Outside group offers study-abroad ethics

In part as a response to recent investigations into study-abroad practices, the Forum on Education Abroad on Monday released a “code of ethics” meant to provide clear rules for relationships between universities and program providers.

The six main sections of the code — compiled by an organization widely seen as setting the standards for the study-abroad field — address many of the ethical concerns brought up in ongoing investigations of study-abroad practices by the New York and Connecticut attorneys general. University officials welcomed the recommendations Monday but said they have not yet discussed the implementation of any specifics of the code.

Yale agreed in January to cooperate with a request from Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73 for records pertaining to its study-abroad programs. Blumenthal is investigating whether administrators at Yale and nine other Connecticut schools may have received financial incentives or other perks from study-abroad companies in exchange for contracts.

Among other topics, the Forum’s code addresses truthfulness and transparency, conflicts of interest, and gifts, gratuities, discounts, rebates and compensation.

“We wanted to speak directly to some of the issues that have come up directly in the study abroad investigations,” Forum President and CEO Brian Whalen said. “These are principles and guidelines for the field, created by the field.”

The Forum had already approved plans to write the code over the summer, Whalen said, but accelerated the process when The New York Times published an article in August scrutinizing a variety of study-abroad practices, including so-called “familiarization” trips in which college study-abroad staff assess overseas program sites on the program’s dime.

Associate Dean of International Affairs Jane Edwards called the code an “important step forward” in the field but declined to comment on whether Yale would adopt any of the code’s recommendations.

“That would suggest that I think there is something problematical about our ethical standards, and I don’t,” Edwards said. “We have been thinking about our ethics all the way along.”

Barbara Rowe, director of the Office of International Education and Fellowship Programs, added that while Yale’s study-abroad policies already adhere to the highest standards, the release of the code provides the office with an opportunity to re-examine these policies.

Rowe is a member of the Forum’s board of directors and currently serves on the executive committee.

Whalen said he thinks current practices in the study-abroad field are generally “excellent” but that the investigation has given the industry a chance to re-evaluate itself.

“We in the field don’t feel that there are egregious practices going on that would cause concern,” Whalen said. “But I think this is a good opportunity to review … ethical guidelines and business practices in the field. We can be even more specific in the area of ethics to make sure that we have very strong conflict-of-interest guidance and advocate transparency to benefit students.”

Whalen declined to comment on the specifics of Yale’s involvement with the investigation. An aide to Blumenthal said Monday that the investigation is active and ongoing; the attorney general himself was unavailable for comment.

The Forum’s code instructs both the program and the visitor to communicate clearly about the specific purpose of the visit, the cost-sharing arrangements and any “gifts, hospitality or honoraria” provided.

To accompany the code, the Forum will also produce a “toolbox” with specific examples of how to implement the code’s ethical guidelines. The examples in the site-visit section will include sample itineraries and site reports, Whalen said.

But many within the study-abroad field say that familiarization trips should not be categorically vilified.

Yale officials, study-abroad policymakers and Yale students who have studied abroad say these trips — which allow college officials to visit and evaluate the places to which they send students — are essential to maintaining high standards at study-abroad programs and should not be made illegal.

In a conversation with the News in September, Edwards called the trips “indispensable” and a “quality-control mechanism.”

Edwards said in September that such trips she had taken allowed her to examine student residences and talk to faculty members and program officials efficiently. These visits also help the programs themselves, she explained, because the programs benefit from evaluations and comments from University officials.

Edwards declined to comment on her previous remarks when queried last month.

Yale Spokeswoman Helaine Klasky said last month that the subsidized trips taken by Yale staff members to conferences and program locations were approved and did not violate Yale’s conflict-of-interest policy. While Yale will discuss these relationships with the attorney general’s office, she said, there are no immediate plans to do away with the trips.

Whalen agreed, saying that those outside the study-abroad field may not immediately understand why the trips are beneficial to both schools and the programs.

“[The trips] are very key to the way the field works,” Whalen said. “We certainly advocate for full transparency and disclosure and avoidance of conflict of interest. But these are not hidden perks of any kind. There’s a purpose to them, to benefit students and programs.”

Whalen noted that the trips at issue in this investigation are not vacations — rather, he said, they are a means to evaluate academic programs.

The Forum on Education Abroad is not the only institution moving to tighten ethical standards for study abroad for member institutions. In January, NAFSA: Association of International Educators issued a report outlining a set of principles for managing study abroad.

The report recommended that colleges establish clear contracting and auditing procedures, including conflict-of-interest policies, among other items. The report also called upon schools to make study-abroad policies — including information on academic regulations and financial aid — easily available to students.

The four Yale students interviewed for this article who have studied abroad said their experiences with the Yale study-abroad office had not raised any suspicions. In fact, several students said they considered the familiarization trips a worthwhile endeavor.

Stephanie Brockman ’08, who studied in the Sultanate of Oman last spring, said a group of study-abroad coordinators and professors from several American universities visited her program while she was there.

The visit allowed the group to examine the students’ living arrangements and ensure that the program was safe and well run, Brockman said. Especially since many Americans do not regard the Gulf region as entirely secure, she said she thinks it is important that university study-abroad coordinators see the program for themselves.

Flora Mendoza ’08 said she was pleased that officials from Yale’s Office of International Education and Fellowship Programs had visited her study-abroad program in Buenos Aires, Argentina, last spring.

Study-abroad programs could misrepresent themselves, Mendoza said, so she considers it a good idea for study-abroad coordinators at universities to check up on programs periodically.

But while Mendoza has no complaints about Yale’s handling of her study-abroad experience, she said she is suspicious of the cost of the program, which is run through the Institute for Study Abroad at Butler University in Indianapolis.

Mendoza said the cost of the Argentina program is comparable to that at a university in Spain, although Spain uses the skyrocketing euro, which is worth much less than the Argentinean peso.

The Butler University program is one of those being scrutinized by New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who launched his investigation following the August article in The New York Times.

Yale is also affiliated with two other study-abroad providers under investigation: the Danish Institute for Study Abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark, and the Center for Education Abroad at Arcadia University in Glenside, Pa.

Cuomo expanded his probe into colleges’ business practices last week to an examination of colleges’ ties to insurance, textbook, food-service and credit-card companies.

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