Universities responsible to public

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

January 23, 2008 Ed Cartoon

Last summer, The New York Times looked at how university study abroad program providers offer incentives including rebates, free and subsidized travel, unpaid seats on advisory boards and other benefits to university administration in exchange for exclusive partnerships. Since then, the New York attorney general’s investigation into this has expanded to 15 colleges and universities, Harvard University being the most notable.

The concern is students miss out on potential opportunities and pay higher prices for international experiences when exclusive partnerships are chosen over others based on the administration’s interests.

Universities, as public institutions, are bound to act in the name of education. For this reason, its priorities should be accommodating research and providing the best, and most appropriate, opportunities for students. Personal kickbacks that compromise this mandate are a breach of public trust.

Some may find it easy to believe that corruption of this sort would occur in an area that isn’t transparent or regulated. After all, these partnerships are made behind closed doors, and the reasons for choosing one partnership over another is at the sole discretion of the university since each institute provides different opportunities based on its programs.

However, public institutions must act fairly and standards of accountability must apply to study abroad programs as much as any policy that directly affects students. Much like in politics, the passive acceptance of corruption by the public only further normalizes it.

Because study abroad program partnerships have thus far been unregulated, the National Association of Foreign Student Advisors’s report suggests regulating them is a positive move. With this regulation, university administrations will have to make public the nature of their deals with study abroad program providers, and be able to justify their every aspect.

It is worrying to think prestigious universities like Harvard would succumb to bribery. This discovery highlights the growing corporatization of universities; when administrations act in their own interest to the detriment of the people they serve, it creates a culture within the institutions that values private interests over the public’s.

Even if one accepts this as reality, the “consumers” of a university’s services can at least demand better service.

Perhaps it’s naïve to think business of this sort can rise above bribery and corruption. It’s tempting to think business is nothing more than greasing palms, but in the case of a public institution focused on education and the pursuit of truth, we must demand ethical behaviour.

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