Thursday, September 11, 2014

Conflict of Interest

One of the consequences of working in college admissions or college counseling is the tendency to view the world primarily through that lens.  It has been more than thirty years since my admissions days, and yet I still find myself giving directions using high schools as landmarks.

So several weeks ago when the national media reported on the ninth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans, I thought back to a very small part of that story.  In the days following Katrina, the admissions office at Tulane University relocated to my home town, Richmond, Virginia, operating out of the offices of enrollment marketing firm Royall and Company.  Tulane’s Dean of Admission and Vice President of Enrollment Management at the time, Dick Whiteside, now works for Royall.

Royall and Company received a mention in the Flagler College investigative report that was the topic of the last ECA post.  Royall had no connection to the data fraud perpetrated by Flagler’s former VP for Enrollment Management, but a second, collateral ethical issue identified in the report involves the former VP’s relationship with Royall.  In November, 2011 he doubled Flagler’s involvement with Royall without getting the required approval from either higher administrators or the Board.  What makes that problematic from an ethical perspective was that he did so at the same time he was being compensated by Royall as a consultant.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I know both Bill Royall and John Nester, the current President of Royall and Company, and consider both friends.  Bill helped establish a mentoring program for young professionals in Potomac and Chesapeake ACAC in memory of his cousin and my close friend Ann Powell, who died of cancer before being able to serve her term as PCACAC President, and her final request of me was that I oversee the development of that program.  John’s son was one of my advisees.  I know and share many of the concerns about the role played by vendors such as Royall and Company in college admissions.)

Is it ever acceptable for an admissions professional to receive compensation from a vendor with whom his or her office is doing business?  I think the answer is a clear “No.”  Even if the admissions person is providing legitimate consulting services, the potential for abuse, or even the perception of conflict of interest, is present and dangerous.

Conflict of interest is most clear and most unsavory when there is a financial arrangement involved.  One of the most troubling facets of the international agent landscape is how many agents represent multiple institutions, and even receive payment both from students and institutions.  How does a student or college employing the agent know that the agent is representing their interests, not giving advice and counsel based on what produces the most economic advantage for the agent?

The potential for conflict of interest is greatest when money is changing hands, but the reality is that all of us should be concerned about conflict of interest most of the time.  The philosopher W.D. Ross said that ethical duties arise out of relationships, and in most situations we are in multiple relationships with multiple roles and potentially multiple interests at stake.
 
As a college counselor, I serve my students, I serve their parents, I serve my school, and I also serve my own values as a professional and as an ethical individual.  Thankfully I am rarely placed in situations where there is a conflict in what those roles require.  When I am helping a student decide between institutions I need to be careful that I am hearing the student’s voice and not advising him based on what is best for my school’s college list.  When a parent asks me to advise the student to go to a less expensive public option, I have to navigate challenging territory.  My job is not to make the decision, but to advise and help the family come to consensus.  Serving the student’s interests and serving the parent’s interests can lead to conflict of interest when those interests don’t coincide.  It is worth stepping back in the midst of difficult situations to ask whose interests we are serving with a particular course of action.

Conflict of interest is especially dangerous because we have the amazing ability to rationalize our actions and behavior.  That became clear here in Virginia during the recent trial leading to the conviction of former Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife on federal corruption charges for accepting several hundred thousand dollars in gifts and loans from a businessman looking for their help and support with a dietary supplement his company was launching.  The trial can best be described as a soap opera, an embarrassment to the state that included a defense strategy that the couple could not be found guilty of conspiracy due to the fact that they didn’t talk to each other enough to conspire.

There is much about the case that is sad and bizarre and tragic.  I wasn’t a Bob McDonnell fan, but I don’t believe he is corrupt even if it is clear that he was guilty of the charges.  At some level he lost his conflict-of-interest compass, allowing his political ambitions (he was widely talked about as a possible running mate for Mitt Romney in 2012), his dysfunctional marriage (a huge problem for a politician who had run as a family values champion), and his personal financial woes to cloud his judgment and convince himself that he was serving the interest of his constituents by serving the interests of businessman Jonny Williams.


It is at times like these that I most appreciate the vow of poverty I unwittingly took years ago in choosing a non-profit career.  I don’t have to worry about people trying to buy me with golf outings and shopping trips, or paying me as a “consultant,” but that doesn’t mean I’m immune to conflict of interest.  It may be a footnote to the McDonnell and Flagler tragedies, but it’s an ethical issue all of us face.      

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