'University Ethics'

Author discusses new book in which he argues that institutions can hold themselves to higher levels of accountability and inclusivity.

June 15, 2015

While university officials often find themselves answering questions about ethical issues and faculty members teach ethics courses, many wonder if colleges and universities spend enough time considering the ethics behind their decisions. In his new book, University Ethics: How Colleges Can Build and Benefit from a Culture of Ethics (Rowman & Littlefield), the Reverend James Keenan, Canisius Professor and former acting chair of the department of theology at Boston College and director of the college's Jesuit Institute, identifies ethical issues he says challenge campuses and recommends strategies for employees at institutions of higher education to tackle those problems. He responded to questions on topics he covered in his book via email.

Q: Should universities and colleges examine their own ethics before teaching ethics to students or presenting solutions to ethical issues institutions have to handle?

A: I don’t think universities and colleges should examine their own ethics before teaching professional ethics in other disciplines; in fact, they should continue teaching ethics for the other professions as they start up their own needed courses in university ethics. I do think, however, if they finally faced their own apathy and lack of interest in university ethics, administrators and faculty might end up restoring their university’s own ethical credibility that is grossly eroding. Moreover, by facing their own intransigence, they might end up being able to teach courses in professional ethics for other professions that are more comprehensive, practical, true to ethical prudence and less remote and conceptual than they normally are.

Q: In the book, you describe how there’s vertical accountability in a university -- faculty report to department chairs, department chairs report to deans and so on -- but mention a lack of horizontal accountability. How can faculty members and university officials promote a culture of ethics among themselves?

A: As I try to explain in University Ethics, two fundamental social qualities of the university conspire against horizontal accountability. First, the university geography is made up of fiefdoms, wherein since the medieval times, accountability was only vertical and never affected by any modern democratic structural changes. Comfortably, no one looks beyond their blinders and each remains with one’s own competency and task. Second, faculty are really the last professionals to move toward collaborative work…. Faculty teach alone, grade alone, publish (unless they are in the sciences) alone, and evaluate individual students, etc. Their professional lives are distinctively more autonomous than any other profession….

I think the more that the university encourages anything that builds relationality and community, from collaborative teaching, newer models of grading, greater transparency in decision making, etc., the more they will encourage all faculty to realize that they are have an interest in the university that is bigger than their own classroom.

Today, I think faculty see themselves at odds with administrators and the latter’s ever-growing bureaucracy, but faculty have also to be self-critical within their ranks, and hold each other to a greater professional team approach toward teaching, mentoring and researching. The professional ethical identity of the faculty only engaged questions of their inappropriate relationships with students; now we need to be dealing with how insular faculty are from one another and everyone else…

Q: Multiple chapters of the book are dedicated to salient topics in higher ed, such as sexual assault, gender inequality and racial discrimination on campuses. What barriers do university administrators have to overcome before they can begin to tackle these pressing issues?

A: I really think that university administrators need to be trained in ethics. Physicians, lawyers, nurses, finance personnel are all trained in ethics. Why not university administrators? The first book ever published for these folks was [in] 2009 (Elaine Pritchard et al., The Ethical Challenges of Academic Administration [Springer]). So the first barrier is that they are uneducated in the professional ethics of their so-called competency.

But then they have the major barrier that the university, fragmented it is by a wide variety of departments, has no structural accountability for transparency. The university campus has been able to hide its problems for centuries.

Finally, besides a lack of ethical training and the university’s own structural inclination to insulation, secrecy and privilege, the university enjoys the presumption that they need not study anything, because after all, they all have Ph.D.s…. Real wisdom has an epistemic humility to it, and that epistemic humility might be the best starting place for university administrators who face the unaddressed ethical challenges on their campuses.

What I said above in response to the obstacles facing the administrators applies to faculty as well: they could learn their ethical professional responsibilities, they could recognize the way the university allows them to avoid transparency and they could develop epistemic humility in the face of university ethics.

Q: You also recommend that employees of universities make an effort to learn more about their students’ lives outside of the lecture hall or lab so that they can understand the culture students are currently experiencing. How can those officials and professors become more familiar with the issues students face without becoming too involved and stepping into unethical territory?

A: For a variety of reasons, the Ivies, and then other universities, distinguished more than 100 years ago, the personal formation of their students from the academic formation of their students. Julie Reuben’s The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality (University of Chicago Press, 1996) lays out an impressive argument for why those choices were made but also warns us that our needs and expectations today are quite different than those decisions more than a century ago.

I think we need to tread carefully from academic to student affairs, but we need to acknowledge that few universities have any notable bridges between the two. We need constructive bridge building so that when students enter the classroom they are not entering a hermetically sealed academic universe where personal lives are not admitted or recognized. Similarly, student affairs needs to develop constructive ways of engaging faculty so that they might better appreciate the challenges that students encounter today.

Q: As a department chair, what steps do you take to ensure that your faculty members and students are aware of ethical issues on campus? What kind of solutions do you recommend to them?

A: I was only acting department chair for one semester last year, but during that time I called the department to recognize that we needed to strategize to achieve greater presence of women and racial diversity in our department ranks. The question was well recognized and successfully engaged.

I wonder, however, whether department meetings actually are structured to look across the university and, well, the nation. For instance, as the nation was facing events in Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland and the rest of the country, did racism in the U.S. come up at department meetings at all? Do departments and universities recognize that they have a responsibility to serve the common good?

Though no longer acting chair, I am the director of the Jesuit Institute at Boston College, which promotes matters related to faith and culture. My first action as the new director this year was to establish a once-a-month dinner seminar for 18 full-time, adjunct faculty…. The result has been a deep solidarity among these faculty….

Q: The issue of adjunct faculty members has been framed by advocates for part-time instructors as an ethical issue. How can colleges best promote the rights of adjuncts and ensure that part-time instructors are treated ethically within an institution?

A: The term “adjunct faculty” covers a multitude of appointments. The differences between full- and part-time adjunct faculty and their roles, responsibilities and rights at any American university are conveniently not visible at the less-than-transparent contemporary university.

I think that the more transparent and accountable the university is, the more faculty and other stakeholders will examine more judiciously the plight of their own colleagues. But tenured and tenure-track faculty need to make the move of turning in solidarity to their peers in the first place, and as I tried to argue in University Ethics, that turn has not yet substantively occurred.


Back to Top