October 2008


Colleges and Universities: Institutionalized Unethical Behavior

James W. Satterfield

Clemson University

316 Tillman Hall

Clemson, SC 29634




Carrie Dupree

Clemson University



William Hason

Clemson University


This paper argues the normative everyday crisis management philosophy put forth by most colleges and universities today does not promote a sound ethical decision making process during a crisis. In this paper we use two theoretical constructs to explain why we believe everyday normative management in colleges and universities can be perceived as unethical in the midst of crisis management. Traditionally, in institutions of higher education, crisis management has been more of reputation management. The necessity to maintain status deems public relations professionals vital to the success of an institution. They must also be prepared to protect that institutional esteem in any situation. This in part is because colleges and universities are institutionalized to operate from the perspective of reputation management.

The environment in which colleges and universities exist is an environment that is open and dependent up outside resources and information that help shape the organization (Scott, 2003). The world in which we live has changed over the past decades, bringing new threats to our environment and crises that affect organizations’ abilities to operate in a business-as-usual manner. Change is not only continuous (Basseches, 1986), but reveals itself as an environment of increasing rapidity (Hooijberg, Hunt, & Dodge, 1997; Ireland & Hitt, 2005; Marshak, 2004). Characteristics of this change (turbulent, dynamic, etc.) have manifested themselves as societal instability (Carley, 1999). This instability has forced institutions to incorporate increasing amounts of control measures, when counter-intuitively; it must become more flexible and robust to meet emergent internal and external demands.

The fact today is that colleges and universities are microcosms of our world as we know it. They exist with their own law enforcement, judicial systems, entertainment, political environments, health and living facilities, and governing systems. These things are necessary to maintain the organizational structure and provide for institutional stability. However, just like cities throughout the world, colleges and universities are not immune to social problems, natural disasters, manmade disasters, epidemics, pandemics, and terrorist attacks. Any one of these issues could stress any country, state, or local community to the point of failure. No one knows if these events are inevitable in nature, but the mere possibility of them warrants a clear crisis management strategy that maintains order.

Crises are “unpredictable and varied” in nature (Duke and Masland, 2002, 30) and imply “change from standard operating procedures, where this change has significant implications for performance and people” (Mumford et al., 2007, 515). Crisis expert Steven Fink pointed out four similarities of all crises; crises: are escalating; come under scrutiny of the media; interfere with normal operations; and jeopardize the positive public image of the organization (Fink, 1986). Two of the four points outlined by Fink represent reputation damages and one represents a disruption of business-as-normal.

The first, escalation represents a continuously changing context requiring requisite response. This includes the ability to change organizational priorities and make ethical decisions. The next two—media and public image pressures, stimulate non-ethical responses toward institution needs while omitting the concern for member well being. The last—that of conducting the mission of the institution is disrupted as resources and member focus are diverted toward the crisis.

This broad context of “crises” spans across industries, yet explorations of crises have often been set in a business context. More specifically, explorations have most commonly regarding not just business, but business-continuity and maintaining business-as-usual to protect a business’ reputation. One can look to landmark crisis management cases such as Johnson & Johnson’s Tylenol contamination and Exxon’s notorious oil spill to see the focus on business-as-usual and reputation management. Higher education institutions are becoming more business-like and can learn from this idea of business-as-usual and reputation management to plan for the unexpected.

Because of societal and organizational changes, crisis management has needed to evolve to adjust. Sapriel (2007) indicated, “gone are the days when corporate spokespeople could work with their journalist contacts to mop up bad news when things when wrong. Crisis management used to consist of having the PR department writes up a crisis manual and organize media training to make sure top management was ready for the worst.” (p.24) In addition a general lack of coordination in managing the different elements of crises – risk management and business continuity to name two— which results in “gaps and/or overlaps in processes, which reduce overall effectiveness” (Sapriel, 2007, p.25). Therefore, it has become essential to assign complete ownership to one person to employ an integrated approach. Universities employ full-time managers to cover areas of diversity, promotion, and fundraising; hiring a crisis general manager is equally important.


Given the landscape of crises in America, colleges and universities are finding themselves having to change institutional rules, and follow new government regulations to manage the scope of catastrophes. An organization’s reputation is arguably its most valuable asset; as a result, a positive reputation is highly related to organization success (Gibson, Gonzales, & Castanon, 2006, 15). Yet this reputation is constantly at risk. Over time, institutions have become more sensitive to regulating behavior associated with the institution in order to preserve its reputation—vital for survival. External environmental conditions have long been represented as one that holds suspicion of the higher education institution (Rudolph, 1990). This has forced universities to develop an extensive regulatory framework incorporating reactive responses—to include public image management, resulting in limiting decision making processes and inhibiting Aristotelian reasoning during crisis.

Institutions are aware that behavior perceived outside the normative realm and associated with the college in any form, lowers credibility and reputation; on or off campus behavior representing catastrophic incidences create a suspicious public and increases criticism (Knight & Auster, 1999). If not handled in a manner that meets external and internal expectation, organizational standing and repute are diminished (Kelley, Agle, & DeMott, 2006; Kelley & Chang, 2007; Yeo & Chien, 2007). This in turn, damages institutional authority and influence (Caldwell, Karri, & Matula, 2005; Eckel, 2000).

A good reputation “represents the regard or esteem an institution or individual has in society” (Byrum, 2007, p. 14). Similarly, to corporate America colleges and universities seek to establish and maintain brand and name recognition. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are nearly 7,000 colleges in the United States. Naturally, with this vast array of schools from which to choose, students look to school reputation to help make decisions. The trend of university reputation rankings began in 1983 with U.S. News & World Report (Van Dyke, 2005) and the trend continues to grow. Beyond student enrollment, a university’s negative reputation could affect its many and varied stakeholders, affecting such large elements as funding and university morale” (Dolan, 2006, 20). For colleges and universities the outside world is larger than their on campus population; therefore, maintaining a positive reputation is paramount.

Like traditional corporate life, in times of institutional crisis “crafting and mediating your message to the outside world is critical. In order to accomplish this, the normative aspects of institutional culture must be clear. In most cases the normative nature in which colleges and universities operate in has been institutionalized over a period of time, thus making it hard to deviate during periods of crisis. Moreover, in today’s consumer-based society, perception is reality, and reality affects the bottom line. Maintaining a positive reputation requires data-driven analysis and constant review by organizational leaders. “Crisis management is no different in its need for constant, data-driven analysis that impacts corporate actions, behavior, and public communication, with repeated plan revisions” (Gibson, Gonzales, & Castanon, 2006, p. 18). However, given the process of institutionalization, the ideological nature and adherence to the unethical philosophy of reputation management as crisis management is not unusual, particularly when what a person does is mostly a representation of their environment (D’Andrade, 1984).This level of habitualized behavior is linked to the process of developing shared meaning (Schutz, 1967).  Thus, as people assigned meaning to certain behaviors overtime, the instances in which meanings change would occur decreased and resistance to change increased (Zucker, 1977). 

Institutional Pillars

The unethical institutionalized behavior of crisis management through reputation management can, in part be conceptually explained through two of three concepts in Scott’s (1995) idea of normative and regulative and cognitive institutional pillars.  The normative pillar tells us that “norms specify how things should be done; they define legitimate means to pursue valued ends” (Scott, 1998, p. 37). The regulative pillar emphasizes rules, laws, and sanctions. North (1990) said that institutions have formal written rules and unwritten codes, which, if broken, are followed up by sanctions and punishments. The cognitive element of institutions constitutes the nature of reality and how meaning is made of things. “Mediating between the external world of stimuli and the response of the individual . . . is a collection of internalized symbolic representation of the world” (Scott, 1995, p. 40). Therefore, when thinking about crisis management through the conceptual lenses of institutional pillars we can see that traditional institutional norms limit social behavior but simultaneously promote social action (Scott, 1998). Yet, the social action carried out reflects the habitual nature in which people carry out their work (March and Olsen, 1998). This is how the routine and standardization of norms inhibits and influences the decision making process during a crisis. For example, in the Virginia Tech University massacre a lone gunman killed 32 students. During the midst of the crisis university administration took two hours to craft a message that was going out to the public. This is clearly an instance where reputation management was more important than managing the crisis. We are in no way suggesting that the university leadership purposefully with held information. Rather, we believe they simply were the victim to their own institutionalized norms. Following the shooting at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007, presidents of other colleges looked at Virginia Tech’s President’s performance and questioned “the readiness of presidents to act like corporate executives, take visible control of a campus in crisis, manage the onslaught of camera and microphones, and strike the right tones of both grief and confidence” (Fain, 2007, 17). “The immediate aftermath of any event that takes so many young and promising lives is, at best, chaotic and emotionally charged (Worsley & Beckering, 2007, p. 3).”  “Emergency preparedness at the higher education level must take an ‘all hazards’ approach; it must include preparedness for any contingency” (Worsley & Beckering, 2007, p. 3).

This institutional response to environmental pressure, in a naturalistic move toward survival, unconsciously places the institution above individual member well being. We argue that this can be for a number of reasons: First, in a context common to daily organizational life, many ethical decisions hold the luxury of time and reflection; crisis reshapes this context. While institutional processes handle the majority of issues is a methodical, thorough manner, dynamic contexts overwhelm the normative and regulatory functions of the institution. Institutional agents are driven to think of institutional needs, rather than individual member needs as that is the nature of their daily life. Second, regulatory response becomes habitulized in an environment alien to crisis—it supplements decision processes involving common issues. Pre-formed responses are there to minimize resource demands—a framework to maximize efficiency and effectiveness and normally posing no immediate threat to member well being. Third, institutions fail to acknowledge that when the environment changes—when it becomes turbulent, habitual responses fail to adjust. In the context of member well being, such as a shooter on campus, institutional response measures may need to be reprioritized, adapted to the needs of member well being. Fourth, in the context of Aristotelian ethics, institutions are constrained. The institution propensity is to respond using embedded processes while reacting under time limitations. These processes omit deliberate ethical reasoning during crisis. That is, reason guides ethical response, and considers others affected by institutional actions (Rachels, 1986).

It is the normative value on public reputation that promotes unethical institutional behavior during crises. Intertwined personal and organizational pressures for success create a dynamics ripe for ethical leadership failure (Ciulla, 2003, p. 77). Over time, institutional success can propagate expectation of further success and make failure so significant, that ethical principles are sometimes made secondary. This is not to imply that this is a conscious process, but an incremental shift driven by survival response. Moreover, the obedience to formal rules and laws helps reinforce an institutional value structure that can lead to crisis management process that is inherently unethical. In many ways when institutional behavior like this occurs people are left asking a what Peters (1966) calls practical questions like what should I do and Why do I do this rather than that? However, practical questions can cross personal boundaries, leaving a community to ask “what should we do?” (Warnick, 2007, p. 5).

In most organizations there comes a point where they simply seek to survive and or maintain institutional legitimacy (Scott, 2001). The normative actions that provide institutional legitimacy are morally governed. Institutions of higher education are no different; however, legitimacy may come under question In times of crisis higher education institutions have recently experienced lapses in ethical behavior (Humphrey, Janosik, & Creamer, 2004; Solbrekke & Karseth, 2006; Valey, 2001). Most often unethical behavior is also demonstrated through the regulative institutional pillar. Many of the rules associated with crisis management on a college and university campuses were born out of reaction to particular crises. It is not that colleges and universities intend to operate unethically during crises, but rather it is the regulative nature in which task environments exist that dictate procedural standards. In most cases, colleges and universities have neither the technology nor the task environment to handle large scales crises. More than likely a strategic contingency exist within the institution. Although a good idea, strategic contingencies can cause divergent perspectives that move institutions away from philosophy of reputation management.

Professional Bureaucracy

Like many corporations in the United States, colleges and universities operate under a hierarchical structure. Within this structure the ability to rely on the standardization of skills is paramount. The value of colleges and universities utilizing a professional bureaucracy in the time of crisis is crucial to allowing the operating core to remain intact. The current organizational structure of most post-secondary institutions does not does not standardize the skills in crisis management. Often you have university administrators and staff with skills in academic areas

heading up response teams. With the focus on reputation management it is not uncommon to find situations spinning out of control while a small groups figures out how to protect and maintain the institutional core. However, what we believe is if colleges and universities were to employ a model of a professional bureaucracy it would allow a crisis management team to have control over their work (Mintzberg, 1979). Moreover, they would have a higher level of autonomy in a crisis situation that would allow the institution to protect its operating core. Within a professional bureaucracy influence over a situation comes from expertise and not formal authority (Bunker& Wijnberg, 1988). The less formal professional network offers a more dynamic, adaptive process of meeting emergent needs (Uhl-Bien, Marion, & McKelvey, 2007), more sensitive to a context of crisis.

Professionals need to be free from interference to be able to concentrate on their activities. Yet given the usually stable relationships between these organization and their environments, professionals rarely realize the importance of such a role until they are face with a crisis (Cheng, 1990, p. 186). Traditionally, power in a professional bureaucracy is concentrated in the operating core but is diffused among members of the operating core (Cheng, 1990). If a professional desires to control his or her own work they will quite naturally desire to control decisions in the time of crisis.

 Within the professional bureaucracy skills are coordinated and standardized. Most importantly, “control over his own means that the professional works relatively independent of his colleagues, but closely with the clients he serves” (Mintzberg, 1979, p. 349). When examining the purposes colleges and universities it is important to understand they have a different technical structure. What a professional bureaucracy would offer is the ability to protect the institutional core by allowing a unit to focus strictly on the crisis at hand while the other units remained focused on the institutional operating core. This allows for more ethical decision making because the power is decentralized. Moreover, it would allow for professionals to be free of interference or outside influence thus allowing them to focus strictly on crisis management activities. In the midst of crisis a professional bureaucracy enables leaders to create a structure, a cognitive structure, for understanding and responding to the high stakes crisis situations that ultimately clarify goals during an event (Mumford et al., 2007). Although decentralization allows for many different perspectives we argue that in a time of crisis only one perspective should matter and that is the professionals whom are trained to handle crisis events. It comes down to a question of competency. In the time of crisis would you rather have institutional leaders trained in an academic discipline making decisions regarding student safety during pandemic flu, or would you prefer an administrative system that allowed for professional to assume collective control of decisions during crisis events? Traditionally what happens in colleges and universities is that they “seek to acquire expertise concerning strategy application and will seek to apply appropriate strategies to appropriate types of problems (Mumford, et al, 2007, 533).” This process simply takes up to might time in the decision making process in the midst of a crisis.


Hiller and Peters (2005) mention the importance of careful reflection to “generate the necessary discussions and deliberations to create clearer policies to benefit responsible faculty and institutional administrators alike” (p. 201). This allows institutional members to incorporate considerations for their well being (Uhl-Bien et al., 2007), rather than allow the institution to respond as an inate eniety and forgetting members in the process.

Ethical constraints imposed by external forces (society and government), as well as those imposed by the organization, and by various groups play a tremendous part in organizational adaptation and survival. Survival steers behavior (Ciulla, 2003). Organizations have a history of conflict between organizational effectiveness and ethical behavior (Ciulla, 2003). They can be bounded in ethicality—unable to see ethical challenges or issues in their normative or regulatory processes (Chugh, Bazerman, & Banaji, 2005).

Change to institutional structure and conventions do not change institutional unethical behavior—there must be a change in culture (Luban, 2006, p. 74). For bottom-up processes to work, healthy normative frameworks should be well established. Schein (1992) proffers that organizational culture provides “structural stability” (p. 10). Culture includes moral thought—a collective of ethical beliefs and values in formal and informal organizations. It includes norms, values, rules, organizational climate, as well as other aspects (Schein, 1992). At the center of this are the organizational members.



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