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Mark P. Murphy
Educational Leadership
The Pennsylvania State University

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Who Should Enter the Profession and for What Reasons?

My first year as a junior professor of educational leadership and policy studies at a Midwestern university provided me with an experience that serves as the basis for the title of this essay (“critical incident”). As part of a supervision of instruction class that I teach on a regular basis, I assign a group project where students are challenged to work together to develop a white paper. The white paper deals with advocating for a comprehensive, effective, and differentiated supervision and evaluation system to a specifically targeted audience. The goals of this assignment are manifold, but one important aspect is to get aspiring school leaders to think and work together in collaborative and constructive ways to develop a significant policy advocacy manuscript. This is no small task. In groups of four, and sometimes five, students wrestle with negotiating what to write, what form the paper should take, how to write in a dramatically different way than what they are accustomed to, and of course, figuring the division of labor. I’ve developed an assessment of this group work that is fairly sensitive; so this tool adds tension to the assignment. As you can see, this assignment is also a test of character. From my point of view, this is one of the most important, non-explicit learning goals in the course and presses students to behave as a leader would behave with other leaders.

One student, to remain entirely anonymous, had great difficulty with the assignment and ultimately with the group they worked with. My first indication that the assignment would stretch this person was their intense questioning about the assessment instrument I use to appraise group work for this assignment. Several weeks later I was contacted by another student who shared group membership with “the student.” I was then contacted by “the student.” Both requested an office meeting for the entire group in order to bring some clarification to what I was expecting from group members and the assignment itself. To my knowledge, at the time, both my explanation of the appraisal instrument and follow-up office meeting provided the necessary insight, clarity and guidance for the group to continue with their work.

It was not until the final week of the semester that I was contacted by the associate dean of my college. He told me that a student in my supervision of instruction class, “the student” (he shared their name with me), filed a terroristic threat report against another student in class to university police claiming that another student in the group said they were going to kill me (supposedly because of the challenging group assignment they were dealing with in my class). When I first heard this from the dean, I was in complete disbelief, but soon after the university police and a university detective interviewed me about the report that was filed by “the student” against another student they were supposedly working with to complete the white paper. I was interrogated. I explained to the university law enforcement that in no uncertain terms did I believe the report had merit. I knew the accused student – an advanced doctoral student with many years of professional public school experience and held in high regard throughout the department – and I felt terrible about what was about to happen to them. I was equally infuriated with “the student” who would do such a thing, knowing that for the next several weeks the accused would be dramatically inconvenienced at best and undergo accusation, investigations, scrutiny and emotional pain at worst.

Unfortunately the latter occurred. The accused student had to suffer through multiple police inquiries and several meetings even though I insisted she did nothing, or had any kind of motive, to deserve the accusation. College administration was immensely supportive throughout the entire process, but appeared to be more concerned about the damaged caused to the accused than addressing and confronting the accuser. This process occurred over an entire week.

These days, once a report of this kind is made on a university campus, there is follow through; and “the student” accuser knew that! Because of this fact, “the student” accuser conveniently left the country while the investigation was underway. It was the end of the semester anyhow.

We (college administration, department head, university law enforcement and I) made every effort to console and assure the accused student that they would not be affected, either programmatically or by the accusing student, beyond the terrible incident they had to live through. With the grace and courage so typical of the accused student, and with cheeks wet with tears, they openly accepted our consolation and assurances with one proviso – that we not mention or communicate in any way what had transpired to “the student” accuser – a false and lying manipulator. We accepted the condition. The accused did not want “the student” to have the satisfaction of realizing the terrible ordeal they had caused. This interesting insight was no doubt a result of the accused having to work with and deal with “the student” accuser in a small group. In later conversations with the accused doctoral student, I realized the incredible ordeal it was to work with “the student” in a way that would produce some kind of work product to be submitted for evaluation.

Can all this mess come from an aspiring school leader? What kind of a person was I trying to prepare for one of the most important jobs in the country? I continued to have interactions with “the student,” but I found myself having difficulty dealing with someone with the kind of moral character that was more suited for black market mafia. “The student” completed our program of study, took a master’s degree, acquired state certification to be a building-level principal, and who knows what harm they’re doing! To me, this issue is a problem on multiple fronts, but particularly a moral problem for school leader educators, the university divisions they are housed within, and the profession as a whole.


How can this story and the following analysis play a role in the moral pedagogy of our profession? Before proceeding to the audit I would like to share the following cogent analysis by a professional colleague working in my academic unit.

Professional membership in education (at all levels – if one is to be called an educator) should become normative in a way that membership in other occupations does not! Tomas Green (1987) reminds us that “the term ‘professional ethics’ is a redundancy.” If a person is incapable of performing according to the standards of the profession, then it makes no sense to say that s/he is a member of that profession; the profession, in effect, denies that person’s claim to membership. And this incapacity can be either a matter of skill and knowledge, or one of understanding and judgment. Either will serve to disqualify a claimant for legitimate professional membership. One lacking in the commitments proper to a profession is not a member of that profession.

Quote taken from Covaleskie, J. F., & Howley, A. “Education and the commons: Issues of “professionalization.” Educational Foundations, 8, 4, 59-73.

Citation taken from Green, T. F. (1987). The conscience of leadership. In L. T. Sheive & M. B. Schoenheit (Eds.), Leadership: Examining the elusive. (pp. 105-115). Reston, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

1. The stakeholders in the story are obvious. College administration was immensely supportive throughout the entire process, but accepting the condition of the accused student relinquished any kind of student judiciary process, or other psychological support and/or disciplinary measure, that could have cut short the accusers path toward leading a public institution. Even if the accused student would have been open to investigating the incident further or filing counter charges of some kind, I wonder if the program, college or university would have been prepared to respond in some constructive manner to a student with, what I believe to be, severe character flaws. Additionally, I wonder why we allowed this student into the program in the first place! We need to do a better job interviewing people who want to learn the tools to be an education administrator, let alone try to discover an elusive leadership.

2. Interpersonal conflict with institutional ramifications.

3. There was commitment to doing harm, commitment to not responding to harm in order to cut it short and hopefully end it, commitment to help and care, commitment to get to the truth, commitment to self-examine the effectiveness of our program admission practices (at least on a personal level).

4. Although individual rights were violated – false accusation (for whatever motivation), rights were also upheld in assurances to protect from bodily harm. Some rights were abrogated, such as responding to your accuser.

5. All arenas of practice are relevant in this critical incident. For me, the real issue is the arena of the profession. People are people and they will err – morally err. That’s a fact. What does the profession do – the profession that prepares the profession – in order to get great people doing great work, knowing that sometimes good people do stupid, immoral, even terrible things out of character; or that “bad apples” need to be thrown out? You just can’t turn your head and wish you didn’t graduate the student.

6. I think benefit maximization was reached for most stakeholders. Maximizing benefit for the accusing student was not achieved – there needed to be a response, in my own opinion. “The student” needed to be confronted, helped and disciplined in some way. Yet I do believe honoring the accused student’s wishes takes precedence. Therefore, some parties benefit more than others. Remember, it was reasoned that the accusing student wanted satisfaction of knowing the pain and trouble they had caused, and subsequently, because of an agreement, did not become aware of any incident transpiring from their report to the police.

7. The values in conflict can be named. The values for the profession that prepares the profession can be named as well. If you’re under pressure, not trying to understand others’ points of view, sense a lack of confidence in your own abilities, fumble around at negotiating tasks, and force and manipulate others to get what you want, and then compensate by falsely accusing someone of something terrible, you really shouldn’t be leading a school!

8. The values in conflict can be named. The turbulent damage is situated immediately at the personal level. By accepting lots of academically qualified, warm, paying bodies into a preparation program, in other words, what’s good for the college/university, might not be good for the profession, ultimately! We need to do a better job interviewing people for admission to the program.

9. I am not satisfied with the ends and purposes of this story on a professional and institutional level – the means and solutions are flawed so the ends and purposes are not achieved. (Scrutinizing leader aspirants for both skill and character would improve means and solutions toward ends and purposes.) I am satisfied with the ends and purposes of this story on a self, personal and group level, for the most part. The means and solutions in response to the situation are appropriately matched to desired outcomes – especially for the accused student.


ECM said...

This is a problematic, complex dilemma. Ethic of care needed to be used in approaching both the accuser and the accused. If the accuser was making false accusations, it seems apparent that approaching the situation with an ethic of justice would have resulted in consequences or counseling for the accuser. Regardless of the response to the accuser, I appreciate the time and care that department faculty took in responding to the accused.
I wonder what suggestions you might have for universities in selecting candidates for these leadership programs.

Cathy Peachey said...

This is a very interesting dilemna. Due to the shortage of educational leaders in the U.S. today, the ethical qualities of potential leaders are not being scrutinized as closely as they should. It is also very difficult when interviewing potential school leaders for positions to determine their true ethical values or character.

In this situation, the ethic of justice would have supported a different method of dealing with the accuser. The accuser might have benefited from the reprocussions of his false accusations. Knowing that he could not get away with this type of behavior may have made him rethink his own ethics.

I also appreciate the universities sensitivity to the ethic of care with the accused student. Not all institutions or professors would have handled the situation as effectively for the accused given today's climate.

Sam said...

Thanks for sharing this critical incident. Accepting the accused student’s decision not to inform the accuser about the report was timely. This is one of the enormous challenges for school leaders and students alike. However, it is practically impossible to predict the behaviors of students admitted every year into a program. It will be ambitious to say that school administrators or leaders should have known the behavior of students during interview for admission or background check. In this way, school leaders cannot attain 100% excellence in selecting right students. In my opinion, if a school leader is about 95% of the time confident in making a right decision about students’ eligibility, it is a success. Some people pretend to be good when they are really not but it takes time to know and bring to light the hidden characters.



Norm Miller said...

This is a good post that seriously questions the screening process of those going into public education. I enjoyed reading it. You address the idea of turbulence and that turbulent damage is on the personal level; you state that what is good for the college might not be good for the profession and emphasize that colleges need to do a better job of interviewing applicants. I believe that the insight gained from this experience will hopefully in a better way influence the organization as a whole, thus making it stronger. I can relate to your ethic of care, trying to do what is right.

Ty said...

What an awful situation. I kept hoping that someone had confronted to "the student." I don't know if benefit maximization-- a decision that results in greatest benefit for the most people--was achieved. In fact, I would say the opposite, that the parties involved erred on the side of equal respect. By respecting the wished of the accused, the benefit was maximized for the accuser. You, as the professor did not receive benefit from the decision to keep silent, the police did not benefit (nor were they harmed), the department did not benefit from that decision, and lastly, the accuser did not benefit. There needed to be an intervention with the student. Filing a false accusation against another student is serious!