Conscience and the graduate
PREVAILING impressions are that today's university graduates are primarily concerned with future position, wealth, and power. For some, at least, this is not the case. At the end of the spring semester at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, students in a graduate seminar in negotiations approached the professor and asked that the last session of the class be devoted to questions of conscience in future careers. A student prepared a series of hypothetical problems for discussion. The cases involved journalism, banking, diplomacy; one case concerned government service:
``You are a public servant. Your bureau/department favors a policy which may promote the immediate interests of your bureau, but you believe it not to be in the long-run interest of your bureau or of the United States. You have had an opportunity to state your views, but they have not been adopted.''
The student paper summarized the issues of the several cases: ``Choices like those described above illustrate conflicts between personal honesty, loyalty to friends, institutional loyalties, personal professional advancement and so on.'' Those on the faculty who had held senior positions in government were invited to respond to the student questions.
This set of questions was not unique to this class. One of the most common concerns voiced by students at the School of Foreign Service thinking of entering government service is whether they will be required to carry out policies with which they do not agree and, under such circumstances, what action they should take. They know from newspapers and from the Washington gossip how many others have faced such issues and how many have been shunted aside in their careers because they opposed policies popular with a given administration.
The question cannot be lightly dismissed; many will, if conscientious in their beliefs, face such situations. Neither is the question easy to answer.
To suggest to concerned young people that they are presumptuous to believe they are likely to have any early influence on decisions is to discourage them from public service. To respond that when they enter into government in our society they must follow without question the policies of an administration is equally discouraging. It would be, on the other hand, misleading to plant the idea that they are free, without risk, to speak their mind to the press or to the Congress if they disagree with decisions. Similarly, it would be misleading to suggest that resignation to express opposition is an effective act; our society ignores or is inhospitable to those who quit in protest.
The only fair answer is to point out that public service is a career and that it demands loyalty to the elected leadership. Democratic government can function only on the basis of the acceptance and execution of decisions after all views have been heard. For those who are not prepared to accept such a responsibility, government may not be an appropriate career.
Those contemplating positions in government will need to accept that, certainly early in a career, they may not have the facts behind momentous decisions that would give them a sound basis for opposition. Government, is, furthermore, a political institution, and the political leadership has the ultimate voice.
Those who are prepared to enter public service, however, need not feel that they will have no say in the development of decisions or that their integrity will be under constant challenge. Over time, the public servant who demonstrates a strong knowledge of a region or an issue and an understanding of the objectives of an administration can establish the degree of confidence that creates an effective voice in decisionmaking. Internal opposition to firmly held views at the higher levels of government is possible, if undertaken with skill and sensitivity to the political environment. The single-minded, persistent dissenter is soon excluded from councils.
In a day when serious questions are being raised about ethics in government, it is encouraging that students, despite many known frustrating aspects of bureaucratic life, are still showing an interest in public service and asking questions that relate to honesty and integrity. The task of those preparing the future careerist is to present the realities and opportunities of public service to today's graduates while preserving their concern over ethical standards. More than ever, the nation needs such people.
David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.