As recently reported by the Arkansas News Bureau, the state Ethics Commission issued a ruling last week that would require department chairpersons at Arkansas universities to file statements of financial interest. The opinion was issued at the request of Jack Gillean, chief of staff in the president's office at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. His inquiry stems from interpretations of Arkansas Code 21-8-701 that states in part "any agency head, department director or division director of state government" must file an annual state of financial interest with the secretary of state's office. Gillean asked the Ethics Commission whether 21-8-701 applied to the chairpersons of the state university's academic departments.

As recently reported by the Arkansas News Bureau, the state Ethics Commission issued a ruling last week that would require department chairpersons at Arkansas universities to file statements of financial interest. The opinion was issued at the request of Jack Gillean, chief of staff in the president’s office at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. His inquiry stems from interpretations of Arkansas Code 21-8-701 that states in part “any agency head, department director or division director of state government” must file an annual state of financial interest with the secretary of state’s office. Gillean asked the Ethics Commission whether 21-8-701 applied to the chairpersons of the state university’s academic departments.

“Many of them questioned whether under the statute they fell within the meaning of a department director or a division director, and therefore they didn’t believe that they were required to file the statement. So we asked for an opinion from the Ethics Commission,” Gillean said.

The panel members stated that in their opinion that they interpret the law to require the filing of financial statements by “persons in charge of departments or divisions within a university, regardless of the title given to those persons,” and that chairs of UCA’s academic departments would fall into that category.

While this is a fine point, legally speaking, we believe the Ethics Commission has properly interpreted the spirit of the applicable law. Many university department heads throughout the state oversee millions of dollars in grant money, provide consulting services and partner with entities outside the university community. As such, it is proper that all financial interests be fully disclosed.

This kind of ruling sets a good precedent for public expectations of those in academia. Not that we think anyone in particular was doing anything wrong — rather, we contend that institutions as important as the state university system should be exemplars of rectitude. To accomplish this, we must adopt standards of practice that are often more stringent than what might be legally permissible. In other words, it’s not what anyone has “done.” It’s what appearance their actions/inactions suggest. As the old saw goes, “it’s not enough to avoid impropriety, you must also avoid the appearance of impropriety.”

Sometimes this can be a tall order and it is complicated by several factors. Determining “appearance” can be hard. While technical definitions of the appearance of impropriety are readily available, most real-world situations tend to require a more malleable frame. Moreover, reasonable people can disagree as to whether a particular action appears improper. As such, avoidance requires that we ask how a given situation might appear to others not in our position. We must be willing to see things from their vantage, including those who have incomplete information, ulterior motives or unspoken prejudices. We must abandon our personal judgment of the appearance, and accept, however temporarily, the perspectives of others, including those with whom we disagree.

Once we have examined the situation from all available angles, we can then address whether the desired course of action is permissible. As in the above case, sometimes that requires asking a neutral third-party, such as the Ethics Commission, to weigh in on the matter.

Given the cloud of ethical problems that has dogged UCA in recent years, this kind of proactive approach sends a very positive message about the present leadership. It shows that college can be a place where people learn many different kinds of things — ethics included.