[The Montana Professor 1.1, Winter 1991 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

Academic Ethics: An Oxymoron?

Walter B. Gulick
Philosophy & Religious Studies
Eastern Montana College

When I begin teaching a class in Business Ethics, I ask whether the title of the course is not itself an oxymoron. Similarly, when considering the nature of academic ethics, it seems pertinent to begin by asking whether or not we are dealing with a coherent concept. Can the processes of academe meaningfully be judged against moral standards, or are these processes controlled by some other forces--bureaucratic, perhaps, or political or prudential--in relation to which moral standards are largely irrelevant?

It is to struggle with such questions that a new Center for Academic Ethics has been established at Wayne State University in Detroit. More specifically, the Center defines its mission to be serving "as a national center for the study of ethical problems that arise in connection with the academic profession, university life, and the goals, policies, and practices of institutions of higher education." At its inaugural conference on October 11 and 12, 1990, the Center sponsored a number of outstanding speakers who addressed ethical issues in the university from quite diverse perspectives. With the support of EMC's Faculty Association, I was privileged to be among the 300 or so participants in the conference.

None of the speakers provided a comprehensive vision of how ethics as a discipline imparts or addresses higher education. Rather the audience was offered a number of distinct perspectives on sometimes overlapping ethical issues. This piecemeal approach is consistent with a contemporary understanding of the discipline of ethics. Several decades ago, there was much emphasis upon the "moral point of view," a stance in decision making marked by concern for the whole rather than by self interest. The moral point of view is still useful to refer to as a sort of ideal, but it is now generally recognized that any assessment of what is good for the whole is itself shaped by cultural factors and personal experience. Ethical decision making is thus today seen as characterized not so much by the discovery of objective ethical truths as it is by the arriving at a broad-based consensus concerning appropriate ends and means. Arriving at such a consensus about the goals and practices of higher education is one of the challenges confronting us in Montana. Fortunately the Report of the Montana Commission for the Nineties and Beyond seems marked by ethical sensitivity concerning ends and means; it remains to be seen if that ethical concern will survive negotiation over what aspects of the Report to implement.

In order to contribute to the Montana conversation, I will summarize some key points made at the Ethics and the University Conference. The first speaker was Steve Muller, President of John Hopkins University. He spoke on the social and ethical responsibilities of universities from the perspective of the research university. The overriding goal of the university, he claimed, was to support a community of scholars who believe that objective truth exists and can be found by rational inquiry. In short, Muller believes in an ivory tower which must be above the ideological struggles of society. I found his speech to be curiously anachronistic--does being president for 18 years cause one to be unaware of the leading cultural currents of the previous twenty-five years? But perhaps the chronic struggle to fund higher education in Montana has overly sensitized me to how educational issues are intertwined with political and social issues. Or is it the large number of non-traditional students we teach who long ago have made us realize that we profess in no ivory tower? In any case, one respondent to President Muller was a deconstructionist, so the appeal to objective truth was not left unchallenged.

Nel Noddings of Stanford called for a more caring institution in her stimulating address. The university, she said, has been effective in developing critical minds, but all too often criticism is not tempered by empathy. When analysis and criticism continually frame our relationships to students, faculty colleagues, and administrators, we become worn down from having always to be defensive. We face burnout.

In line with much feminist thought, Noddings argued against administrators and faculty members imposing on others their visions of the good. All members of a college or university community should be seen as cooperatively participating in relational webs which can be improved with care. Noddings thinks that in recent years there has been a decline in faculty care for the whole student. Faculty have turned over concern about the students outside the classroom to residential life personnel, career counselors, and the like. She also criticized the way we teach--too often it produces care for grades rather than care for ideas.

The banquet address by Steven Cahn, author of Saints and Scamps: Ethics in Academia, was disappointing to me. A philosopher and now provost of the Graduate School, CUNY, Cahn borrowed heavily from his book in his remarks. More stimulating, although not terribly organized, were the remarks by Ernst Benjamin, General Secretary of the AAUP, who critiqued Cahn's presentation. His remarks would probably not earn high marks from Noddings for displaying empathy. He tried to show how the AAUP has long been concerned with academic ethics despite Cahn's claim that this is an emerging new field. Arguing from a position influenced by Deweyan democracy, he attacked Allan Bloom-style elitism. All in all, my opinion of the AAUP was strengthened by knowing that feisty Benjamin has considerable influence in its decision making.

[The Montana Professor 1.1, Winter 1991 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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