Topic: Professions & Institutions

Berkeley’s Ethical Confusion

This story could be entitled: “Why our children are confused about ethics.”

U. S. Department of Education disqualified 30 Berkeley graduate students from seeking coveted Fulbright grants. Applications for the current round of Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Fellowship Program had to be mailed by October 20, 2003, demonstrated either by a postmark or a dated shipping label from a common carrier. Berkeley’s graduate division had assembled 30 applications and arranged for a FedEx pickup that would have met the deadline. FedEx, however, did not arrive on time. It happens.

Berkeley’s rep could have simply marched to the post office or a FedEx drop box to meet the deadline, but instead chose to e-mail DOE about the pickup snafu and promise that the package would be sent the next day. Note: sending it the next day would NOT satisfy the mailing deadline, and didn’t. FedEx picked up the package the following morning, and, amazingly, agreed to backdate the air bill, fraudulently showing that the applications had been shipped on time. But Education Department officials matched Berkeley’s e-mail to the grant proposals, and figured out that the back-dated air bill did not constitute compliance with the deadline. The 30 Berkeley students were ineligible, though through no fault of their own.

Bad luck? Absolutely. The fault lay not with the Department, however, but with the University, which botched its responsibility to get the applications in under the deadline. As the Department of Education pointed out, 60 other institutions had managed to meet the deadline, and the University of California did not warrant special treatment. True; the students would suffer for Berkeley’s mistake, and it would have been generous and kind for the Department to cut them some slack. Berkeley, however, is not the party to insist on such an approach, having created the problem. Yet that was what the University did, using the media to attack DOE for following its own procedures of the University of California at Berkeley. “It is an unnecessary, foolish, tragic incident,” lamented Mary Ann Mason, dean of the graduate school. She then proceeded to tell the New York Times that the school was being punished for its honesty. The e-mail had tipped off the Department that Berkeley had missed its deadline. Without it, the back-dated FedEx shipping slip would have carried the day.


Dean Mason seems to believe that the school’s admission must be rewarded with a waiver of the rules, or a message is being sent that honesty doesn’t pay. Or, in other words, honesty is only worth embracing if you get rewarded for it. This is 100% wrong, any way you look at it. One way to look at it is with an eyebrow cocked: a Berkeley employee, after all, engineered a back-dating of the shipping paperwork with the intention to deceive, and a fair reading of the facts is not that the e-mail was evidence of honesty, but simply proof of dishonesty as well as incompetence. Even taking the facts Mason’s way, however, does not support her premise. Berkeley’s proper course was to admit its mistake and plead for its students, recognizing that the Department had every right to disqualify them. Honesty is the best policy because the world works better, fairer, and more smoothly if everyone is honest, not because being honest entitles one to avoid the consequences of misconduct. The latter is a toxic lesson to be promoted by educators: be honest as long as it pays off. To the contrary: ethical conduct requires honesty when the truth will hurt; honesty often requires courage. Dean Mason’s philosophy seems to be that honesty is a strategy, and if it doesn’t pay off, well, maybe dishonesty is a better way.

It’s time for the teacher to go back to school. Honesty is right and good, and deserves admiration and emulation. It does not require a reward, and anyone who requires a reward to be honest does not really believe in honesty.

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