Case 15: The Case of the Egyptian Travel Agent

John Crane, an anthropologist who teaches at a small community college in a high-income suburb of a West Coast city, had three years of fieldwork experience in Egypt and was delighted when Professor Randall of the Classics department asked him if he would lead a summer tour to Egypt. These costly tours, designed and previously led by Randall, draw well-educated and well-traveled adults from the area. The tour group seemed happy with Crane's leadership and Crane indicated interest in conducting future tours. The following year, however, Randall, with the aid of his wife, resumed leading the tour, indicating that his popularity was necessary to the tour's success.

Two years later, Crane teamed from a travel agent, an Egyptian specializing in cultural tours of Egypt, that the tour was in trouble. The agent, with whom Crane had had previous business dealings, attributed the tour's difficulties to the fact that it was being switched from his firm, which had handled it for 15 years, to another cut-rate firm, lacking Egyptian connections and experience. According to the agent, the college provost was attempting to take control of the tour.

Crane talked to the provost, who said he had teamed that Randall had a standing arrangement with the travel agent, giving him 10% of every traveler's payment, or about $6,000 a year. In addition the college paid him for leading the tour. The provost was upset about this arrangement and had decided to quietly terminate it.

At first Crane did not believe the story, but when he telephoned Mrs. Randall she indicated that standard practice in the travel business includes such payment. She also said that in Egypt, successful tour planning requires personal long-standing relationships in each city.

Crane realizes that the Randalls operate in a business and a culture where such kickbacks are standard practice. It occurred to him that perhaps Randall insists upon leading the tour himself so that no one else will become aware of these payments. When he discussed the matter with his colleagues, no one seemed upset and, in fact, his department chair said that publicity would hurt the college and told him to forget the matter. (The chair had previously criticized Crane for not being a "team player.")

Randall is now being considered for promotion to full professor and his colleagues are being interviewed about his qualifications. Crane teamed that two members of his own department recommended Randall and wonders what to say if he is asked his opinion. He believes that publicity about Randall would reach the market population of the tour and injure the college as a whole. In addition, Crane is himself coming up for promotion review next year and would like to enter the situation at peace with his colleagues.


Murray L. Wax, Washington University in St. Louis:

Strangely enough, in this entire account no mention is made of the academic qualifications of Randall, his performance as a classroom teacher, his productivity or other contributions to the welfare of this small community college. Surely these should be primary in a judgment about whether or not he merits promotion. If the issue is his moral conduct, then one would wish to know also about his behavior in these other and easily observable aspects of campus life. Since Crane seems unprepared to concern himself with an overall evaluation of the qualifications--scholarly and ethical--of Randall, then his best strategy would be to avoid being placed in a situation where he is called upon to judge. If explicitly asked, his best tactic would be to state that Randall is in a different discipline and that he feels unprepared either to endorse or not to endorse him for promotion.

The marketplace for guided tours is extremely competitive in terms of both quality and price. Tours are offered--and implicitly endorsed--by a variety of educational and benevolent associations and institutions. Given the plethora of consumer choice and the fact that the tours in question are being proffered to educated and autonomous adults, there seems no moral compulsion upon this bystander to intervene. The situation would be far different if those recruited were students who were being given a chance to earn academic credit (or other goodies) by purchasing the tour. The situation would also be different if those who purchased the tours indicated dissatisfaction or, worse yet, a sense that they had been defrauded. But, again, no mention is made of this possibility. Rather, it sounds as if the travelers are receiving a pleasant and educational experience for their monies.

Since the tours are offered under the auspices of the college, its administrators have a responsibility to see that the travelers participate in an educational experience. Also, as the sponsoring institution, the college would naturally wish to receive the major share of profits or windfall from the tour. Since the provost has been alerted to the kickback arrangement, there is no need for Crane to take further action, unless he wishes to emerge as perennial tour leader and is willing to do so without the additional income that Randall has been receiving. The college itself has the alternative of allowing Randall to continue as tour leader, but declining itself to supplement his kickback income with summer salary, on the theory that he is already receiving sufficient compensation.

In short, my judgment is that this is a capital instance where one should rely on the mechanisms of the market. If the tour were overpriced for the experiences it delivers, one presumes that few sensible adults would purchase it, or, if they chose to purchase it, the responsibility for their folly would be primarily theirs; the situation would not call for evaluation by an outsider. Indeed, one would like to know about the costs and benefits of comparable tours to this "Egypt." Would the participants in a minimally priced, cut-rate tour--without kickbacks and "graft"--be left to stand for hours in queues at the airport and then find themselves occupying hotel rooms that were filthy and without amenities? This, too, can be educational, but would hardly qualify the tour for being priced at a high fee.


Art Gallaher, University of Kentucky:

The ethical issue posed here is how to deal with one's knowledge of the apparent ethical indiscretions of a colleague. As is often the case, it is compounded by the lack of conventional guidelines, and by the mixing of both personal and professional issues.

Crane's dilemma in assessing Randall's ethics, forced by the possibility of having to render a judgment regarding his promotion, runs to three interrelated issues: whether to be influenced by (1) Randall cutting him out of the tour business; (2) Randall's indiscretion with the community college as reported by the provost; or (3) Randall taking a kickback in a cross-cultural business arrangement. Against this background, and seeking the advice of his colleagues, the notion of institutional welfare is invoked as a basis for ignoring the issue, for not "rocking the boat." An added pressure on Crane is that he, too, will soon be up for promotion and does not wish, therefore, to alienate his colleagues.

Given the statement of facts in the case, what follows is based on the premise that Randall is not self-employed in the tour business, but rather operates on behalf of the community college in which he is employed. This being the case, the critical issues are simply the appropriateness of the cross-cultural kickback and whether other relevant cultural norms override those of Randall's own culture.

Randall's posture that his kickback is an acceptable business practice in Egypt begs the obvious question of whether it is a cultural requisite for doing business there. The practice does not, for example, have the ritual connotation of the "lucky penny" in Irish trade relationships, or similar rituals elsewhere. Further, it begs even more the important question of whether one should seize advantage in a cross-cultural situation merely because there is the sanctioned opportunity there to do so. As stated, the advantage in this case flows directly from the college as contractor to the travel agent as seller. While a kickback to secure business might be acceptable to the seller, there is no reason to assume in this case that such payment is required by the contractor to avail of the seller's services. To postulate otherwise is to suggest that favor is endowed on an Egyptian by taking a kickback from him. Since this is not the case, Randall's actions are thus forced into the context of his own culture: by taking the kickback he compromises the ethical position of his employer, whom he represents in the tour arrangements, and leaves the impression of personal aggrandizement at the expense of parties cross-culturally. Put simply, he yielded to a bribe.

The kind of ethical issue defined here should not be rationalized to protect either the college image or one's self-interest. It goes to the heart of what the academy is about and, because of that, is an important variable in assessing qualifications for appointment and promotion. It is very unfortunate in this case that Crane's decision is not made easier by what appears to be the tacit collusion of several parties, for whatever reasons, to ignore the issue.

Reader's Response

Ralph J. Bishop of Educational Resources in Evanston, Illinois, wrote:

"In the case of the Egyptian travel agent, Crane's ethical dilemma is not what he should say about Randall. He has no documentation of the man's activities and would be foolish to level such a serious charge as bribery without it.

"Crane's problem is that the ethical standards of the college in general seem to be lower than he is comfortable with. He can try to live with this; he can try to raise the tone of the place (a difficult task which will win him no friends and may jeopardize his career); or he can leave. This college sounds like a fairly corrupt place.

"First, Crane is reasonably certain that one of his colleagues is working with a travel agent for tens of thousands of dollars in kickbacks; second, the provost of the college takes the easy way out by changing agencies and then tells Crane some of the damning details in what is either a monumental indiscretion or a shrewd attempt to put Crane into an ethical dilemma and evaluate the way he resolves it (note that Crane wouldn't necessarily have known about the kickbacks if the provost hadn't told him); third, Randall's wife tells him in effect that her husband has done nothing wrong, nobody Crane talks to seems to think there is anything to get upset about, and Crane's chair tells him to shut up and forget the whole thing, for the good of the college (and, by extension, of Crane's career).

"Unless he has the stamina and guts of a crusader, he should start looking for another job, but even then he may feel that he has yielded to expediency and compromised his standards. Poor Crane! `Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise.' "

"Note: This famous quotation is from Thomas Gray's poem, `On a Distant Prospect of Eton College,' the whole of which has interesting resonances with this case, in that it is basically an elegy on the loss of innocence."