Can Universities Teach People Not To Be Corrupt? Reflections on the Poznan Declaration

Some months back, I came across the Poznan Declaration on “Whole-of-University Promotion of Social Capital, Health and Development,” which its proponents describe as “a formal statement aimed at mainstreaming ethics and anti-corruption in higher education.” (I’d meant to write about it earlier, but I got sidetracked by a relatively peripheral reference in the Declaration to changes in national corruption levels.) In general, I like the idea of promoting anticorruption norms through education, and as a university professor I’m naturally sympathetic to (and flattered by) the idea that university education could make a big difference here. And insofar as the main objective of the Poznan Declaration’s supporters is to promote more discussion among university faculty and administrators in different countries about these issues, I’m all for it.

Yet in reading the Declaration, I couldn’t help but feel a bit of nagging skepticism about some of the implicit premises behind the enterprise. Let me see if I can try to articulate some of the reasons, and perhaps invite some of the proponents of the Poznan Declaration, and the more general push to incorporate “anticorruption education” in the university curriculum, to respond.

The first question I have is what, exactly, the “value-based education” envisioned by the Poznan Declaration would actually look like. I’ve found it’s often difficult to nail down the proponents of anticorruption education (especially at the university level – it’s actually a bit easier at the elementary school level) to specify exactly what an anticorruption curriculum would attempt to teach, and how. The Poznan Declaration is actually a bit better than other advocacy documents on this issue, in that it at least tries to sketch out the elements of such a curriculum. The Declaration says that the curriculum “could comprise complementary educational approaches, such as the dissemination of hard data, seminars discussing basic values and ethics, and case studies,” and suggests more specifically (1) presenting data on the “strong relationship between levels of corruption [… ], and health and development,” (2) raising awareness of domestic anticorruption legislation and international treaties, and (3) holding “discussion seminars on which values and norms we want to govern our social interactions, and what they mean in particular situations.” But as someone who spends a lot of time thinking about course design in other contexts, I’m still hard-pressed to envision exactly what an effective university course would look like here. Perhaps before we get ahead of ourselves in calling on all universities to adopt a curriculum like this, we could get some examples of actual, complete syllabi (not just suggested readings or case studies)? The website on supporting documents for the Poznan Declaration has links to various case studies, documents, and “e-learning tools”, but so far as I can tell, no links to any actual course syllabi.

Of course – though this is mostly a side point – many professional schools (at least in the US, and I’m assuming elsewhere) already have professional ethics classes. Such classes are a required part of the curriculum in US law schools, business schools, medical schools, etc. It’s not clear how well they work, but at least they exist. Oddly, the Poznan Declaration doesn’t have much of anything to say about these existing parts of professional school curricula, even though they would seem to be directly relevant to the larger project.

But the next really big question I have is why we believe that teaching anticorruption materials in the classroom would help all that much. The Poznan Declaration states that if most university graduates “have received training in anti-corruption, it is possible that social trust and social capital will be promoted, leading to a virtuous circle form which national health and development stands to benefit.” Well, maybe. Or maybe not. University education is not like magic – it’s not like we faculty members stand up and wave our wands and impart knowledge (let alone values!) to our students. It’s hard for me to imagine that if an instructor did the things the Poznan Declaration advocates – tells the students the corruption is bad for the country’s economy, tells them that it’s against domestic and international law, has them discuss values and hard choices – that this will make much of a dent in countries where corruption is pervasive, and where the social and material incentives strongly encourage corrupt behavior and discourage integrity. Moreover, contrary to stereotypes, it is generally not the case that corruption is considered legitimate behavior in most countries. It may be widespread, and grudgingly tolerated – and perhaps for that reason the social opprobrium or personal guilt for engaging in corrupt behavior is lower than we would like – but the idea that people (especially people entering university) need to be told that corruption is bad and illegal, and that if they are so informed they will not be corrupt, strikes me as implausible. Now, maybe my skepticism is unwarranted, but – as I’ve written before – it would be nice to at least try to conduct some experiments, or serious research of any kind, on the impact of various curricular or pedagogical reforms before we charge ahead.

One other concern, also related to something I’ve written about before: There’s a tension between the Poznan Declaration’s emphasis on teaching students to have the right values – teaching them not to be corrupt – and teaching them to hone their critical thinking skills. The Poznan Declaration itself supplies an example, in that it emphasizes repeatedly the importance of teaching students corruption and lack of social trust are bad for development. Now, I happen to believe (strongly) that this is true – at least the corruption part (the social trust literature is much murkier than the Declaration lets on). But I also view it as an empirical research question, about which there are certainly many legitimate concerns about the data, alternative explanations, etc. The more pressure we put on instructors to teach these social science questions in a way that leads students in a particular direction, so as to shape the students’ values, the more we may be undermining, perhaps unintentionally, the cultivation of skeptical critical thinking that is also an essential part of a university education.

This may seem like paranoia, but I don’t think it is. A personal anecdote: I was at a conference recently where I was discussing issues related to the potential politicization of anticorruption agencies. Two prominent anticorruption activists basically told me, in so many words, that they were deeply disturbed that I might ever raise these issues with my students (even though my classroom teaching was not even part of the discussion before that point); they accused me, in quite sharp language, of contributing to the “culture of impunity” by even allowing my students to consider whether accusations of political bias against anticorruption agencies could ever be worth taking seriously. Now, that was a bit extreme, and the dozen-odd other anticorruption activists in the room immediately leapt to my defense and spoke up in favor of open debate on all these questions. But I do think it illustrates the fact that when people start viewing university education primarily as a way to impart (anticorruption) values, they may have an urge to want to shut down certain conversations, or not explore certain hard questions, for fear that broaching these topics might muddy up the inculcation of values.

Finally, there is one point where I am in 100% agreement with the authors and proponents of the Poznan Declaration, and that is the need to act more aggressively to root out corruption within the universities themselves. As the Poznan Declaration puts it, universities need to “talk the talk and walk the walk” by “ensuring impartiality in teaching, student assessment, [and] research[,] and [ensuring] that matters regarding awards of degrees, employment and promotions are based on legitimate, transparent and objective criteria.” To my mind, this should be at the very top of the agenda for university-centered anticorruption approach, not at the bottom. (In the Declaration, it appears as the very last bullet point of the “To Do” list on the last page, and is not addressed anywhere else in the document.) Students, especially university students, tend to be hyper-aware of hypocrisy in all its forms. It’s hopeless, and perhaps even counterproductive, to push an anticorruption curriculum in a university where students regularly pay bribes for grades or admission, where cheating and plagiarism are rampant, and where other forms of corruption and dishonesty are widespread. Indeed, I would much prefer the Poznan Declaration’s supporters to refocus their attention and efforts almost entirely on fighting corruption within the university, rather than trying to use university courses to teach anticorruption norms. Some civil society organizations, such as Not in My Country, have taken up the issue of fighting corruption within universities, and they could use support. While the two approaches are certainly not mutually exclusive, I tend to think that focusing on fighting corruption within the education sector will do more to spread anticorruption norms than will the creation of anticorruption courses and curricula.

9 thoughts on “Can Universities Teach People Not To Be Corrupt? Reflections on the Poznan Declaration

  1. Matthew, thank you for your reflections on the Poznan Declaration, and especially your final reflection that “focusing on fighting corruption within the education sector will do more to spread anticorruption norms than will the creation of anticorruption courses and curricula.”

    To prepare for the first chapter of her book, THE SELF BEYOND ITSELF, The New Press, New York (2013), Prof. Heidi Ravven of Hamilton College began “with an investigation of moral education in America from colonial times to the present”, p. 4. While her investigation involved moral education at home and in primary and secondary school, I think that her conclusions would apply to college education as well. Professor Ravven visited the prize-winning schools that used “Character Education”, “Virtues-based Education”, or the progressive notion of the evolution of values vs.the “direct teaching of eternal verities” including three new approaches to ethical education: “values clarification, cognitive developmentalism and a caring approach to morals.” p.34.

    In looking at all of these differening approaches to moral education in the United States, Raven concluded that all of them were based on a bedrock American belief in free will, individual moral responsibility, and the resulting individual moral successes or failures. All, that is, except for John Dewey’s approach, which “recommended contextual interventions into social structures rather than direct attempts to educate or manipulate the individual will.” p.46. Citing moral education investigators Daniel Lapsley and Darcia Narvaez, she concludes that “moral education can never be simply about the character of children without also addressing the context of education, that is to say, the culture, climate, structure and function of classrooms and schools.”, p. 47. She goes on to describe how this social development model succeeded in the Seattle Social Development Project. pp. 47-48.

    Which takes us back to your urgent suggestion to focus on fighting corruption within one’s own educational institution, which requires joint intervention by students, workers, professors, administrators and perhaps other stakeholders, in the social structures of the university and of the education sector as a whole, which may result in the bonding required for the social moral development of the participants.

  2. This is very incisive work, Professor. I especially liked your point about the tension between using the classroom to preach particular ethical norms, on the one hand, and using the classroom to cultivate critical thinking on the other. As an HLS grad, practicing lawyer, and current undergraduate business ethics instructor at San Diego State, I side with you in believing the better approach is to expose students to the range of ethical norms and approaches and engage them in examining the strengths and weaknesses in each set of norms and approaches. That, coupled with a discussion of laws such as the FCPA to keep these budding professionals out of jail, strikes me as the right balance. The university is better off focusing on being a sermon in deed than preaching a sermon in word.

  3. I tend to agree with some of Mathew’s skepticism and i particular about the emphasis on the last point of the Declaration.
    Teaching anti-corruption courses at the university level is not meant to make the future lawyers, political scientists, sociologists, etc. resistant to corruption or anti-corruption political activists (these are sort of individual choices maybe to be promoted through family and primary school education) but rather to become aware of the need to uphold the acknowledged cultural and legal anti-corruption values and norms. For example, there are still many countries in which anti-corruption legislation is not in place or is not comprehensive. Teaching about and discussing the obligation stemming from an international convention such as UNCAC is one of the ways to
    promote a professional anti-corruption attitude against impunity, for legality and for the full respect of the international obligations the government has signed to by ratifying UNCAC. Teaching anti-corruption course which will include both legal and sociological/political science dimensions will bring about a comparative understanding of the phenomenon and assist in appreciating the importance of international approach and cooperation.
    Academic Anti-Corruption Initiative (ACAD) promoted under the auspicies of UNODC/UNCAC is a good example of the above. At its last meeting in Doha (25-26 February 2015) it adopted a number of recommendations and also discussed the Poznan Declaration. Ugi Zvekic

  4. I’m generally fairly skeptical about the effectiveness of ethics courses (including the professional ethics courses you mentioned)–at best, it seems like they’re in a position to shape how one thinks about cases on the margins/in the grayest of gray zones (in which case the critical evaluation skills you mentioned come into play, along with perhaps a course-heightened awareness of all the concerns and factors that one might previously might not have considered), and much less able to actually persuade someone to do something they already have a sense is wrong in some legal or moral way. To a large extent, such courses seem like they boil down to trying to convince someone that s/he should not do something in their immediate self-interest because it does not align with bigger-picture values. Though that also describes the entire value-learning process we go through during our lives (particularly when we’re young), it also seems like too large a task for a university course (or even several) to take on. Even if we don’t have enough anticorruption curricula to evaluate yet, I’m guessing some work must have been done on the other university ethics courses you mentioned. Are those effective? If education can ever be effective in developing morals/ethics/values, It just seems like targeting university students is either too late (i.e., should be done with children, who are closer to blank slates) or too early (i.e., should be done with professionals who have some real-world experience with which to approach and contextualize the subjects being discussed). I guess university courses fall in the “it can’t hurt, so why not try it?” category, but if there is a limited amount of resources to devote to anticorruption efforts, it may not be the most effective use of those resources–unless there’s a separate pool of resources that can be tapped into just for these efforts.

  5. There is a fascinating organization in India called Lead India 2020, led by former President Abdul Kalam. The organization isn’t strictly focused on anticorruption but on ethics and civic engagement generally. They do this by working closely with youth first through workshops that are conducted in urban and rural areas. These workshops are aimed at local university youth or older high school children, and contain leadership sessions, critical-thinking and teamwork exercises, and small group discussions on combating local problems that most effect development in their areas (nearly always including corruption). After the workshop, the youth are officially enrolled in the program and after to complete certain practical steps such as leading a local organization in a social movement, organizing a fundraiser, participating in community service, reporting a bribe, etc. I cannot find the actual curriculum online but this is what I recall hearing about the program itself. I think the goal here is not that there is a professor preaching to a room of students about corruption and its evils, which you rightly point out is a little disturbing. Rather, the goal is to cultivate certain leadership skills, ethics, a sense of obligation to their communities, and get students to discuss these issues under the protection and legitimacy of something like a classroom setting. Do you think these kinds of programs that have educational and practical components, if tailored more to fighting corruption, might be different from the programs you identify above?

    • I agree both with the original post and some of the commentators that such a lesson would be far more effective in an early childhood setting (or perhaps introduced early on and then reinforced through to the University level) than if it were first brought up in a University Course.

      Regarding the corruption within universities themselves, I would refer back to my sextortion post on this blog. Another common problem in universities in many corrupt countries is a demand that students provide sex in exchange for grades — any effort to root out corruption within academia would be incomplete without including that as one of the types of corrupt act that they try to fight.

  6. I’ll again echo other comments that the timing of interventions designed to teach values in a university setting seems late in the game (although, setting aside concerns about optimal resource allocation, I believe any anticorruption education is good). It’s an overgeneralization but I’d say that university-level students and certainly graduate students, at least in the U.S., are far more inclined to push back on their professors than accept teachings at face value, a point that the original post touches upon in the discussion of hypocrisy. High school is a more formative time, when students still have the knowledge and maturity to discuss issues of ethics and values.

    But this point has me wondering about student activism – or lack thereof – against corruption on college campuses and in communities at large. I don’t know much at all about student organizations and their activities in endemically corrupt countries but I could hope they would be more prominent. To be sure, there are a number of reasons why students would not speak out against corruption, including possible stigma, retaliation, the fact that many of them are already beneficiaries of the status quo, etc. But there are also many reasons why student-led movements would be popular – university culture often fosters progressive activism, there might be lower risk to students speaking out because they aren’t yet employees of state structures that depend on graft, many current university-age students came of age after the adoption UNCAC and the escalation of anticorruption rhetoric and activities, etc. I know Not In My Country organizes student chapters – I’d like to hear more about these efforts and others.

  7. Working as an anti-corruption consultant for the past 13 years, in East Africa, South East Asia, the Caribbean and currently in the Pacific, I strongly agree with Mr Stephenson’s scepticism about the efficacy of teaching values to university students. The key point in his excellent piece is that in most parts of the world corruption is automatically considered wrong in populations where the vast majority of citizens have not had a university education of any kind. As he notes, even where it is accepted, acceptance is only grudging. Clearly the origin of people’s visceral distaste for corruption is rather more primal than anything gained in a lecture theatre.

    The effective combating of corruption requires a complex web of interlocking laws and citizen engagement to create a culture which encourages the effective enforcement of laws. The passage of laws, and the establishment of institutions, aimed at reducing corruption, are only effective if there is, among the human beings who inhabit the institutions, the will to enforce the laws and other codified procedures such as accounting standards. The links between the institutional culture and the wider culture is crucial to effective anti corruption work as can be seen in the effectiveness of Indonesia’s anti corruption agency the KPK over the past decade. The KPK’s ongoing conflict with corruption in Indonesia’s police force has seen it face periodic existential threats. Its fate has been repeatedly determined by the vigorous expression of citizen support, not by the education of its staff.

    Similarly, although less obviously involving corruption (many of course will want to debate this point but that’s for another forum), the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) that became evident in 2008 was a product of the approach to the enforcement of laws and standards arising from an underlying set of values. For example, Alan Greenspan’s commitment to laissez faire economics, and the prevailing orthodoxy of market driven decision making, meant that the tools that could have averted or at least minimised the GFC were not applied. It seems to me that the willingness to use a law, or require adherence to codified procedure such as an accounting standard, is unlikely to arise from a university course, and to more likely arise from the social milieu in which the people live. I have yet to hear of a university course in bravery.

  8. Hi Mr Stephenson,
    Thanks for writing such a meaningful blog. Its great discussion in comments. It’s very important and great thought to teach students in Institutions on ethical and moral values which leads to make any youngster a good citizen and human being. Even it’s important for starting a happy successful career and life, which only comes from inner peace and honesty. We can teach our kids from childhood about anti Corruption and follow path of excellence and good practice. Because corruption start from lies and ill desire which can never give inner peace and none can flourish without inner happiness and peace.

    “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.”

    “”Man surprised me most about humanity. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”
    – Dalai Lama

    Ajay Sony

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