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Business Officer Magazine

Business Intel

A roundup of short news articles and useful resources for business officers

Ethics: From Doctrine to Practice

During my career in higher education (as CBO and former auditor), I have seen, investigated, and read about many instances of poor decision making by colleagues, such as those receiving kickbacks, "cooking the books" for a better financial picture, or exchanging grades for relationships. These bad or unethical decisions can end careers and tarnish the institution's reputation; the fallout can have lasting effects. Immunity against risky behaviors is not acquired by luck or fortune, but by efforts that are deliberate, protracted, and often distasteful or uncomfortable.

Ethical Behavior and the CBO

The chief business officer has an instrumental role in creating and supporting the ethical tone for higher education administrative practices. Establishing a culture that promotes disciplined decision-making practices results in more than the sum of optimal financial ratios and AAA bond ratings; the aggregate is an environment of ethical behavior that bolsters trust among colleagues and unconditional support of the institutional mission. Achieving such an enviable prize requires more than cursory discussions espousing the usual guidance: "Do the right thing," "Set the tone," "Make responsible decisions." While these are virtuous sentiments, they are hopelessly inadequate to thwart bad decision-making practices.

Combating and preventing unethical behavior is possible. The essential components of an effective ethics policy are (1) the establishment of disciplinary steps, including such elements as an ethics code, education, accountability, and communication; and (2) the CBO's leadership in identifying a clear path—developed with collective agreement—that establishes one route, no detours, to converting the policy of ethical codes into functional ethics-driven practices.

A Disciplinary Model

The University System of Georgia (USG) Code of Ethics is a guide for all who are involved in the mission of service to students, including employees, volunteers, vendors and contractors, members of the governing boards, and employees of all cooperative organizations affiliated with the USG or one of its institutions. We use this policy quite effectively at Armstrong Atlantic State University (Armstrong), Savannah.

Explicit guidance. This code of conduct explicitly states 13 principles, many of which I refer to when explaining to individuals or groups "the way we do business." One principle I often mention is avoiding or disclosing conflicts of interest. For a state institution or nonprofit, avoidance of any perceived conflict of interest is paramount.

This is demonstrated in the following example. At one point in my career, a vendor was on campus offering select people a trip to a sporting event on a private jet—clearly a conflict of interest, as the activity would provide no educational or service value to the institution. Once I was alerted, I spoke with those invited and also with the vendor to remind them of the conflict of interest policy—and no one took the vendor up on the offer.

I've found the following six additional principles to be particularly useful and effective:

  • Uphold the highest standards of intellectual honesty and integrity in the conduct of education, research, services, and grants.
  • Comply with applicable laws, rules, regulations, and professional standards.
  • Report wrongdoing to the proper authorities, refrain from retaliating against those who do report violations, and cooperate fully with authorized investigations. This involves holding everyone accountable by requiring the reporting of wrongdoing and a method for such reporting. For example, at Armstrong we provide a hotline that can be reached via phone or the Internet to report suspected wrongdoing. An independent internal auditor follows up on each report. While many reports are not of an illegal nature, every now and then an unethical situation will be brought forward, with the assigned auditor filing a response that the tipster will be able to view, even if the report was completely anonymous. Closing the loop in this way is a very important step in supporting this principle.
  • Disclose and avoid improper conflicts of interest. One method we've effectively used to manage this is to require individuals and board members to annually review and sign the university's conflict of interest statement. Any statement that reports a conflict is forwarded to the board's executive committee to determine if any action is warranted.
  • Treat fellow employees, students, and the public with dignity and respect.
  • Refrain from discriminating against, harassing, or threatening others.

Leadership actions. Ethical conduct is not achieved solely through a list of principles. The CBO's leadership is required to keep knowledge of the ethical code from fading away over time. Here are some actions that can be effective:

Fast Fact

According to a new study prepared for the Teagle Foundation, students who major in two fields are more apt than their single-majoring peers to think both integratively and creatively. "Double majors give students the opportunity to build bridges between domains of knowledge, and many students travel those bridges regularly." -Steven J. Tepper, associate professor of sociology, Vanderbilt University, and coauthor of "Double Majors: Influences, Identities, and Impacts," with Richard N. Pitt, assistant professor of sociology, Vanderbilt University.

  • Provide annual review of and ongoing education on the code. To reinforce the commitment to principled behavior, the CBO must be ready to ask functional questions when faced with difficult, gray-area situations. Why is the issue unclear? Is it a policy issue? A moral issue? A legal issue? It is prudent to perform an annual review of all ethical violations and reports and determine any adjustments or clarifications that need to be made to the ethics policy. The review can also indicate areas where additional campus education is warranted. An increase in reported cases, for example, might flag a need to provide a refresher to the campus community on the particular policy.
  • Make high visibility an important part of the ethics road map. Posting visual cues in all areas of the institution serves as a statement to both internal and external connections: "This is the way we do business." At Armstrong, we display posters on campus that announce the ethics and compliance hotline; faculty and staff members take an online ethics policy course for recertification; and our strategic plan contains value statements related to several of the ethics principles. 
  • Attach value to disciplined decisions and those who make them. The pressure to "succeed at any cost" is often cited as an impetus for bad decisions. Leaders must be conscious that their decisions communicate the values of the institution. When a CBO, a board, or a finance committee can provide generous support for individuals who present the truth—even when it may be unpopular or meet disagreement—the leadership is actually modeling the process of applying a disciplined approach to ethical behavior.

If your actions or those of another high-visibility individual at your institution result in a front-page headline, can you support the related decision using the essential characteristics of your institution's established ethics policy: responsibility, ethics code and related education, accountability, and communication? Will you be able to explain the discipline-driven behavior that you used to arrive at the decision? If you can, it will be a telling litmus test of your established ethics policy.

RESOURCE LINK To view the entire code of ethics at the University of Georgia, go to

SUBMITTED BY David Carson, vice president, business and finance, Armstrong Atlantic State University, Savannah

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By the Numbers

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A Library Like No Other

Students work in a visualization lab at NCSU's newly dedicated James B. Hunt Library. Photo: North Carolina State University
Students work in a visualization lab at NCSU's newly dedicated James B. Hunt Library.

It's been called one of the "25 Coolest College Libraries," "Five Floors of Innovation," and "the library of the future," among other accolades. The James B. Hunt Jr. Library at North Carolina State University, Raleigh, officially dedicated on April 3, is setting a new benchmark for inspiring architecture and high-powered technology.

"Our vision," said Susan K. Nutter, vice provost and director of the NCSU libraries, at the opening ceremony, "was to give NC State a signature library that would help us recruit the very best students and the very best faculty, and to serve the community as an inspiring place of excellence and passion and ideas and vision."

One look confirms the building's bold, inviting architecture. Further exploration reveals spaces that encourage collaboration, reflection, and creativity—all of which are further enhanced with some remarkable technology features, including:

  • The robotic bookBot automated retrieval system. Requiring one ninth of the space of conventional shelving, the bookBot can store up to two million items in a climate-controlled environment and deliver any of them within five minutes of a click in the online catalog.
  • Virtual browse. This feature allows users to see the books and other materials related in subject, including the growing number of electronic books in the collection—and then to browse online through the tables of contents and many of the items themselves. This virtual view can be expanded beyond the library's collection to encompass the Triangle Research Libraries Network and other area collections available for request and delivery as well.
  • Teaching and visualization lab and creativity studio. These two areas offer simulation capabilities that will help support next-generation teaching and learning. Extensive digital media production facilities and 3-D printing give students tools for rapid iteration of prototype and workforce development.

The university reports already capitalizing on the library's technologies for early projects, including an immersive simulator to train naval ROTC midshipmen to operate the bridge of a modern warship, and prototypes of a range of engineering projects, including tactile models to allow the visually impaired to navigate complex traffic intersections. Described by Scientific American as "an amazing place," the library has "all the essential tools to leverage emerging technologies in support of today's learning models," notes Scott Frey of the Sextant Group, the technology consultancy for the project. "It's really difficult for people to understand until they actually come here," says Maurice York,
head of information technology for NCSU libraries.

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The Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) launched a new online version of the Governmental Accounting Research System (GARS Online). Previously available only on CD-ROM, the system's online version provides efficient, effective, and easy access to all U.S. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) and related literature for state and local governments. GARS Online is available through four service plans to accommodate the varying needs of different stakeholders.

GARS Online offers new advanced navigation and special features, including annotations and bookmark utilities, advanced search functionality, tabbed browsing, and archive features. The online platform contains the same GASB content as the disc version: original pronouncements; codification of Governmental Accounting Standards and Financial Reporting Standards; Comprehensive Implementation Guide-Questions and Answers; and a topical index.


A national survey of business and nonprofit leaders, released on April 10 by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, finds that the majority of all employers surveyed agree that having both field-specific and broad-range knowledge and skills is more important for recent college graduates to achieve long-term career success. The survey report, "It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success," goes on to say that 80 percent of the 318 survey participants (from businesses and nonprofits with at least 25 employees) agree that, regardless of a student's major, he or she should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences.

Addressing the issue of overall job preparation, employers endorsed education practices that require students to conduct research and use evidence-based analysis; gain in-depth knowledge in their major, along with problem-solving and communication skills; and apply their learning in real-world settings.

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U.S. Community Colleges Boost Brazilian Science Program

Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) is leading a consortium of U.S. community colleges (CCC) in supporting the Brazilian Ministry of Education to expand the reach of its Science Without Borders initiative. The program will offer one-year undergraduate scholarships for Brazilian students to study STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) courses at U.S. community colleges. Initial locations include NOVA; City College of San Francisco; Maricopa Community College District, Phoenix; and Miami Dade College, Florida.

The idea came together at the Brazil-U.S. Partnership  for the 21st Century summit in Washington, D.C., in April 2012. NOVA signed a memorandum of understanding to support the Brazilian educational initiative. Following detailed negotiations, the parties developed a plan for the CCC institutions to host 400 Brazilian students, with the first cohort set to arrive in fall 2013.

Brazil's Science Without Borders program is designed to increase Brazil's competitive-ness in science, technology, and innovation by preparing students for a global workforce. The initiative is funding more than 100,000 scholarships for undergraduate and graduate students at colleges and universities worldwide. The United States received and placed in 2012 the first cohort of Brazilian students in more than 100 four-year institutions in 42 states. The CCC program will be the first to serve the community college equivalent of Brazilian higher education.

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