals from personal culpability, we should note that many problems plaguing the schools are examples of good intentions gone awry. For example, grade inflation. True, it can be a part of a cynical conspiracy to save professorial jobs, but the phenomenon has roots in nobler motives. Certainly since World War II there has been an accelerating national effort to provide post -- high school educational opportunity to everyone who shows even the least promise of profiting by it. And this has been on balance a noble experiment -- this attempt to make higher education responsive to our democratic ideals. College has long ceased to be the exclusive province of an elite few.

However, when schools open their doors to students of highly diverse backgrounds and interests, rigid grade standards make no sense. Underprivileged and foreign students who are nursed along through their first years often make remarkable strides and justify some of the “gift Cs” they were given early in their academic careers.

Put it another way: if schools admit students and give them a reason to believe that they can survive in college, and the students make a reasonable effort, what right do faculty have to flunk large numbers? If a faculty member sets standards that are higher than those of the school’s admissions policy, does that faculty member not break an implicit contract? Standards must be relative to the ability of the student body.

But there’s the rub. Once one begins to show mercy here and there, it becomes more and more difficult to operate on a standard of strict justice in other cases, and grading becomes an increasingly troubling chore.


Colleges have grown large trying to fulfill their responsibilities to the youth of a democratic society. Now we are facing a time of cutback. Originally, higher education grew in order to serve. But with huge plant investments and the nightmare of retrenchment facing educational institutions, the temptation is to see students not as ends for which schools exist, but as means to the economic survival of the institutions themselves. Colleges and universities have prided themselves on their nobility of vision. It is tragic what economics can do to both nobility and vision.

But what are the alternatives? All the “cures” seem to be worse than the disease. No sweeping, all-inclusive program is even in the offing. For the present, higher education is going to have to limp along doing the best it can, cracking down where abuses are rampant. Virtue and knowledge are not, alas, two sides of the same coin. Colleges and universities live in the same world of grays and ambiguities as do all other institutions.

Lest the impression is generated that the ethical failures in higher education are due solely to a democratization process, let me hasten to add that the corruptions of the elite are no less prevalent. Much cheating, stealing, cutting pages out of library books are not the desperate effort of underprivileged kids to survive; such deeds take place at prestige institutions, too. Children of wealthy parents and intellectually gifted students are cheating not to hang on, but to be in a position to compete for the best grad school, the best record, the best job. In short, colleges and universities face ethical difficulties primarily because they are reflections of the moral aimlessness of our society as a whole. Children are mirrors of their parents.