Forget profits. Universities need morals.

Universities need to remember why they research: to advance knowledge. Flickr/Gates Foundation

Steven Schwartz, vice-chancellor of Macquarie University, recently claimed that universities should break from being treated as businesses and recapture their moral purpose.

He used the example of Jonas Salk, developer of the polio vaccine, identifying Salk’s discovery and subsequent open licensing of it as an act that defines the ethical stance university researchers should take.

In sharp contrast is the contemporary university, described by Schwartz as a place where “the discovery and dissemination of knowledge has been replaced by the desire to exploit it.”

Academics are professionals

Why, though, should we agree with Schwartz? And what does recapturing the university’s moral purpose mean in a practical sense?

The answer to the first question lies in the idea of the academic as a professional. Professionals are distinguished from “market occupations” by Seumas Miller at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics as individuals who:

1) Conduct work that has ethical goals, such as the upholding of institutions of justice, health, or knowledge.

2) Possess specialised knowledge.

3) Whose work requires professional autonomy to achieve results.

4) Whose skills are transmitted between a given kind of professionals.

5) Are typically part of a professional organisation.

Iconic professionals include doctors, lawyers, and engineers, but we might think those who work in universities should join them.

Transferring knowledge

First, the university is built around the creation and transmission of knowledge. It should be uncontroversial to say that the creation and dissemination of knowledge is good for society — and it’s an ethical goal.

Further, university researchers have specialised skills in their field of research.

Researchers need autonomy to pursue their research. Teachers also require autonomy to determine the best ways to educate students.

Finally, the university is often the source of its own members - those who teach or research at universities generally learned their craft in one.

I believe that it is the professional status of the university that gives Schwartz’s claim its teeth.

Don’t be market driven

If academia were a market-based occupation, there wouldn’t be a problem with the duties of universities and researchers being driven solely by the money.

There isn’t anything intrinsically wrong with doing research for profit — it just isn’t what universities should be about. They shouldn’t be driven by profits, but by their ethos.

Treating academia as a professional institution has important implications. First, the types of research that are conducted in academia shouldn’t be primarily about their economic impacts.

Research that has important societal impact is of primary concern, as is “blue sky” research, which expands the horizons of our knowledge in new and exciting ways.

Research that grows our economy can be good. It is just that that financial gain isn’t the only type of good out there. Universities should aim to promote societal good in whatever form that good takes.

Remember the ethos of the university

Academics also have a duty to pass on their knowledge and expertise. This duty is based not in the need to earn money for the university, or even to create productive vocations, but because disseminating knowledge is the ethical goal of the university.

To be sure, educated people are likely to be productive and employable people. But if this is a goal, it is only a goal that happily coincides with the ethos of the university.

Academics are professionals, and should be given the autonomy to fulfill their duties without being pressured to maximise profit. But with that autonomy comes certain expectations of integrity.

Our criteria for how well a university functions should be derived from the ethical function of universities, not their ability to turn profits. Ghostwriting, an example used by Schwartz, is an unacceptable practice.

The university should have an institutional structure, and its members display conduct that reflect and further these ethical goals.

This is Schwartz’s ideal. It should be ours as well.

For Schwartz’s original piece, and what recapturing the moral purpose of the university means to him, see here.