Peterson talks about ethics

Photo by Jonathan Jeffrey

This is disappointing,” President G.P. “Bud” Peterson said, sitting in his office for an interview on Tech’s various ethical abuses and his leadership team’s response.  “It’s disappointing to me as President. It’s disappointing to our alumni and I know it’s disappointing to students.”

Last Wednesday, on Aug. 13, Peterson struck similar tones in an update letter to University System of Georgia Chancellor Steve Wrigley, writing “the past month, I have felt disappointment, anger and embarrassment over the ethical lapses that have plagued us at Georgia Tech.”

The memorandum attached to the letter detailed, one by one, Tech’s response to each demand made by Wrigley in a July 20 directive sent to Peterson in the wake of the three damaging ethics audits completed in the summer.

“As we agreed, lax management and unethical behavior at Georgia Tech have resulted in misuse of resources and a failure to hold staff accountable, and, as president, you are ultimately responsible,” Wrigley wrote back to Peterson on Aug. 20. “Bud, now the work begins, the hourly, daily, weekly decisions, small and large, on your part and others at Tech, to create a culture committed to ethical excellence. I expect this change to occur, and it must be real and sustained.”

In other words, the pressure is on from Chancellor Wrigley and the expectant Tech community for President Peterson and others in his administration to fix the serious flaws in Tech’s organizational structure and ethics culture.

The first and perhaps easiest step is restructure.

Administrative positions have been altered and shuffled between different branches of the organizational tree in a way that Peterson said, in interview, he hopes will “improve upon the structure we had to try to help put mechanisms in place to avoid or detect potential problems before they arise.”

Most of the major changes center on the structure below the executive vice president of Administration and Finance (EVPAF), whose previous ranks had included Steve Swant, the former EVPAF who mishandled his conflicts of interest, and further down, Paul Strouts, the former vice president (VP) of Campus Services who wasted money along with two others in Campus Services, Lance Lunsway and Tom Stipes.

The first of the Wrigley’s four July 20 directives to Peterson was to “elevate and centralize the role of an ethics officer on campus … [who] should report directly to you and have sufficient authority and responsibility” to investigate all ethics-related matters across Tech.

To meet that requirement, the vice president of Legal Affairs and Risk Management has been removed from reporting to EVPAF and has been rebranded as the VP of Ethics, Compliance, and Risk Management, which instead directly reports to the President.

The new position of VP of Ethics, Compliance and Risk Management will be filled by Aisha Oliver-Staley, who assumes the office on September 1, when VP of Legal Affairs and Risk Management Patrick McKenna’s long-planned retirement goes into effect.

In an effort to attempt to separate vendor approval powers from the campus services that select them, Financial and Business Services has been moved out of Campus Services and into Institute Planning and Resource Management.

Left behind in Administration and Finance is the Security and Chief of Police, who used to be under the VP of Legal Affairs and Risk Management, but will now report to the EVPAF directly.

Although these early organizational changes have already been implemented, Peterson warns that it might not be perfect.

“We’ve made these changes in the past three weeks or so and put people in place,” Peterson said. “We’re continuing to evaluate it.”

The new structure means that there are at least five major positions occupied in interim, including the EVPAF (currently held by James Fortner in interim) and two of its direct reports. Each of these roles will require extensive search processes in order to find the right people to fill them.

“It’s not a 30 day search. We’ll get a search firm, do a national search,” Peterson said, speaking specifically about the search for a new EVPAF. “So our [annual Institute operating] budget is 1.9 billion, and this is the chief financial officer for a 1.9 billion dollar budget, and chief administrative officer … We want to make sure we do it in a timely fashion, but make sure we get the right people.”

The goal is to fill positions top down, so new hires in the upper organization would have input into who would work underneath them.

The next step, and much harder step: rectify Tech’s ethics culture.

“We’ve got a consultant that’s coming in to try to assess what is the awareness of our policies,” Peterson said. “So they’re going ask basically every employee, are you aware of the ethics policy, do you know how to report a potential violation, are you comfortable. They’re going to run a survey, and we’re going to include every employee in that survey, and that will kind of guide us to determine what training is necessary.”

But Peterson makes a distinction between the obvious actions of enforcing and reinforcing compliance, and the more nebulous and difficult process of reforming the members of the Tech community into more ethical decision-makers.

“It’s interesting to me, and this is something that people don’t think about, is you can’t legislate ethics,” Peterson said. “You have to have rules. I’m not saying rules aren’t good. But at some point, I have to be able to look at you and say — you know what, what you did is not acceptable.”

However, Peterson did not say explicitly that he would remove employees for decisions that, although within compliance, were clearly unethical.

“Obviously I want somebody that follows the rules,” Peterson said. “But more importantly, I want somebody that makes ethical decisions and understands the intent of the rules, as opposed to just trying to always push the limit a little bit.”

However, Chancellor Wrigley’s Aug. 20 directive was stern and more direct when it discussed this issue.

“You must lead an effort to change the culture at Georgia Tech,” Wrigley wrote to Peterson. “A culture of high expectations clearly pervades the academic life of Georgia Tech; a matching culture of high expectations for administration must be created. For those who cannot accept the need for this change, you need to decide promptly whether the Georgia Tech family is the place for them.”

Peterson is charged with updating Wrigley’s office again on Nov. 12 on Tech administration’s progress on fulfilling this high challenge.

That same week, from Nov. 11 to 17, members of the Tech community will have the opportunity to engage in the University System of Georgia (USG) Ethics Awareness Week, for which Wrigley, writing in his July 20 letter, expects “a strong and visible presence and participation from [Peterson and his] senior leadership team.”

Associate VP and Chief of Staff Lynn Durham is heading up a 24-person committee to plan Tech’s USG Ethics Awareness Week events. According to Peterson’s Aug. 13 memorandum, the committee is considering options such as distributing video messages, developing a values statement and having faculty lead comprehensive discussions of ethics.

Peterson hopes that the past events and Ethics Awareness Week will be a learning opportunity for students, who are seeing how difficult ethical issues pervade even the administration of the school they attend.

“Now, this is the hard way, this is the hard way to learn that lesson, there’s others ways that I would have preferred that we do it,” Peterson said. “Hopefully, we can use this as a teaching moment for our students, our faculty, our staff, the people of Georgia Tech … and try to garner as much positive out of a bad situation as we can.”

Peterson will give an Institute Address next week Thursday, Aug. 30. The address will allow him to speak to the campus community face to face on his and his administration’s actions to improve ethics, reporting and more at the Institute.