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Jul 17, 2009

The ethics of reporting

Because of certain events in our University, I was asked what is the responsibility of faculty to report? For example, if you hear a rumor, or a student has shared something in confidence – what should you do with this information? This is not exactly obvious, and I don't think we have a good policy or guidelines. Here is what I think, and please don't take it as the official University's line.

All information about intimidation, harassment, or inappropriate behavior should be immediately reported to me or to the Dean. Such behavior can be by faculty, staff, students; it can be related to sexual harassment, or racial, or gender, or other forms of prejudice, or just random. Every faculty and staff member is representing an institution, and should care about its well-being. It does not matter if you heard it in confidence, or indirectly, or believe it was exaggerated. If you hear something remotely credible and did not do anything, you accept a part of responsibility for what may or may not be another ugly story. Not reporting is condoning. University's administration has a responsibility to investigate, and to take actions, but it won't do anything until it knows something. Do not assume that if something was conveyed to you as a common knowledge it is a common knowledge.

Now, if you hear that so and so is not a fair teacher, or is weird, or dishonest, you do not have the same ethical obligation to report. It often makes sense to bring someone else's attention to the problem, but it really up to you who to talk to and if you want to talk at all. People's personal and professional weaknesses may be just as annoying or even damaging our community. However, if there is no harassment, intimidation, or inappropriate behavior, it remains squarely within your own common sense judgment to decide what to do with this information. As many of my colleagues have realized, I am generally nosy and like to know what's going on. But none of you have an ethical or professional obligation to indulge me on this. It is perfectly fine to keep the information confidential; you will not be responsible for doing so.

And the third class of information is when someone makes a mistake on the job. Those in general should not be reported, unless one of these conditions is true:

  1. It was a repeating error, a part of a pattern;
  2. It had costly consequences, in money or time, or reputation;
  3. You have a suggestion on how to prevent such mistakes in the future.

How do you distinguish between these kinds of things? One good way would be applying the Denver Post headline test. Compare these two headlines:

  • A UNC professor threatens a student with violence
  • A UNC professor loses a paper and gives an unfair "C"

Which one you think is more realistic? If your story is more like the second, it is probably up to you to report or not report it. If it more like the first, you have little choice but to report. Another way to figure it out is to imagine yourself or your child to be in the place of the alleged victim. Are you simply upset or enraged? If it is the latter, report, if the former, it is entirely up to you.

One way that is not so effective is asking whether we can be sued over this. First, most people don't have a good idea of what is and what is not a credible court case material. There are many myths and fears about being sued, but the University has a Council, let him decide those things. It is generally not very easy to bring a credible case to court without a specific damage or injury. And we are not in a very damaging business. Second, people litigate over so many things; it would be just paralyzing to always think about the threats of legal nature. The focus should be on us – are we doing right, honorable, reasonable things or not? If yes, the law is likely to be on our side.

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