What it means to be a whistleblower

Choosing to be a person of authentic integrity is a key part of my identity. It isn’t easy.

Actually, that’s an understatement. It is frickin’ hard, and sometimes horridly difficult. Oftentimes there are no personal benefits, other than the quiet certitude of knowing I did the right thing.)

In the worlds of business or academia, being a whistleblower is one of the most stressful roles we can ever play. It is difficult, costly, and alienating, and not a spur-of-the-moment decision: by the time we feel the need to blow the whistle, it isn’t just one thing that has gone wrong – an entire series of ethical thresholds have been exceeded, to the point we cannot conscience anymore.

It’s not like when we’re kids in the pool or on the field and a lifeguard or sports coach blows their whistle, when everyone knows to collectively stop. Pay attention. Deal with the infraction or the emergency.

My latest essay, published in Undark on September 16, 2021

In professional realms, when we encounter something untoward, at first we feel confused, or slightly uncomfortable. (That’s our instincts telling us something is amiss). The longer the unethical situation persists, or the more frequently the “wrongness” plays out, the greater discomfort we feel. And so on: the more we observe the infraction(s), the more dismayed, frustrated, or stymied we feel: our stomachs twist, our heart rates go up, our heads ache.

If the situation or behaviors(s) are really bad, we may even feel disgust or anger. We may lose sleep, become short-tempered in our relationships with others, or develop other self-harming behaviors.

Yet more often than not, when faced with ethnical quandaries, most of us will turn aside, downplay or deny the severity, capitulate, retreat, cover up, or depart. Anything other than sticking our necks out and blowing the damn whistle. Because there is so much to lose.

I wish this wasn’t the case.

I wish it was more like the swimming or sports scenario, where a whistle blast allows us to take a pause and evaluate the situation. I wish it spurred everyone else to respect the whistle blower, pull together, and offer aid if needed.

Photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash

Today, Undark, the prestigious online magazine housed at MIT, published my whistle-blowing Op-Ed, “The Advanced Placement Exams’ Grading System Gets Low Marks.”

Like I do for every piece I publish, I worked hard on the article. The essay went through multiple revisions and several months of editorial oversight and fact-checking: much more than is usual for an article or essay in other major publications.

I wrote this Op-Ed in recognition that, despite the existence of thousands of other AP readers familiar with the issues I describe, no one else was speaking out on this particular issue – because they feared the loss of a lucrative side hustle. Or they didn’t want to lose out on an all-expenses-paid trip to Cincinnati. Or they didn’t want to face the pushback from higher-ups. Or they didn’t feel they had the right, the seniority, or the expertise to speak up.

Yet the injustices involved were too egregious for me to stay silent anymore. Plus, the fixes I recommend are straightforward.

There are other fine writers addressing additional issues with Advanced Placement exams; their articles are linked within my Op-Ed. Standardized tests will always have issues: issues that I, and countless other instructors, have discussed at length; far too many to address here. With this short essay, I had the opportunity to speak out about very specific issues that could be resolved with relatively straightforward fixes.

In the meantime, I can sleep better at night. My stomach doesn’t twist itself into knots every time I think about the Educational Testing System, because now I have spoken up. I remain troubled by unfair scoring practices, but my conscience is clear.

My hope is that the Op-Ed will spark productive conversations that will cause more people to question current practices, discussions that will ultimately lead towards lasting positive change.

This is always my hope.

2 thoughts on “What it means to be a whistleblower

  1. A refreshing honest article, and we cannot have enough of them. I admire your strength to stand up for your principles. Unfortunately, society does still need to learn a lot about the importance of speaking out, holding those in power accountable and protecting those individuals brave enough to stand up. Complacency has become the norm, ethical standards are ignored and those in power perceived the word integrity as an accusation. It is our love for comfort and security, for status and prestige that has undermined all that could be described as society ethical standards. But has it ever been different? For a short period, we had come to believe (after the Second World War) that societies were able to change, that humanity had changed. Who is to blame? Maybe our philosophical schools, or our fading memories? Idealism is a tragic infliction and in the past, we would have burned at the stakes. Despite the continuing battles, it is left to us not to lose heart and be satisfied with the occasional victories.

    1. “An idealist believes the short run doesn’t count. A cynic believes the long run doesn’t matter. A realist believes that what is done or left undone in the short run determines the long run.”

      Sydney J. Harris

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