UI professor fined $500 for skipping ethics training for years
URBANA — A University of Illinois math professor, who has called state ethics training "Orwellian" and akin to "Big Brother reducing us to the status of children" has been fined $500 for not completing training several years in a row.
He's also now taken the online ethics training after years of refusing to do so.
This is the first time the Illinois Executive Ethics Commission has levied a fine against a state employee for not complying with the training requirement of the State Officials and Employees Ethics Act, according to Cole Kain, chief of staff and general counsel for the Office of Executive Inspector General.
Tenured UI Professor Lou van den Dries refused to complete the online training in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009, according to the Office of the Executive Inspector General, which filed a complaint with the ethics commission. The commission enforces the ethics act.
In 2007, van den Dries said "mandatory ethics training for adults is an Orwellian concept and has no place in a civil and free society. It is Big Brother reducing us to the status of children. Symptoms: monitoring of the test taking, the 'award' of a diploma for passing the test. It betrays a totalitarian urge on those in power to infantilize the rest of us.
"An unfortunate byproduct of the computer revolution is that it has given new tools in the hands of unwise rulers to annoy us for no good reason. Rather than go meekly along, we should vigorously protest and resist whenever demeaning schemes like ethics training rear their ugly head," he wrote.
Since 2004, state employees have been required to undergo annual ethics training, by the State Officials and Employees Ethics Act. The training, which takes about 40 minutes to an hour to complete, is conducted online or in person. Every year about 99.9 percent of the university's approximately 49,000 employees comply with the requirement, according to UI spokesman Tom Hardy.
Van den Dries was reminded several times by several university administrators, including then-Urbana Chancellor Richard Herman, to complete the training.
After not taking it in 2009 and in response to a request by an administrator to do so in 2010, van den Dries said he had "never done it, and will never do it. ... I'd get physically unwell in the attempt."
"My understanding is that as a tenured faculty member I am a citizen of an academic community rather than an employee, certainly in matters of this nature. Citizenship is incompatible with mandatory annual 'ethics training.'" ... Faculty cannot be ordered around as if they were part of a 'chain of command.' I am enjoying my sabbatical. Best, Lou."
"As a 'citizen of an academic community,' Professor van den Dries should strive to set a positive example for himself, students and others, and complying with state laws, including ethics laws, is a step in the right direction," Kain said in a released statement. He declined further comment.
According to the settlement recently released by the ethics commission, the professor agreed to the $500 fine. He took the training in October 2011.
Van den Dries, who is currently in Europe, said via email he decided to settle because the case was becoming costly and time consuming.
"While many of my colleagues agree that this ethics training is a big waste of time and money, they didn't really take the steps I took in trying to fight it. So without active support from my colleagues, it became too time consuming and costly (lawyers fees) to continue my resistance," he said.
"I can live with the petty tyranny that this ethics training amounts to, but my fear is that this kind of thing will get worse over the years," he added.
David Keahl, director of ethics training and compliance with the Office of the Executive Inspector General, said the agency was pleased that after the prolonged litigation, van den Dries "has finally agreed to undertake his statutorily mandated ethics training despite having previously stated that such training was 'Orwellian,' 'illegitimate,' and that he would 'never do it.'"
Van den Dries said he has been at the UI since 1986, and a full professor since 1988. In addition, he holds an appointment in the Center for Advanced Study.
"We support and respect the decision of the Executive Ethics Commission," said Hardy, the university's spokesman.
The required ethics training presents various scenarios to employees on topics such as conflicts of interest, political activity, gifts and more. Employees are asked what would have been the right behavior in the circumstance. If they respond with the wrong answer, they are told the correct answer and why, he said.
When employees complete the training, they receive documentation that they completed it and the university ethics office keeps track of compliance. The university ethics office also prompts and reminds people to take complete the training. Once the training time period ends, the ethics office sends a report to the Office of the Executive Inspector General, Hardy said. Their office and the ethics commission can send reminders to individuals and urge them to comply.
"That's generally met with a high level of success," Hardy said.