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A University's Ethical Lapse

September 25, 2004

It's more than a little embarrassing for the head of a university to admit that one of his research arms should have backed off from doing some research. But after a few days of waffling, Cal State Fullerton President Milton A. Gordon did just that this week.

It was the only correct response to an ethical gaffe, one in which the university's Social Science Research Center conducted a telephone poll commissioned by an opponent of an Irvine mayoral candidate that included inaccurate statements about that candidate.

The public places extra faith in polls by universities because they have a reputation for doing things carefully, intelligently and fairly. That's especially true for public universities, which by the nature of their funding are called on to be apolitical and transparent in their dealings. Taking private money to conduct a survey doesn't change that responsibility.

Some of the questions on the Cal State Fullerton poll included statements accusing candidate Mike Ward of championing causes that are clearly anathema to most Irvine voters. Then the poll asked whether respondents would vote for Ward. Further, the polling director agreed to keep the identity of the poll's backer secret -- an oral agreement the university rescinded after public outcry.

It's easy to foresee the campaign mailers that might have resulted, proclaiming, "A Cal State Fullerton poll shows that most Irvine voters won't vote for this man." Sure, they wouldn't -- after they were fed several erroneous statements about him.

The polling operations at colleges were set up to do academic research, not to advance political causes. Although public universities in particular are supposed to steer clear of campaign politics, it's easy to see how something like this could happen. Many operations at both private and public colleges are under pressure to be more independent financially. Money from outside clients helps pay the bills when there's not enough internal money.

It's more important, though, to preserve academic integrity. Gordon has taken two good steps: He put the polling operation under a watchdog committee to determine whether it needed stronger policies, and he came out with a clear statement that the university had done wrong.

As financial pressure on California's public universities and colleges continues, leaders at all of these institutions should be looking at the blow to Cal State Fullerton's prestige and making sure their own ethical houses are in order.

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