May 2011 Archives

supremecourt_small.jpgThe last couple of days, I've been blogging about the non-judgmental nature of the responses we have gotten in many of the ethics tests and surveys.

As I was reading over our material for the meeting with the North Dakota judges next week, I came across these notes from Erich:

A few points to consider of the environment in which people have grown up on the reservation are:
(and his very first point was ... )

1. A lack of law and order, including lack of consequences both in the community and in the courtroom.

 "Looking the other way"

For example, there have in the last few years been indictments of tribal council members and high level administrators on reservations for embezzlements from the fuel assistance program, vocational rehabilitation and tribal funds. This wasn't limited to one reservation or one program. Tribal council members have been sent to jail. Project directors have been arrested.

In one incident, almost everyone on the reservation knew that funds were being misused but nothing was done. Perhaps if someone had intervened earlier - some bystander - only $30,000 would have been taken instead of the $100,000 that eventually was taken.


I found his comment, written weeks earlier, to be very interesting given the surveys I had just read. Like the real life incident Erich mentioned, in the case studies we gave to people on different reservations, time and again, most people simply did not want to make a judgment.

 Now, being nonjudgmental is all well and good when it is not telling people that only Catholics are good or not believing that anyone who didn't vote Republican in the last election should be forced to move to Canada. However, there are times when you SHOULD be judgmental. Taking money from the tribe that was meant for economic development and spending it to take your wife on a trip with you IS unethical and people SHOULD judge you as an unethical person if you do it.

Tractor and fields of I-94, North Dakota, USA.

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Over the last few years, we have asked people from reservations in the Great Plains thousands of questions on ethics. Most have been multiple choice questions like this:

Unqualified tribal workers who receive jobs because they have a relative in power:
A. Reduce unemployment on the reservation since they now have jobs
B. Hurt the reservation economy since they do work to bring in more money and jobs
C. Don't have any effect on the economy
D. Someone would have had the job one way or the other so it makes no difference

We've also asked several hundred questions related to case studies. In these, we give an example, often, as I said yesterday, one that I personally thought was of pretty obviously unethical behavior. For example:

Sam is a recently elected member of the tribal council. It is near the end of the fiscal year and there is $12,000 left in his travel budget. Sam attends the Tribal Economic Summit meeting in Albuquerque, at a cost of $6,200 in hotel room, airfare, conference fee and meals for himself and $1,200 in airfare and meals for his wife. Since they share a room, there is no extra cost for her room and since she doesn't attend the summit, there is no fee. At the end of the year, Sam has $3,600 left in his travel budget.  If Sam was required to attend the meetings as chair of the Tribal Economic Development committee and attended every session, was there any ethical violation?

A. Yes, he spent $1,200 in tribal funds on his wife who did not need to be there.
B.No, he was travelling on tribal business, accomplished the business purpose and came in under budget for travel for the year.
C. Maybe, if the tribe had a written policy against using travel funds for family members, then it would be an ethical violation.

It surprised me that 21% - one out of every five people, saw nothing wrong with using tribal funds to take your family on a vacation. Another 10% said it was only wrong if there was a written policy against it.

On similar questions, where we gave "Not Sure" as an option, people selected that by a 2:1 margin.

 Referring back to the example from yesterday --- in this case study one of the board members was in jail for assault, school records had been falsified and attendance problems and drug abuse overlooked for students who were good athletes. The one board member who disagreed,Alan, was mocked and threatened by the other members. When Phyllis, a board member who had been off the reservation for medical reasons returned she told Alan she didn't think they were doing anything wrong, they were just trying to use sports to bring some success to the reservation.

When we asked 36 people on one reservation if they agreed with Phyllis, less than one-fourth of them (eight people) said, "No".

We thought, that can't possibly be right. So, we went to another reservation and asked another 45 people. Same results, only 11 out of 45 people, again, less than one-fourth, said they disagreed.

Most people said they were not sure.

Even when people disagreed with "Phyllis" they weren't necessarily willing to go against the board. One of the people who disagreed added, "But I would go along with the majority of the board." -- so if the majority of the board voted it was okay to change students' test scores, or waive drug tests for successful athletes, he would agree.

Others asked for more information. What was Phyllis's motive in saying what she did? What was the written policy?

What we saw, time and time again, is that people just about bent over backwards to AVOID making a judgement. When asked, "What is your opinion about what the people in this scenario have done?"  Over and over, the answer was "I don't know."

We'll be discussing this in North Dakota next week and also at the CANAR mid-year conference in Green Bay. Dr. Longie has his own ideas why this is so, but we'll be hoping to get some feedback from the audience as well.

 I'm truly hoping they don't tell us they have no opinion!
Sunflowers in Traill County, North Dakota Cate...

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Scoring ethics tests we gave to tribal members from reservations throughout the Great Plains states reminded me a lot of grading math homework.... but, it's probably not in the way you are thinking Actually, I have no idea what you are thinking. I don't even know you.

Here's what I do know - I have looked at hundreds of ethics surveys/ tests in preparation for the talk Erich and I are giving next week for the North Dakota State Supreme Court and what I have found is - a lot of nothing. I mean that very literally. Like Sherlock Holmes in Silver Blaze, when he noted the curious incident of the dog doing nothing, I have found this "nothing" to be very intriguing.

Here is the first reason why, and as much as it pains me to admit it, it comes about in one of those times when I thought Dr. Longie was wrong and probably crazy to boot, but he has lived on the reservation his whole life, not me, so I went along with him and he turned out to be right.

We had a few case studies that we asked people to read and give their answers to one multiple choice question and a few short answer questions. I thought the answers to the questions were so obvious that everyone would answer the same way and, in fact, people would be insulted that we asked such obvious questions. Let me give you an example. Here is a very abbreviated version of the case study:

"The school board members overlooked drug abuse and poor attendance and falsified school records of students who were exceptional athletes. They hired their relatives and fired anyone who disagreed with them. One of the board members was jailed for assault. Other board members mocked and threatened Alan, the one board member who disagreed with them and wanted to enforce school policies and hire the best qualified people, regardless of their relatives. Phyllis was elected to the board but had been off the reservation for months due to medical issues. When she returned she told Alan she didn't see what the problem was, the other board members were just promoting sports because they wanted to see the reservation be known for a success and what is wrong with good publicity for the reservation?"

The multiple choice question was, "Do you agree with Phyllis?"
a) Yes
b) Not Sure
c) No

I thought there should be an option, "Are you #$%^ing  KIDDING me? Of course I don't agree with Phyllis!"

By far, the most common answer was,

"Not sure"

What do you mean you're not sure? They committed fraud, overlooked drug abuse, hired unqualified people, one the board members was thrown in jail for beating someone so bad he was put in the hospital and you're NOT SURE there is a problem? Some people wrote in helpfully, "I would need more information." Like WHAT? Like whether the star quarterback died of a drug overdose? I just don't get it.

The next question was,

"Please explain why you agree, disagree or are not sure."

Most people left this question blank. In fact, most people left ALL of the case study questions blank, although they answered the multiple choice questions. Those who did answer gave very short answers and sometimes it was hard (for me) to understand how what they wrote was relevant to the question. For example, one person wrote,

"Well, what is her motive?"

Another simply said,

"Yes, a little."

How is this like math? I've taught math for a great many years at every level from middle school through doctoral students. I've found that when people are uncomfortable with the subject, unsure of their knowledge, they don't volunteer information because they're afraid of being wrong. Usually, the less people know about a topic, they less sure they are, the less they write and the more vague they are in their answers, hoping that they might be interpreted as being correct.

I don't really know WHY the responses are like this. One reason I think is that people just have not thought about ethical issues very much. This, too, is like math. Especially with graduate students, I teach a lot of people who haven't thought about math since they took Algebra twenty years ago.

Erich thinks the reason people are uncomfortable is not because they are ignorant about ethics but because they don't WANT to think about issues. To me, that is the same thing, being ignorant by choice.

He gives the analogy of alcoholics who go to treatment. They may still be drinking after  that, but they can no longer lie to themselves that their drinking is not dysfunctional. Erich thinks this may be one of the reasons that people on some reservations don't want to think about ethics, because then they might feel as if they should do something about the ethical problems, starting with themselves, and that makes people really uncomfortable.

I think he might be right.

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