Fake News, Truth & the Higher Education Imperative
This phrase is ubiquitous in traditional and contemporary media. It is, according to the Washington Post, regularly tweeted out by the US President and its use has spread globally as a weapon against not only free press but democracy. Just recently in Uganda, for example, a popular singer who has been an outspoken critic of political corruption in Uganda has been jailed by the President in a military facility but the President decries reports of the singer’s fate as “fake news”.
Given the increased contemporary coverage of “fake news”, I had assumed it was a new phenomenon. But after listening to a Hidden Brain podcast on the history of fake news, I learned that it is as old as the newspaper itself. Apparently, the contemporary newspaper began as a partisan funded project to spread only the news that the political parties and those in power wanted us to hear. In other words, the news business was not about spreading “the” truth but about spreading “a” truth. It was only later that truth became the mission of the news media.
Truth is not only fundamental to the health and integrity of the news, but also to academic integrity. The International Center for Academic Integrity’s Fundamental Values project lists truth (honesty) as one of the fundamental value of integrity along with respect, responsibility, fairness, trustworthiness and the courage to uphold all of these values when the going gets tough. Without truth (honesty), there can be no responsibility, fairness or trustworthiness. Without truth, many of our systems and institutions would be unable to thrive and may even cease to exist. Think about it. You trust your doctor to give you the prescription you need, not the prescription that will provide her with a financial kick-back. You trust your financial investor to invest in the stocks that are right for you, not the ones that will provide them with the most profit. You trust your mechanic to tell you the truth about your damaged vehicle so you are not spending money needlessly.
Without truth, we cannot trust and a lack of trust is the antecedent to the burgeoning regulatory industry. When society cannot trust industries, organizations, and/or people to act with integrity, then society creates rules, laws and regulations to mandate and enforce integrity. For example, we regulated the financial industry when they betrayed our trust in the early 2000s and the banks are still trying to find ways to regain our trust. Now we are seeing a decline of public trust in higher education result in the implementation of regulations, which will ultimately reduce the autonomy of colleges and universities.
If universities and colleges around the world want to continue to retain the privilege of independently educating the next generation of citizens, scholars, and workers without the need of intense governmental oversight, we we must work to ensure that we are putting truth – and integrity – at the forefront of our mission and operations. Academic integrity cannot be a side project or an afterthought. Integrity and ethics must be central to everything we do and every decision we make. Only by doing this can we ask society to trust us once again.
We could start by being as intentional about integrity as we are about other fundamental imperatives like diversity. For example, we could build into our decision making processes the step of asking the question – “what are the ethical implications of this decision?”. Making this one small adjustment to daily operations can remind everyone that ethics – and integrity – matter and are fundamental principles. We could assess the state of academic integrity within our institution and commit resources to improve that state. Then, we could be transparent about our efforts – reporting out to accreditation agencies and the public alike about what we are doing to educate the next generation of ethical citizens, scholars and professionals. We definitely must role model integrity and not cheat for any reason, including for rankings or for students. Above all else, we must stop ignoring student cheating as a minor or inconvenient headache, and start treating it as one condition that is undermining the very health of our educational institutions.
We must act now. Otherwise, our degrees and diplomas will become the fake news of the future.