Ethics in Higher Education Leadership: Current Themes and Trends

Ethics in Higher Education Leadership: Current Themes and Trends

Geraldine Torrisi-Steele
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-4141-8.ch001
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Universities have been around for a very long time and operated in very similar ways for hundreds of years, but they are not immune to the disruption of the 21st century. In resonance with the surrounding environment, institutions of higher education are in a state of change and having to respond to the globalization, unstable economies, and to the changing expectations of society. In what is sometimes referred to as the most tumultuous time of change in higher education, leaders are faced with the challenge of frequent and complex decision making, and oftentimes implicit ethical challenges. As higher education is thrown into upheaval, and corruption in higher education comes to the limelight, it is an opportune time to take stock of the ethical status of higher education leadership by identifying emerging themes in relation to ethics, as a platform for encouraging deeper consideration of ethics in higher education leadership.
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Leadership is fundamental to the success of organizations. Leadership is not easy. The great volumes of literature around leadership attest to the difficulties and complexities of leadership. To complicate matters further, the present time, as is often acknowledged in literature, is tumultuous, bordering on chaotic. As Peter Drucker (2012) observes, 21st century organizations, as a result of globalization and technological revolutions, are on a “threshold of chaos”. If organizations are to persist at this time then there is urgent need for leadership capabilities to support innovation, and agile strategic decision making.

“Leadership must be exercised in a fair and just manner mindful of the human dignity, the environment and rights of others that may be affected” (Pityana, 2017).

Leadership is inextricably bound to ethics. Most everything a leader does has a moral component – relationships with others, decision-making, exerting influence on followers, etc (Eubanks, Brown, & Ybema, 2012). Leaders, intentionally or unintentionally will engage in unethical as well as ethical behaviours (Eubanks, Brown, & Ybema, 2012), (Eubanks & Mumford, 2010). But there is yet much to learn about how leaders behave and how they construe ethics in relation to behaviour. Thiel, Bagdasarov, Harkrider, Johnson, and Mumford (2012) strongly argue for the need to better understand how leaders construct ethical behaviour, particularly in the context of their organizations and the surrounding complex environment. There is substantial evidence to suggest that ethical leadership is closely linked to positive employee outcomes in terms of well-being and job satisfaction Avey et al. (2012)

It is against the above described background that the issues of ethics in higher education leadership are considered. The enormous challenges faced by higher education at the present time are well-acknowledged in literature (Kisner & Hill, 2011). Higher education institutions are exposed to unprecedent social and economic forces never before experienced. Subjected to these forces, universities are compelled to change; change that is not merely surface but deep-rooted change, which inevitably forces examination of core values and brings to the fore the issue of ethics in higher education leadership.

Mervyn Frost (2016) argues that higher education plays a central ethical role in societies with respect to the advancement of knowledge. The “ethical duty of universities” upholds Frost (2016), “ is to question truth claims, to seek explanations, to find good understandings, and not to propound one or another doctrine without question”. Unethical behaviours in higher education undermine the ethical values that are indispensable to the very reason for the existence of higher education – the pursuit and production of knowledge (Frost, 2016). Furthermore, because the business of higher education is knowledge production, universities exert substantial influence over society at large and therefore the ethical character of universities ultimately influences the ethical character of society at large.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Quality: A subjective and highly contextualised perception of the extent to which something meets standards of use or usefulness. There is no agreed definition of quality.

Management: The definition, planning and monitoring of activities for achieving particular outcomes within particular resource constraints.

Efficiency: Achieving maximum productivity with minimal use of resources.

Leadership: Influencing others (followers) to create change to work towards the realization of a shared vision.

Ethics: Principles of behaviour associated with what is right and what is wrong.

Shared Leadership: Shared leadership is the antithesis to individual or heroic leadership. The focus in shared leadership is on collaboration and influence “across organisational and professional boundaries” ( Bolden, Jones, Davis, & Gentle, 2015 , p. 3).

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