The Ethical Failure of Nerve at Canadian Universities

This piece comes from University Affairs, a recommended site for news and analysis of Canadian higher education (emphasis has been added):

October 2008

Where’s the debate?

by Christine Overall

Canadian universities are suffering from an ethical failure of nerve.

Many of us have become diffident about our roles as professors, administrators, staff and students. We seldom engage in genuine debate about the university’s role in society. We seldom discuss the good and bad uses to which our research might be put. We seldom ask ourselves the purpose of postsecondary education.

But collectively, we in the university are not just in the business of training students to become cogs in society’s wheel, and our research has value even if it does not sell more widgets.

Universities don’t usually have the professional equivalent of the clinical ethicist, the corporate ethicist or the government ethicist. The institution that purports to train ethicists for work in institutions throughout society does not itself feel a need to have its own ethicists.

Of course, many universities do have equity officers or ombudspersons. But the sorts of ethical issues that are likely to entangle a university are more diverse than those that equity officers and ombudspersons deal with. They include questions about research and teaching ethics, academic freedom, employment norms, environmental values, interpersonal connections and institutional relationships with governments, donors, alumni, corporations, the media and society at large.

It may well be a good thing that universities don’t have ethics advisers, but only if we could see the role of ethics adviser distributed rather evenly over all the members of the academic community. Both collectively as an institution and individually, we should all be engaged in ethical thinking, about what goes on inside the university and about the university’s relationship to the rest of society.

With that idea in mind, in this new column for University Affairs I will be discussing philosophical issues, particularly ethical ones, that arise at university. I’m a professor of philosophy who has been involved in postsecondary education for 33 years as a student, teacher and administrator – 24 of them at Queen’s University. I’m an enthusiastic writer and scholar; “doing” philosophy is my life. As well, I’ve had eight years of experience as an associate dean in arts and science.

In future columns I’ll offer you my take on some of the normative issues and questions about values that we’re confronted with in our roles as teachers, students, scholars and administrators. And I’ll invite you to respond with your own ideas.

As I see it, the ethical failure of nerve in Canadian universities stems not so much from the stifling of debate as from the relative absence of debate. Perhaps the dearth of discussion is due to exhaustion, overwork, even indifference. Perhaps it’s because many of us believe that discussion won’t make a difference.

But Canadian universities are going through many changes, some of them drastic. If the people who study and work in the university are not discussing the state of postsecondary education, then who will? Perhaps no one; or perhaps only our politicians, who may be all too willing to define the purposes of universities in ways that suit their own agendas and in ways that are primarily intended to save money rather than improve teaching and research.

Indeed, Canadian universities proclaim that they’re devoted to excellent research and teaching, but that interest is belied by what is actually happening in academe: the proliferation of business models, methods and goals within academia; the focus on measurement and the preoccupation with accountability, performance indicators, quality assurance and academic reviews; the emphasis on competitiveness whether among students, scholars or universities themselves; the reliance on grant-getting as a criterion of success; the strong support for the commercialization of academic knowledge in the so-called knowledge economy; the development of a memorable “brand” for the university “commodity” so it can occupy a unique “niche;” the acceptance of severely limited resources, distributed in ways that are often not proportional to academic needs; dependence on what donors want, and on the agenda of the fundraising and development office; submission to academic fads – the same fads every other university in North America is adopting – and upholding harmful university “traditions.”

Whew. Is all this really what we want?

Back in the ’60s, student leaders used to say, “If you’re not part of the solution then you’re part of the problem.” If only all of us in the academic community – students, professors, staff and administrators – could commit ourselves to reflect on what makes a university a genuinely good place to study, teach, research and work. That doesn’t mean we’ll all agree, or that we should. But it does mean we can and should debate together our ethical responsibilities within the university, and the role of the university in Canadian society.

I hope you’ll join me.

Christine Overall teaches philosophy at Queen’s University and is a new regular columnist for University Affairs.


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