Ask the Ethicist, Faculty Edition

If we as faculty members can’t be honest among ourselves, Steven Conn asks, will we be surprised if our professional autonomy gets taken away by administrators or boards of trustees or state legislators?

December 14, 2016

A friend and colleague of mine was recently contacted by a Senior Figure in his field who asked him to write a manuscript review report. And the SF made it absolutely clear what the letter ought to say.

Needless to say, this made my friend exceedingly uncomfortable and so, after a certain amount of hand-wringing, my friend told Senior Figure, “No, I can’t do this under those terms.” That refusal, in turn, precipitated a petulant “You’re dead to me now!” response from Senior Figure. Reporting this all to me, my friend chuckled, saying he hadn’t been dumped like that since he was in college.

At one level, this little encounter was nothing more than that: a small, petty academic exchange of the sort that has kept David Lodge and others in business, and reminds us about the inverse correlation between the nastiness of academic politics and the stakes thereof.

At another level, however, my friend’s kerfuffle with Senior Figure resulted from a basic ethical disagreement. Senior Figure wanted to game the system by manipulating the review process, and asking my friend to write that report was ipso facto dragging my friend into that ethical violation. (For the record, Senior Figure was having none of this when my friend laid it out to him. He accused my friend of sounding like an administrator -- and in the discourse of academic dumping, that’s like accusing your lover of cheating.)

The point of this story is not to dicker over whether or not Senior Figure crossed an ethical line -- as far as I’m concerned that’s a no-brainer -- but rather to notice that, as academics, we face ethical dilemmas like these all the time. Only we often don’t talk about them as such.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who at some point during graduate school recognized that the training I was getting was going to have little to do with the career I might have. In graduate school, we learn to be research scholars, and our pilgrim’s progress through the program terminates with a demonstration that we can produce a significant piece of original research.

But we spend hardly any time at all in graduate school learning how to be teachers, although that’s what those of us in the humanities and social sciences spend most of our time doing once we are faculty members. My own instruction consisted of being reminded to keep my hands to myself and not let any dogs in my classroom.

Committee work -- the “service” part of our professional expectation -- was always spoken of in ways that made it seem like the academic equivalent of a root canal: unpleasant, painful and thus to be avoided or shirked as long as possible.

But at least we had some sense, however vague, that classes and committees awaited us. Most of us, I suspect, never had an introduction into our ethical responsibilities. That sets Ph.D.s apart from other professionals. Doctors in training talk about medical ethics all the time, and many medical schools have ethicists on the faculty. Lawyers-to-be have to pass an ethics section on bar exams. And though it sounds like the straight line to a funny joke, even M.B.A. programs sometimes expose their students to business ethics.

Yes, we know about plagiarism and scholarly citation; we know the rules about workplace harassment and Institutional Review Board research protocols. But as my friend’s breakup with Senior Figure illustrates, there is lots of gray in many of the things we do routinely.

Like writing letters. Any of us who have participated in tenure reviews have read over-the-top letters of support. We have also heard our colleagues dismiss such letters for the puffery they are. That may be particularly true for those of us at public universities in states with expansive sunshine laws. Such letters cannot be confidential, leading us to trust them even less. Yet how many of us, in turn, have written such letters (to be dismissed in turn by the colleagues reading them)?

Or peer reviews of teaching. They are now standard requirements for faculty members and part of any tenure or promotion or renewal process. We are asked to do them regularly, and over the years I have read many dozens of such letters. I can’t recall a single one that wasn’t glowing -- although surely the teaching can’t always be that much above average, right?

Perhaps such ethical dilemmas boil down to a contest between being nice and being honest. We want our colleagues to succeed, or we don’t want to appear harsh and judgmental for fear of derailing someone’s career. So we say things we don’t entirely believe ourselves. Thus when we write the manuscript report, a book that might have made a nice 30-page article somehow becomes a major paradigm shift in the field.

A less-than-honest teaching evaluation here, a hyperbolic letter of recommendation there -- none of those on their own necessarily amount to much. Collectively, however, they undermine the self-governing and self-policing that is at the heart of the academic enterprise.

If we can’t be honest among ourselves, then will we be surprised if our professional autonomy gets taken away by administrators or boards of trustees or state legislators? I don’t mean to sound sanctimonious, nor do I mean to be prescriptive. I certainly make no claim that I have all the ethical answers. But I am suggesting that we do have ethical responsibilities to our profession, and we need to be more explicit about them.

“The whole system is corrupt,” Senior Figure yelled at my friend as a way of justifying the favor he was asking. If he’s right, that’s exactly the problem.


Steven Conn is the W. E. Smith Professor of History at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.


Back to Top