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Who is to teach ethics to the university?

Do universities model the ethics they teach? John Walker, CC BY

Who is to teach ethics to the university?

The narratives that help illustrate the lack of professional ethics at American universities occur with greater and greater frequency, though most often we fail to note them as such.

If we put our minds to it, we can remember quite a number of unethical stories at American universities in recent years: the sex abuse case that prompted the firing of the president and football coach at Penn State; the pepper-spraying of students at the University of California at Davis; the tragic hazing death of marching band member Robert Champion at Florida A and M University.

These are stories that happened at universities, and their settings, I believe, are not incidental to the narratives. As an author of University Ethics: How Colleges Can Build and Benefit from a Culture of Ethics, I believe our universities are breeding these scandals and ethical compromise. But rarely, even when the press exposes something shameful about a university, do we identify the issue as a lack of ethics.

Scandals on campus

We can find instances of university scandals on any given day. For instance, what do I find in the Chronicle of Higher Education on just one day: The University of Texas at Austin provides a case to “illustrate how the university has appeared to let academically deficient players push the limits of its policy on academic integrity.”

The closing of campuses belonging to Corinthian College prompts questions about greater oversight. An essay about whether a sociologist “had participated in a felony” while doing research follows another on Rachel Dolezal’s story on race and identity. Finally, there’s a riveting story highlighting what happens when matters of sexual assault conflict with academic freedom.

Here, then, in one week’s coverage of The Chronicle of Higher Education, we have a startling set of issues. This leads us to ask the question: are these issues sensational but isolated moments across the American academic landscape, or is there something more systemic here?

I believe it is systemic.

Missing ethical consciousness

In other forms of professional life, we have long recognized a strong connection between the lack of professional ethics in a particular institutional setting and the lack of an ethical consciousness in that culture.

I believe that the absence of professional ethics is evidence of and symptomatic of a culture disinterested in ethics. For instance, as we come out of the sexual abuse scandals that have ripped apart the churches, we see that the disinterest in professional ethical accountability of bishops and priests was sustained by the church’s clerical culture that was more attuned to advancement than it was to ethical responsibility and transparency.

A similar culture is part and parcel of the contemporary American university.

There are no courses in university ethics. Tulane Public Relations, CC BY

Simply put, the American university does not hold its employees to professional ethical standards because it has not created a culture of ethical consciousness and accountability at the university. This is in part because of the nature of the contemporary university and because it needs ethics.

The contemporary university functions not as an integrated, transparent community but as a medieval set of fiefdoms in which transparency and accountability are singularly to “the person upstairs”: that is, to the chair, the dean or a vice president. Faculty and administrators are not accountable to any colleague, but only to a higher administrator.

Moreover, this accountability is only one-directional. For all the compliance, accountability and collaborative models that university faculty teach in their ethics courses to physicians, nurses, managers and lawyers, the university itself remains averse to developing any true accountability structures.

We can certainly acknowledge that at any university, anyone can take a course on business ethics, nursing ethics, legal ethics, medical ethics or journalistic ethics. Ethics courses in the different professions are easily available at almost any university.

In fact, generally speaking, if one is looking for ethical training in a profession, the courses are found at a university. The one major professional institution about which you cannot find any ethics courses listed among the hundreds of courses at any university is precisely the university.

Where are university ethics?

Ethics, an academic discipline that routinely arbitrates competing claims, is rarely invoked as a discipline to address university problems.

So, if you search for a course on university ethics, you will simply not find one. Professors and their deans recognize the need to teach professional ethics in all the other professions, but it seems they show no real interest in professional ethics for their own profession.

Not convinced? Take the test that I did.

Go to your university library and look for books on professional ethics. At my university, as I found in my research, we have over 400,000 books stacked in our library. There, each book is assigned a subject heading.

Under the subject “medical ethics,” we have 1,321 books; under “business ethics,” 599 books; under “nursing ethics,” 234 books; under “legal ethics,” 129 books; under “clergy ethics,” 25 (relatively new) books; and, under “academic ethics,” five (brand new) books.

Nonetheless, even these academic ethics books are only about professors’ conduct in their classes and offices. There are no books on university ethics, none at least that attempt to set ethical cultures and standards across the entire campus.

This lack of books on academic and university ethics is alarming inasmuch as academics, more than business people, nurses, doctors and lawyers, develop their careers precisely by writing books!

Our métier and promotional mantra is “Publish or perish.”

While we publish books on professional ethics in other fields, we apparently have very little interest in the field of professional academic ethics. Concomitantly, just as we do not write books on the topic, we do not teach the courses either.

But then, none of us seem to be aware of this.