Many contend that we should strive to run all of our public institutions “like businesses.” Following that principle, it is now the express policy of our state that for most purposes we are no longer considered citizens but instead “customers.” No matter how many scandals and failures are suffered by our benighted businesses, emulating corporate America remains an article of faith for many.
This brand of thinking might have reached its zenith with last week’s announcement that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – still smarting over recent scandals in the ethically murky overlap between athletics and academics – will create a new position, the chief integrity officer. The new position will officially be called the chief integrity and policy officer and will report directly to the university chancellor.
The idea for the chief integrity officer, not surprisingly, emerged from two university working groups, one on ethics and integrity and the other dealing with policy and procedure. Both working groups recommended the new senior administrator position. A university dean will fill the position temporarily until the school can find a permanent chief integrity officer.
In creating the position, the university has indeed followed the lead of businesses, which have recently been creating positions for various “chiefs” in the same manner in which dampness creates mushrooms. The term “chief executive officer” was created to denote to those confused inside and outside of the organization who – among various titles such as chairman, president and every form of vice president – was actually in charge. Similarly, “chief operating officer” is generally meant to convey who is in charge of actually making sure a business functions on a day-to-day basis, while the “chief financial officer” is typically the one with primary responsibility for the money.
Not content with just CEOs and COOs, however, businesses in recent years have set about the task of producing ever more chiefs for an endlessly increasing number of corporate functions. Having achieved what’s called in business jargon the “C-Level,” those chiefs gather in what the same jargon refers to as the “C-Suite,” the no-doubt well-appointed offices for those attaining chiefdoms.
Although bounded only by the limits of the creativity and productivity of our great and small businesses, the proliferation of chiefs continues. Among my own favorites are the CSO in charge of sustainability, the CDO in charge of diversity and the CCO who handles communications (not to be confused with the CCOs in charge of compliance, creativity or content).
A quick search on the business connection website LinkedIn will even serve up the profiles of 25 CVOs or chief visionary officers. While the title does not appear to be uniformly defined, it’s hard not to imagine the company CVO sitting cross-legged and staring off at the horizon or into a crystal ball.
Which brings us back to our new UNC chief integrity officer (or CIO and not to be confused with the CIOs who are, in some companies, chiefs in charge of information and innovation or ingenuity, for all I know). Is such a position necessary?
When considered against the circumstances that brought it about, the university surely can’t think that the mere presence of a CIO would have stopped those teachers and athletics administrators who caused the scandals in Chapel Hill by reminding them of the importance of integrity and its chiefness. By all accounts, neither will this senior administrator be taking class attendance (for teachers and students) or reading term papers to detect plagiarism or grade inflation.
The idea that a university needs a discrete individual to be in charge of “integrity” or ethical conduct at all seems contrary to the very idea of a university as a place where learned people (teachers) instruct the to-be-learned in academic disciplines all of which have fairly well-understood ethical rules. No one at a church or charity (or even law firm) would think to devolve responsibility for integrity to one person or that such a structure could create or foster higher ethical standards. The word integrity itself, by definition, indicates an indivisibility that calls the very concept of a separate chief integrity officer into question.
In other words, “integrity” is something that is everyone’s job at a university and not to be “outsourced” to a single chief for exclusive purview. Without a top-to-bottom genuine commitment to integrity, the creation of a new “chief” position just looks like window dressing.
Press Millen is a trial lawyer in the Raleigh office of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice.