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Ethics and Academic Leadership

Ethics and Academic Leadership

How’s that for an unusually pompous title? Actually, until a few years ago I would have hesitated to venture anything formal on ethics. I’m obviously not a professional ethicist—that remains the case—and I also have some hesitations about seeming to be preachy.  But after some years as Provost, I do have some firmer views about ethics, including the need to include the topic when talking with students or others about leadership roles. So a few thoughts, again without trying to claim any special wisdom.

For me, the easiest part of the ethics focus involves professional ethics, around equitable treatment of students and colleagues and avoidance of scientific misconduct. My standards here are neither new nor unusual, but I have always believed that education and research must depend on avoidance of mistreatment or fraud. It certainly looks like there is increasing need to go public with beliefs of this sort. More cases than I would have expected (at several institutions where I have worked) involving faculty misbehavior, plus recent evidence of excessive tolerance by some members of the current student generation (“even”, as they say, at Harvard, judging by reactions to the cheating scandal there), suggests the need to be very clear about ethical acceptability.

A second range of concerns—again, no originality claimed—involves simply the experience one gains in being dean or provost for a while, and seeing the applicability of very obvious personal standards. Telling the truth, for example, is clearly both ethically and, in the long run, institutionally preferable to lying, even when some courage is required to admit mistakes. It’s important not to abuse a position to gain money or other benefits inappropriately. Fairness and avoidance of favoritism in adjudicating disputes is essential. And the list could be extended. Adherence to personal standards does not always assure wise or popular decisions, but it avoids obviously undesirable pitfalls and allows a clean conscience—no small comfort in itself, amid choices that are not always clear-cut.

I am increasingly attracted to a third range of ethical considerations, around global ethical issues. Again without meaning to seem preachy, leadership activities that touch base with goals of justice, freedom and conflict resolution in global affairs can improve both the articulation and the delivery of educational objectives. As we near the end of a national political campaign in which global ethics is rarely either evoked or discussed, in which crucial global problems are largely ignored, the importance of commitments from other sectors of our society deserves emphasis.

A couple of final points. First, my amateur thinking about articulating appropriate standards include a strong belief that ethical discussions must not adopt an us-them format. Administrators and faculty have no right, for example, simply to preach professional ethics to students (though that can be a legitimate part of a larger effort), when it’s obvious that the problems involved crop up in all segments of the community, and not students alone. Americans can and should participate in discussions about avoidance of corruption, as part of global ethics, but this has to involve acknowledgement of issues back home, and not just malfeasance abroad. Ethical discussions, in other words, should be widely participatory and not top down, both because we all have a need to learn and because invoking community responsibility increases the effectiveness of ethical standards.

Ethics, finally, needs to be worked into regular interactions, and not reserved for an occasional formal segment or a periodic “ethics day”. Courses on formal ethics are great, but even more important is incorporation of discussions of standards into the normal stuff of preparing managers, or scientists, or higher education leaders. Figuring out the right thing to do must be part of the way we all make decisions, and this is part of daily leadership, not some special category reserved for unusual dilemmas. We need to be working to make ethics part of the basic routine. Not surprisingly, there’s a fair amount to do, and the issues are interesting as well as significant. Even at the risk of a bit of pomposity.