President's Message

Ethical Leadership


Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon steps down amid fallout from Larry Nassar case – Detroit Free Press, January 25, 2018

USC President C.L. Max Nikias to step down – Los Angeles Times, May 25, 2018

The idea for this article came from a recent conversation I had over coffee with a fellow APWA Board member. We were discussing the recent scandals at USC, Michigan State and even further back in time at Penn State - and how the universities had responded to the allegations of misconduct. Without question, we agreed, the illegal acts committed by those involved are deplorable and inexcusable. What instead our discussion focused on was the actions taken (or not taken) by those in leadership positions at the universities. 

We Googled “USC & Ethics” and found their code of ethics, which states: “At the University of Southern California, ethical behavior is predicated on two main pillars: a commitment to discharging our obligations to others in a fair and honest manner, and a commitment to respecting the rights and dignity of all persons. As faculty, staff, students, and trustees, we each bear responsibility not only for the ethics of our own behavior, but also for building USC’s stature as an ethical institution.”  Source - USC Website, published February 14, 2014.

So, did the President of USC take appropriate actions over the course of his term that were consistent with this code of ethics? Did he create or allow an environment that ran counter to the environment the school was seeking for its family of students, alumni and faculty? Was he ultimately responsible for the problems that the university has experienced?

As we continued to sip our coffee waiting for our meeting to begin, I shared with my colleague a couple of examples of unethical behavior that I had personally witnessed in our own industry. First, as a director for a public agency, I was pressured regularly by a councilmember to pay for his “entertainment” when away at out of town conferences because, I was told, “that is what the directors at this city were supposed to do.”  I reported this to the city manager who acted on it. But should I have done more?  Did I do the right thing?  I also shared an example from the private sector.  I learned, after the fact mind you, that the owner of the company and a regional manager had knowingly allowed a registered sex offender to work in positions that placed him around children. I wondered why they had not taken any action and allowed this to continue? We deliberated back and forth on the myriad of situations we encounter in our industry and the consequences of our own ethical choices.

Granted, we as public works professionals will likely never run into a situation of the magnitude that these university presidents ran into, but it is very likely we will run into situations that will test our moral compass regarding ethical behavior.  As professionals in our industry, the actions we take, or do not take, will have an impact on others and our communities – sometimes these impacts can be very significant.  Many jurisdictions and private companies have excellent guidance and standards in that can be of great assistance. Additionally, you may not be aware that APWA has its very own Conduct Standards (see box on the previous page) – these standards are included in our own chapter training institute and are woven into the oath of office that we, your board members, take as we assume office!  Also available to our members is our Mentorship Program, a unique opportunity to experience an exchange of knowledge and wisdom in our industry.  Lastly, members of our Past Presidents Committee – ladies and gentlemen who possess a wealth of information having served in our industry for many years -  would be more than happy to discuss any issue or challenge that you may be facing in your career.

Please enjoy this issue of your award-winning Insight News Magazine. I look forward to meeting you at one of our upcoming events and I thank you for the privilege of your time.  Tim


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