Recently the academic and medical worlds have been rocked by tragedy and scandal. The tragedy affected leaders and institutions, resting on deeper tragedy devastating the lives of victims and orphans. The scandal has sullied the reputation of professionals and professions.
We have learned of horrific alleged sex crimes against young children at one of our greatest universities, Penn State. And while these crimes are still being investigated and a verdict should not be made prematurely, it also became clear by word and action, current and past, that others had known of this awful possibility, and that leaders had been informed but had opted for either the minimum required by law or no action at all.
AND IN LOS ANGELES, we learned of the conviction of cardiologist Conrad Murray, who, acting in total disregard for ethical and medical practice, gave his most famous patient, Michael Jackson, potentially lethal drugs without the benefit of life-savings facilities.
I was working at UCLA the day Jackson was brought to the ER, already dead. I knew enough to leave the premises as fast as I could before the hospital went into hard lock-down, pressed by the hordes of reporters and paparazzi that instantaneously materialized. And I am a proud graduate and supporter of Penn State, as are my father and brother. In fact, on-campus student housing in Happy Valley was our first home when my family and I came to this country – my father an international student of theoretical physics.
What do these tragedies have in common? They both remind us, painfully, what happens when individuals tasked with the care and protection of people and institutions become blinded by aura and glitz. Blinded by the importance and reputation of a football program. Blinded by the demands and attention of a major celebrity.
But we are all at risk of being blinded.
IT HAPPENS WHEN influential community members, supporters, donors or government leaders attempt to exert pressure regarding the admission of a student, the employment of an individual, or the contracting of a company. Or when alumni or philanthropic board members begin to focus on the benefit of their enterprise and not the benefit of the school they support. Or when powerful and rich patients demand unreasonable, risky, or simply unethical procedures, telling us that they know better and will protect us. Or when we ignore complaints and rumors about members of our own team, because these individuals seem so absolutely essential.
People often speak of the moral “slippery slope.” That’s a euphemism. Moral decision-making is not built on a slippery slope – it is built on a cliff.
And while I do not purport to know the details of these terrible situations, nor what went on in the minds of those involved, I can express intellectual understanding, having found myself not infrequently at risk of being blinded by the famous, rich or powerful. And I can only share with you one perspective for dealing with the risk of blinding: zero tolerance and reflex action – no matter what.
I WILL NOT pretend my world is made of absolutes. Most of my work is in an environment purposefully gray, ambiguous and fluid, navigating through uncertain, undefined and shifting situations and times. It’s much like sculpting in clay.
And yet, some issues trigger an absolute response of black and white, of zero tolerance, implying no wiggle room or allowance for interpretation, or for the infusion of personal perspectives – issues involving action that, if true, is simply wrong.
The zero-tolerance rule requires four prerequisites:
First, the need to clearly know when to invoke the rule. When is a situation a moral hazard meriting zero-tolerance? Most of us would suggest that situations that involve actual or risked harm, especially to vulnerable individuals, are clearly wrong. However, I think the list also includes suggestions of discrimination, harassment, unprofessional conduct and the like. The list of situations that merit zero-tolerance treatment should be ingrained in one’s psyche. While it is often a simple matter of knowing right from wrong, when in doubt it is preferable to err on the side of moral rectitude rather than moral laxness.
SECOND, THE NEED to continuously scan for such situations, much like an anti-virus program scans for computer threats. We should always be vigilant, for these situations can arise anywhere, as when we come upon a crime while walking or overhear of unethical behavior at a party. However, and fortunately, we can readily identify many of these situations by being careful to fully address the complaints or concerns of others, or by ensuring careful review of specific and risky situations, such as those where related individuals are in supervisory relations.
Third, the need act to automatically and reflexively when a zero-tolerance situation is identified. Potential actions include triggering an investigation, verifying facts and informing the appropriate authorities, including the police when a possible crime is involved. Victims deserve justice and relief, and those who stand wrongly accused deserve vindication.
Fourth, the need to understand that simply conveying a message does not preclude further responsibility. Moral hazards affect the core of our humanity. Moral hazards are sticky, and everyone touched by the situation, those who commit it and those who know of it, become part of the hazard chain. One cannot disengage without further responsibility.
Finally, on a personal level, I often find it helpful to explain my decisions to others in my family or my team. This serves to not only highlight my concern to others, but to solidify my thinking and potentially clarify the thinking of others.
Moral hazards and criminal activity in our midst are thankfully rare. However, we should always remain vigilant, responding automatically and reflexively, and without hesitation, to any zero-tolerance situation.
WHEN WE TRAVEL on the narrow path of moral rectitude, the road becomes unambiguous and the risks of straying very clear. But we are all at risk for being morally and ethically blinded – every day.
To decrease the risk that we may stray over the cliff, we should always stay closely in tune with our internal compass and act with zero tolerance and automatically if our compass tells us that we may be straying away from our path. It’s much like, when driving at night, we are blinded by oncoming lights, and manage to stay on course by turning our eyes to the painted median.
(The writer became president of Georgia Heath Sciences University in 2010.)