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Merle D. Anderson, Fargo, Published September 13 2012

Letter: Ethics violations invariably failure of ‘herd’ leadership

There is a lot of debris flying through the air about the Bison athlete scandal. Much of the discussion is directed at the football players, but perhaps some thought should be made about the leaders at North Dakota State University. After all, the athletes are young and are worthy of some underwriting of mistakes, particularly since they have confessed and are already under adjudication by authorities for their failures as citizens. What about their responsibilities to the team, the tribe, THE HERD?

While coaching the NDSU rifle and pistol team, I suspended an athlete for using false identification at a traffic stop. Although drinking was involved, he had not been consuming alcohol. He was detained because he would not verify his identity or status as a minor. He was at the time, the top collegiate rifle shooter in the United States.

My peers at the Olympic Training Center did not agree with my stance on suspension, but issues of integrity outweighed any sentiment for his elite status. He further tried to evade culpability by lying to me. I used the incident for ethics instruction to the rest of the team. Even an “enlightened” leader such as Attila the Hun recognized that a “bad Hun” was useful to the tribe, if for no other reason than as an object lesson for the other Huns.

From my military experience, I have found that some ethics violations occur individually, while others occur within groups. When so many “fail” the test out of a group, it is almost always a failure of leadership. This is an indication there is a systemic problem with the tribe.

We read about academic leaders seeking to improve the university system by upping the standards of entrance for students. Let there be no mistake, this is a policy issue. However, when a leader is awakened in the night with a crisis, it isn’t policy but character that matters. I have no problem with tough entrance standards; yet it seems the problems at the university are failures of its leaders. In the military, it is important for an officer to have an underlying sense of decency and a sense of responsibility along with an understanding of how to use the authority he has received.

Machiavelli argued that life could be divided between how one deals with the unexpected (fortuna) by shaping, controlling and mitigating it (virtu). Although they may not have studied Machiavelli, I believe the coach and athletic director are busy shaping, controlling and mitigating the unexpected events of this scandal. They may have sound policy, but “fortuna” trumps policy and what really matters then is “virtu.” Here, the rest of the university has a role. The scandal and the responses by the leaders of the university provide an excellent opportunity for discussion in all those various “ethics” courses being offered for college credit. There are examples from history so the College of Humanities doesn’t have to feel left out.

Army Regulation 601-210 is the pecuniary standard for enlistment and on occasion, soldiers fail; they become “bad” Huns. Sometimes when investigating these violations, I would be confronted by an officer or NCO claiming the failures resulted from poor quality enlistments. However, the Army holds its leaders responsible for failures. It is a basic tenet that if the individual meets the minimum standard for enlistment, any failure is the result of motivation or training, and both aspects are the responsibility of the leader. In fact, there can be no responsibility without authority.

Perhaps this is what Forum columnist Jane Ahlin is really concerned about when she questioned the silence of President Dean Bresciani (Sept. 9 column). In this sense, she represents the voice of the people.

For perspective that comes from distance and time, Cicero may apply: “Great deeds are not done by strength or speed or physique; they are the products of thought, and character and judgment.”

What does history say about voter fraud? Plutarch spoke of a leader named Aristides. During a vote for ostracism, an illiterate man asked Aristides to write the name “Aristides” on his potsherd. Neither man knew the other. There would be no check for falsified names on a petition or ballot. However, not failing in his duty or integrity, Aristides wrote his own name on the potsherd and in 483 B.C. “Aristides the Just” was banished. “Vox populi, vox Dei.”