Integrity is sometimes difficult to define, but we tend to know it when we see it. At the very least it can be said to be consistency between what we say and what we do over time. Ideally, it is also a statement of honesty, fairness, and character. Integrity simply put (in The New Forty dictionary) is consistently trying to do the right thing guided by sound principles…it is standing up for what is right and refusing to look away when something is wrong.
Here is what my integrity dictates today – addressing an issue that I would quickly give my opinion on any other day. An issue that I would love to be able to see differently and to distinguish because of who it is and where it happened; but, my integrity dictates that I cannot toss aside my values and belief system when they become inconvenient or less palatable. Alas, I shall share my thoughts on the petition fraud charges leveled against a number of NDSU Bison football players.
If you are unfamiliar with this situation, you can read more about it here (the local reporting) or here (the most recent A.P. article posted on ESPN.com). The bottom line – a number of current and former NDSU football players were charged with a Class A misdemeanor for allegedly violating North Dakota election law by forging signatures on petitions. If convicted, they could serve up to a year in jail and pay up to $2,000 in fines. A number of the folks charged have already admitted to investigators that they forged some of the signatures.
I must confess, when the story first hit the paper I was a bit skeptical about the whole thing. My initial reaction (albeit, fleeting) was that this was an opportunistic charging that likely put a self-righteous smirk on UND alumni everywhere (I have never said I am immune to being a conspiracy theorist in the right situation). I thought the timing and the breadth of it to be just too convenient, but then more of the story unfolded and it became apparent by folks’ own admissions that election law had been violated. Then I did what so many other NDSU Bison fans did – I held my breath to see what this would mean to our beloved championship team’s season. After all, the policy to date had been such that players who were charged with a crime were dismissed (which for the record I never agreed with…suspension yes, but guilt should never be assumed from the mere charging of a crime). I must acknowledge though that from a reputation management standpoint the dismissal policy makes good sense. The whole team, athletics department, and the university need to create distance between themselves and the alleged wrong-doer – particularly if it is going to gain widespread attention by the media. And so the policy was just that – you are charged and you are dismissed. I am sure all the football players were made aware of that at the outset and recognized from past consistency in the application of that policy that a criminal charge equalled dismissal.
As regular readers know, I work at NDSU and I deem it a great place to work. It is filled with passionate, committed, and hard-working faculty, staff, and students who contribute immeasurably to the betterment of the local community, state, region, country, and world. One cannot help but be inspired by the impact the NDSU family makes day-in and day-out despite limited funding, increased expectations placed on already stretched faculty and staff, and the real life challenges that complicate students, staff, and faculty members’ lives. Make no mistake, the vast majority of us(faculty, staff, and students) are at NDSU because we believe in the power we have through the institution to contribute to the common good of mankind. And while I know you may think that last statement sounds hokey, it is completely true.
Because I believe in the collective mission of the NDSU family, I can see the logic in protecting its overall reputation with the type of policy it has with the football team (1.e., being charged equals dismissal). While I balk at the potential injustice for the charged individual who may be innocent, I am decidedly more uncomfortable with the good name and good work at NDSU being devalued collectively based on individual action. Negative media attention on these types of incidents leave an imprint and it tends to find its way (whether it is fair or not) into the way folks outside the university view the whole of the university.
Which brings us to today with our beloved Bison football team embroiled in a debate on fairness. Should the charged team members have been summarily dismissed as team members have been in the past? They have not been dismissed. This case has been distinguished from past cases and the charged players will be allowed to continue on the team until they have “had their day in court” (which I assume means until they are convicted of a crime).
Now I have to say that I really do feel for the young men charged in this incident. I cannot imagine that they were able to link their behavior at the time with the potential penalty. Plus, I have to note that lots of folks face misdemeanor charges in their lives at one time or another based either on an ignorance of the law or foolishness. A misdemeanor is hardly the indicator of a future life of crime. Typically, it is an indication of an error in judgment, that while traumatizing and often embarrassing, is something to move forward from a bit wiser. Those who forged signatures on the petition did break the law and should face whatever penalty is meted out by the justice system, but I think their behavior even in the face of a conviction has to be noted in the context of the charge – a misdemeanor for violation of election law.
Here is where it gets tough for me though, the integrity part. Beyond my integrity -which is assuaged by not looking away at this issue regardless of how painful it is to address - I look to the team’s integrity and the institution’s integrity. I, like other Bison football fans, desperately want to see NDSU pull out another national championship. I want to see our team members have their hard work acknowledged and rewarded, but I am worried about at what cost we pursue this goal. There is more at stake here than a great football season, there is the reputation of the university. A young person committing a misdemeanor is not the end of the world, but an institution that has its integrity called into question because of inconsistency in action is quite another thing. Institutions live or die based on their reputation and a perceived impropriety in one area can color the entire value system of the university in some folks’ eyes. It would be a travesty if that were to happen in this instance.
I want the NDSU Bison football season to be stellar just like all the other fans, but more importantly I want the season and the university’s reputation to be untainted by the impression that the rules were changed primarily to forward that agenda. The rules should be the same from player to player. If a misdemeanor charge for one player results in a dismissal, it should be the same for other players. There should be no distinguishing between the activity that prompted the charge in the leveraging of the penalty from the team’s perspective. In the eyes of the law a misdemeanor is so categorized based on appropriate punishment levels for the offense at hand.
Perhaps one of the outcomes that arises from this situation will be the recognition that there is a need for a review of the policy that a criminal charge equals dismissal (as opposed to suspension). That will at least address the matter of fairness at the individual level. Significant rights are lost in such a dismissal and if charges are dropped or the accused is found not guilty an injustice has occurred.
This is a tough situation from where I sit. It is about a lot more than fraudulent signatures and the potential for a second championship season. This is a case study on student rights, fairness, and the reputation of a fine institution. My integrity forces me to acknowledge that on my blog in the same way I would if it was another institution. Alas, I am just one small blog writer in a universe of opinions. So I ask my fellow Bison football loyalists and members of the NDSU family – what do you think should be done in this situation to evidence integrity and maintain the reputation of the institution? Perhaps it is time for the Herd to be heard.
Day one thousand one hundred and sixty of the new forty – obla di obla da