If you ever wonder why state employees are so marvelously equipped to believe six impossible things before breakfast, this story from Inside Higher Education will provide some context:
Who would have thought that doing too well on a test could get you in trouble?
Certainly not Tony Williams. After passing a new online test on ethics required of all state employees, the tenured professor in the English department at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale received a notice from his university ethics officer and from the state inspector general that he was not in compliance with state ethics regulations, a failure that state officials said could result in punishment that included dismissal. The reason? He had completed the test too quickly.
(Bold emphasis added. More below the fold.)
“It’s a very simple test designed for thousands of state employees, and it’s more relevant for people in purchasing or positions of power,” he said. “Anybody with a fair degree of intelligence can get through it quickly.”
However, state officials have asked him to complete another ethics training course for “noncompliant employees,” which they sent him in the mail. The letter sent to the professors states how long it took them to complete the test, and reads: “Contrary to instructions, you appear to have failed to carefully read and review the subject matter contained in the program’s introduction and the lessons.” After completing the course, Williams and others were told to sign a letter acknowledging their participation in the “ethics orientation for noncompliant employees.”
Hold on a moment. From one piece of data (the length of time it took to complete an online test), the state can judge that Williams wasn’t reading and reviewing the necessary material carefully enough. Implicit in this is the assumption that the “lessons” that preceded the test were something that state employees would need to slow down and read carefully — presumably because it was brand new information with which they were not acquainted. So, someone who is already well-versed in basic ethical principles — who already knows how to use his ethical compass for good decision making — and, quite sensibly, doesn’t spend a lot of time poring over the “lessons” before acing the test is, therefore, out of compliance with state ethics regulations.
In other words, the state of Illinois would prefer employees who are learning ethics for the first time in these online lessons, or who are anal-retentive about following instructions to “read carefully” (and slowly) over employees who already know how to make ethical decisions and read efficiently?!
And they say bureaucracies are bad at making good decisions.
The article continues:
But Williams said that signing the form places him in a bind. First, he does not believe that he violated any of the rules for taking the test, which does not have a minimal time for completion. Second, his union’s collective bargaining rules allow for harsher penalties from the university if a person has prior marks on his record. Signing the form for “noncompliant employees” may jeopardize his ability to defend himself should he come under any future disciplinary action, he said.
Drawing a line, he and at least three other professors at Southern Illinois refused to sign the form by last week’s deadline. “We’re going to sue the state for the illegality of this training,” said Marvin Zeman, a professor of math and president of the faculty union, which is affilated with the National Education Association.
Zeman has also refused the sign the form. His letter from the state inspector general charged that he had completed the test in only 6.18 minutes. Zeman said that he is not certain how much time he spent on the test, which he took from his office, but he said that it was quite easy. “They are just stating something and I have no way to challenge it,” he said. “I didn’t time myself because I was never told about a time limit.”
“Each question had four choices and you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure it out,” he said. Zeman said that he has not been presented with evidence that he violated anything in the state’s ethics laws by completing the test too quickly. He also said that signing the form may subject him to harsher penalties if he becomes the focus of disciplinary action in the future. “I’m opening myself up to future trouble,” he said.
Morteza Daneshdoost, professor of electrical and computer engineering, agreed. He recently sent out an e-mail to faculty members advising them that if they signed the form, they should add the line, “I am signing this document under duress and my signature does not mean my agreement with its contents or its allegations.” Morteza said that they advised faculty members to add the line after consulting with a lawyer.
How ethical is it for the state to exact a penalty for a rule that they didn’t announce (you must spend at least this much time taking the online ethics test)? How ethical is it for the state to pressure its employees to sign a letter indicating that they are non-compliant when, by any reasonable standard, the employees have complied with the ethics policy?
Not very ethical at all, I reckon.
Part of the fear by professors comes from statements made in the press by Gilbert Jimenez, deputy inspector general in the state inspector general’s office. Last December, Jimenez told the Daily Egyptian that it was unreasonable for anyone to spend less than 10 minutes on the exam.
“This person is holding onto a cheat sheet,” he told the student newspaper. “That’s what it tells me.” He raised similar concerns in an article that ran in the Chicago Sun-Times in early January.
However, Jimenez told Inside Higher Ed that he had been misquoted and that he has not made allegations to reporters that professors may have cheated. He further stated that he had no proof that anyone had cheated, but for any professor to finish the test in under 10 minutes “raises questions as to whether they had assistance.”
“I wonder about cheat sheets,” he said.
Jimenez added that any state employees who have not finished the required retraining and signed the form of noncompliance are in violation of state law. “We will direct their agencies and departments to begin discipline, up to and including discharge.”
(Again, bold emphasis added.)
No, there’s no proof that the professors who finished the test too early cheated. It just seems suspicious to a state deputy inspector general. Professors aren’t noted for being quick readers, or for retaining information they’ve encountered previously, after all. And they sure don’t know much about the design of multiple-choice tests.
I have no proof the Mr. Jimenez is being a completely unreasonable bureaucrat who is throwing around his weight to satisfy his own appetites rather than the greater good of the state of Illinois. It just seems suspicious to me.