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Friday, November 15, 2019

I Was an Unethical Jerk Back in 1980


I got a note awhile ago from a respected colleague – actually a series of notes, sniping at various things I’d written, and when I responded that s/he seemed to have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed, s/he revealed that his/her attacks were in retaliation for something I’d done in 1980. In that year, allegedly, I reviewed an archaeological research design by my colleague and pronounced it unworthy of an expenditure of federal dollars. But when the federal sponsor went ahead and funded the work, I praised the result. And – here was the crux – at no time did I contact my colleague to discuss the matter. This, he/she said, was deeply unethical on my part.

These kinds of allegations bother me, though I generally yawn at arguments about ethics. I was further bothered in this instance by the fact that I don’t remember the case. In 1980 I was about a year into my tumultuous decade as overseer of compliance with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) for the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP). I was busy with cases all over the country, and with oversight of three offices full of very dedicated civil servants – among many other duties.

I do recall that in that period, I suffered from the conceit that I might be able to influence U.S. government agencies to fund really responsible, well-formulated archaeological research to mitigate the impacts of their activities, so it’s quite likely that I was writing pretty critical reviews of the ostensible research designs that occasionally crossed my desk. Mea culpa for that.

But my colleague’s particular gripe seems to be that I didn’t contact her/him to discuss the matter. This is the element of her/his complaint that’s worth attention here, because it reflects not only on me 40 years ago but on every overworked, underpaid project reviewer at the ACHP and in State Historic Preservation Offices (SHPOs) and Tribal Historic Preservation Officers (THPOs) across the nation today. Was it unethical for me to give my colleague’s research design a raspberry without talking with her/him about it?

I’ll be happy to receive comments, but I’ll tell you what I think.

I think my colleague needs to recognize that my responsibility back in 1980 – and the responsibility of my equivalents in the ACHP, SHPOs and THPOs today – was and is first and foremost to the agencies who asked for our official comments. It was and is they who sought or seek our advice, and it’s to them that we need to provide it. And we need to provide it based on a rational review of the information in hand; it is not our responsibility to go nosing about to find out what is “really” going on. Arguably, in fact, it would have been quite improper – unethical, if you will – for me to have rung up my colleague and said “hey, colleague, your research design really stinks, but is something else going on that I should know about?” My colleague’s proposal should have stood on its own merits; it was not my job to ferret out the truth underlying its verbiage.

Reviewers in agencies like the ACHP, SHPO, and THPO have lots of stuff to do. Don’t expect them to give your paperwork the same loving care you lavish on preparing it.