Wednesday, January 18, 2006

WHEN FINDERS AREN'T KEEPERS

Sue Maghy of Fountain Valley, Calif., wants to feel proud of her son for doing the right thing. This past fall, during his first semester at the University of California in San Diego, he found an Ipod nano player and decided to turn it in to the campus police department.

"I'm proud of him," Maghy says, "and feel good that, when he was faced with this decision, he made the right choice."

The problem arose when her son asked whether, if no one claimed the Ipod, he could have it.

"The person in the department made him feel like some criminal for asking," she reports.

Feeling that her efforts to raise her son to make good ethical choices were being called into question, Maghy called the campus police. She was told that, according to departmental policy, if the item wasn't claimed in 90 days it would be sold at auction.

When she asked whether her son could claim the Ipod if the owner didn't come forward, she adds, the department representative made her feel as if this was "all about my financial gain."

"Now," she concludes, "I feel like an unethical, greedy person."

She's neither, of course, and she and her son were both perfectly reasonable in asking about what happens to found goods that aren't claimed.

As it turns out, if her son had found cash, UC/San Diego policy would have been to return it to him if went unclaimed for 90 days. All other found property, however, is sold at auction after 90 days, with the university keeping the proceeds.

This may seem inconsistent, and there are other colleges, including some in the UC system, that return both cash and other found property to their finders after a set amount of time has passed. But that's not the current policy at UC/San Diego, and there's nothing unethical about not returning found objects -- though, of course, there's also nothing unethical about Maghy's questioning that policy.

As is often the case, however, the problem here is not with the policy itself as much as with the university's failure to make the policy clear and available to anyone who has a question. On a quick check of UC/San Diego's Web site, I found only the simply instruction that lost-and-found items should be turned over to the campus police department. It was only after talking with Mary Garcia, who is in charge of records for the university's police department, that I was able to find a Web address where I could read the university's official policy on disposition of those items.

Making a rule transparent and easy to find helps to manage situations such as the one faced by Maghy's son, who ended up feeling bad for having been a good campus citizen. How hard would it have been for the university's "Police Services: Lost and Found" Web page to provide a link to the more detailed campus policy? It would make it simpler for the campus police to field any questions and would have saved Maghy and her son from feeling that their questions were unwelcome and in some way reprehensible.

Garcia tells me that UC/San Diego is now reevaluating its policy to determine whether found property should be treated the same as found cash. Whether or not the policy changes, however, the right thing would be to make the found-object policy clear and easily available to everyone on campus. A policy that people don't know or don't understand is a recipe for misunderstandings and resentment.

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rightthing@nytimes.com. Please include your name and your hometown. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

When I was about 8 years old my mom and I were at the Wheaton Pharmacy when I found a ten dollar bill hidden under a Hershey's chocolate bar. My mother suggested that we give it to the gentleman behind the counter and leave our phone number. A week later, the pharmacist called to say that no one had yet claimed the ten dollar bill, and that I could come in and pick it up for myself. I'm sure there's a valuable lesson in there somewhere, but more importantly is that at seven percent interest annually, that ten dollars has grown to a whopping $62.14, which will buy a heck of a lot of chocolate bars. -- THE DAVID

Anonymous said...

As a gift given during a marriage as opposed to during an engagement, I think A.K. has every right to keep the doll house. I also agree that if any one of the ex'es wants it back, they need to do their own dirty work of asking for it instead of putting a "child" in the middle of what may become a bone of contention. My advise to A.K. - she should stand her ground in keeping the doll house. After all, if it is indeed a family heirloom of her ex-family, the other half of her children's family, then she can see to it that her and her ex-husband's grandchildren are bequeathed with it in her will.

bill bergman said...

I thought it was a bit unethical for the city of New Orleans to host their usual parade, hold a fireworks display etc. after people were sending money for hurricane relief. I just didn't think that was a necessary expenditure when there were so many citizens who had greater needs than parades, and fireworks.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand why the UNIVERSITY should profit from "found" items. My city has a policy that if the item is unclaimed in 90 days they return it to the person who turned it in. Seems like a fair policy to me.

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