Father James F. Keenan, SJ

University ethics

January 10, 2018

I recently got back from a Christian ethics conference I have been attending for 30 years. We are roughly 500 faculty from colleges, seminaries and universities across the country. We discuss all issues ethical: race, marriage, sexuality, gender, war and peace-building, immigration and refugees, the environment, financial structures, medical advances, politics, fake news, technology, etc.  

One very new topic on our agenda is the university because we are finally starting to ask ethical questions about colleges and universities, the very institutions that employ us.

Eight years ago I began noticing how often scandals in the news involved universities and colleges. I found that these scandals were never described as ethical scandals. Our universities are riddled with ethical compromise, but rarely, even when the press exposes something shameful about a university, do we identify the issue as a lack of ethics.

Yet every day I’d find a story about a problem at a university: it could be about an athlete, an advancement scheme, a campus sexual assault, a cheating scandal, a trustee member’s conflict of interest or the poor treatment of an adjunct faculty member. 

Living as I did in a Jesuit community with three other ethicists (the law and medical ethicist John Paris, the social ethicist David Hollenbach and the moral theologian Ken Himes), they too began scanning the newspapers. As a late riser, I would arrive in the morning for breakfast with any one of them asking me: Did you see the cheating scandal at Harvard, academic fraud at UNC, the rape allegations at UVA, the settlement at University of Colorado, the hazing death at Florida A and M, the firing of the president and football coach at Penn State, the pepper-spraying of students at the University of California at Davis, and on and on.
I began wondering: Are these isolated incidents across the academic landscape or is there something more systemic at work?  

I came to believe it was systemic. 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. 

Simply put, our universities do not believe that they need ethics. They seem to sense that if they can teach it, they don’t need it.  

This is odd. At almost any university, anyone can take a course on business ethics, nursing ethics, legal ethics, medical ethics or journalistic ethics. Generally, 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 the university.  

Though professors and their deans recognize the need to teach professional ethics in all the other professions, they show no real interest in professional ethics for their own profession. Most of all, the administrators, especially those at the highest levels of the university, have not been trained in professional university ethics. Small wonder then that they do not promote a culture of ethical consciousness and accountability. 

None of us in the academy is really trained to be ethical in the standards we use for grading papers, for seeing students, for maintaining office hours, for evaluating colleagues or prospective hires. We have not been taught anything about professional confidentiality, boundaries with our students, writing evaluative letters for or about others or about keeping our contracts.

We have not addressed the fact that our salaries are disproportionate or that tenure decisions sometimes lack “objectivity.” We do not have professional questions about our university investments, budgets or boards of trustees, nor do we review adequately fellow faculty after tenure or after being given endowed chairs. 

Matters like sustainability on campuses, faculty or staff unions, university relations with neighbors, student rights, sexual health issues, boards of trustees terms of office, conflict-of-interest laws, workers’ benefits, immigration issues, racial tensions, the dorm life of students, the overemphasis on research and the failure to reward good teaching, or the harm of classism experienced by many students unable to keep up with the costs of education might occasionally garner an individual faculty member’s attention. For the most part we leave that to academic administrators, who, like the faculty, have no training in ethics. 

Over the next few columns I would like to share with you my own ongoing work in university ethics. After all, in Chicago alone there are more than 20 colleges and universities. Perhaps, like me, you will begin to wonder why it has taken us so long to start thinking about university ethics.


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