Although a native New Yorker, I went to Boston to teach in 1991. In the mid-1990s, the sex abuse scandals in the church broke. One of the first lessons that we learned from the scandals is that though the church taught ethics to its faithful parishioners, it hadn’t instructed its administrators, its clergy, nor its lay ministers in professional ethics. What I learned as a priest and as a moral theologian about those scandals helped me in time to see that, like the church, the university also had a problem with ethics.
Until only very recently, professional ethical training and accountability were not taught at most seminaries, divinity schools, or schools of theology, even though many students took two, three, or four courses in Christian ethics. What were their ethics courses? Seminarians and divinity students studied courses that dealt with the sexual and reproductive lives of the laity, the social ethics of businesses, and the medical ethics of physicians and nurses. In other words, those preparing for ministry were taught how to teach, govern, and make morally accountable the members of their congregations with regard to their sexual, reproductive, and marital lives as well as being able to make claims about those in the medical and business professions. They were taught how to teach ethics to others.
Generally speaking, they were not taught what ethical reasoning, insights, or norms they should be held morally accountable to as ministers, priests, or bishops. They had no training on financial responsibility, personal and social accountability, the claims of confidentiality, the importance of truth-telling, due process, consultation, contracts, fair wages, matters of reporting, adequate representation, appeals, or conflicts of interests, among others.
Moreover, a priest’s or bishop’s professional accountability was singularly vertical to “the man upstairs.” But again, even that man upstairs had no training in professional ethics.
During the sex abuse crisis, the absence of a culture of ethics in the church became crystal clear. Ethics were not only obviously lacking among the predatory priests, but were also noticeably absent in the decision-making by bishops and their counselors as they transferred such priests, as they failed to notify civil authorities, as they stonewalled and defamed the reputations of concerned and aggrieved parents, and as they left children at profound risk.
Ethics were also not evident even after the harm was done. As the crisis unfolded, innocent priests were not protected, due process was often breached, financial mismanagement frequently occurred, lay initiatives were treated with scorn, derision, and suspicion, and priests who protested episcopal mismanagement were targeted.
When religious, clergy, and bishops exercised routine decision-making, they turned not to a multitude of considerations but articulated ethical norms, and their specific values, virtues, and goods, and the type of critical thinking that estimates the long-standing social claims that these values, goods, and virtues have on us. In a word, ethical norms, critical ethical reasoning, and attendant ethical practices, which frequently aid other professionals, played a much less explicit role in church leadership practices.
As the church continues to emerge from its scandals, it is only beginning to learn that the professional ethics of its ministers and other employees do not inhibit or compromise the mission of the church. Rather, ethics support the church’s credibility, its community building activity, and its teaching and realization of the truth.
Ethics? Not for us
Like the church, the American university has a problem with ethics. It teaches how others are to be ethical, but it does not teach itself to be ethical.
We can remember quite a number of recent unethical stories at American universities. There was the sex abuse case at Pennsylvania State University that prompted the firing of famed football coach Joe Paterno and university president Graham Spanier in 2011. Around the same time, campus police pepper-sprayed student protesters at the University of California at Davis. The University of North Carolina created fake classes to keep student athletes eligible to play. Harvard University discovered widespread cheating among students on a final exam in 2012. And of course there was the tragic hazing death of marching band member Robert Champion at Florida A&M University.
Many, many other scandals on university campuses have come to light. They may include sexual assault, taking advantage of student athletes, student loan subsidies, fraternities hosting racist and misogynist parties, cheating, underpaid and poorly treated adjunct faculty, overpaid university presidents, conflicts of interest, plagiarism, grading inflation, and numerous others. These scandals happened at American universities, and they are part and parcel of the culture of the contemporary American university.
That the university has no evident interest in ethics cannot be addressed by simply developing a code of conduct for professors, students, coaches, admissions officers, and the rest. Before we ever articulate a professional code of conduct for each community within the university, we need to develop a culture of awareness among faculty, staff, administrators, and students. For a university to grow, it needs to recognize the integral, constitutive role of ethics in the formation of a flourishing community.
This will not be easy. We have no courses that address university professional life, and no professors who teach any course on university ethics.
At any university, anyone can take a course on ethics in a number of fields, including business, nursing, law, medicine, or journalism. In fact, if one is looking for ethical training in a profession, the courses are found at a university. The only professional institution about which you cannot find any ethics courses listed among the hundreds of courses at any university is precisely the university itself. If you search for a course on university ethics, you will simply not find one.
My complaint is not only that the faculty has no training in professional ethics but also that other university members are not subject to professional ethical standards, whether they are in teaching, development, admissions, athletics, student affairs, security, housekeeping, or any other sector of the university. Most of all, the administrators—in particular those at the highest level of the university, from vice presidents and the president to the board of trustees—have not been trained in professional university ethics. It’s a small wonder, then, that they do not promote a culture of ethical consciousness and accountability.
As just one example, at my own university library at Boston College, we have more than 400,000 books. Each book is assigned a subject heading. Under the subject of “medical ethics,” we have 1,321 books; under “business ethics,” there are 599 books; under “nursing ethics,” 234 books; and under “legal ethics,” 129 books. Even the subject of “clergy ethics” now has 25 (relatively new) books, while “academic ethics” only has five (brand-new) books. But these academic ethics books are only about the conduct of professors in their classrooms and in their offices. There is no book on university ethics, that is, no professional ethical standards for across the entire university.
This lack of books on academic and university ethics is alarming inasmuch as professors—more than business people, nurses, doctors, or lawyers—develop their careers precisely by writing books. Our promotional mantra is “publish or perish.” While we publish books on professional ethics in other fields, we apparently have little interest in the field of professional university ethics. And just as we do not write books on the topic, we do not teach the courses either. But then, none of us seem to be aware of this.
Race and the American university
The lack of ethics at American universities runs deep. Any hopes for quick remedies will not be fruitful until we know how deep they must go. The work to bring ethics into the American university will be mostly an uphill battle. As an example, let’s consider the issue of race.
I will not go into the rise in scandalous racist-themed parties that have been held more and more often on our campuses. I will not look to highlight disturbing developments. Rather I will simply ask the question: Today, are our universities helping students to become more or less inclined to address the racial diversity of our country? In light of the tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri and the ongoing difficulties that our country has on racial relations, we should learn whether students, during their time at university, are becoming more or less interested in the racial understanding that is still so lacking in our country.
A study completed in 2012 by researchers at the National Opinion Research Center and the University of Iowa asked students at 17 colleges and universities: “How important to you personally is helping to promote racial understanding?” The question was posed to students three times: upon their arrival at college, at the end of freshman year, and at the end of senior year. The researchers reported that each time the question was asked, the interest in promoting racial understanding diminished. The longer students were in college, the less interested they became in racial understanding.
The American university has long assumed that mixing students together would prompt an appreciation for racial diversity. The presumption was groundless. The researchers write: “These findings cast doubt on research and conventional wisdom that argues for the liberalizing effects of higher education on racial attitudes. Instead, it suggests that, for some students, negative experiences with diversity may dampen the relatively progressive racial views they hold when entering college.”
These findings should have been expected. In the history of the United States, no group of people has been more consistently unwelcome at the American university than African Americans. African Americans during slavery understood that education was deeply connected to their freedom and their flourishing. History documents the odds that African Americans fought—and still fight today—for education in this country, but racism steered them away from the road to true equity in educational access in the United States.
With the rare exceptions of Oberlin College and Berea College, African Americans were not accepted on U.S. campuses. Oberlin College was founded as coeducational in 1833. Two years later, the trustees voted to admit African Americans. In time, Oberlin became a stop on the Underground Railroad. Before the Civil War, Oberlin enrolled more African American students than any American university. By 1900, as Oberlin’s Alumni Association of African Ancestry reports, Oberlin graduated one third of all African American undergraduates.
Elsewhere, African Americans attended historically black colleges and universities first founded across the United States in the mid-1800s. Before the Civil War, few African Americans were at any other Northern institutions, while in the South, African Americans were forbidden to even read. With time, more and more African Americans attended historically black colleges and universities. The color barrier was effectively up and strong all the way until World War II. For more than 200 years after their founding, our universities actively resisted racial integration.
Why would these universities think that the racism of the campus culture would change when segregation ended and African American students arrived? We must not think that American universities were simply innocent bystanders to the rest of America’s culture of racial segregation and bigotry.
As Brown University’s former president Ruth J. Simmons showed about her university, its racism was deeply tied to its history of economic advancement through slavery. But Brown is hardly the only university with a deep historical link to slavery. Craig Steven Wilder shows in his new book Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities (Bloomsbury) how other universities like Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Yale, Dartmouth, Pennsylvania, and William and Mary were closely connected to slavery. Wilder, who chairs the history department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, writes, “The academy never stood apart from American slavery. In fact, it stood beside church and state as the third pillar of a civilization built on bondage.”
Not only did these universities receive financial support from slave-holders and traders as well as recruit and educate their sons, but the academy was largely responsible for substantiating the credibility of racial supremacy and the natural inferiority of certain racial groups, Wilder argues. These arguments furthered the ethical legitimacy of slaveholding and trading. Although there were those on campus arguing against slavery, they were undermined by other professors who gave an intellectual defense of slavery that was rooted in racial science. University liberals were defeated not by racists outside their gates, but by their colleagues.
Wilder reminds us that were American universities more vigorous in addressing their own unethical entanglements with slavery, racism, and white supremacy, they could help respond to the unaddressed racist ethos that inhibits much of the possibility of true diversity in the United States. Because the universities do not, they become victims of themselves and contributors to the ongoing historical effects of America’s deep relationship with slavery and racism.
A worthless cure
American universities are still effectively internally segregated not only because of their unaddressed histories but because of their lack of critical policies to overcome racial divides. The present cure, mandating more culturally diverse classes, is not the answer. Rather the university needs to commit itself as a whole to promoting racial understanding as a good that is visible across the campus in a variety of ways. The university needs to invest itself in developing an across-the-university witness to the value of racial understanding. The researchers of the 2012 study write: “An implication of these findings for postsecondary institutions with racially diverse campuses is that efforts to broaden students’ racial views should extend beyond multicultural course requirements. Colleges that can take steps that promote environments conducive for cross-race friendship and other forms of positive interaction may have an even greater impact on students’ racial attitudes.”
Twenty years ago studies were done that anticipated a growing racial diversity on our campuses. American universities were warned about the need to anticipate the challenges that would arise from increasing campus diversity. In 1996 Ernest T. Pascarella, one of the researchers of the 2012 study, led a study entitled, “Influences on Students’ Openness to Diversity and Challenge in the First Year of College.” Its authors found that women were more interested in diversity than men and nonwhite students were more interested than their white classmates. White college men were the least interested.
Their study of roughly 4,000 students at 18 institutions over the course of four years led them to make a variety of fundamental assertions about what a university needs to do to become a place that promotes racial understanding. They recommended putting racially and ethnically mixed students together to face controversial issues; such encounters positively impacted the participants. In these encounters students of different racial backgrounds would see the wide spectrum of diversity of opinions in any racial group and would be able to understand that racial stereotyping is without excuse.
The studies reported, however, that leaving racially different students alone only increased negative stances from disinterest to suspicion and intolerance. They recommended “purposeful policies and programs that both sensitize faculty, administrators, and students to what constitutes racial discrimination and demonstrate unequivocally that such behavior is anathema to the institutional ethos.” In short, they urged universities to create a nondiscriminatory racial environment, acknowledging that such an environment will not happen on its own.
Another study in 1999 found “that increasing the racial/ethnic diversity on a campus while neglecting to attend to the racial climate can result in difficulties for students of color as well as for white students.”
This study also found that in those select instances where diversity functioned well, students engaged in more complex thinking about problems and considered multiple perspectives. The results not only bettered campuses’ racial climates but also learning outcomes. In a word, taking race seriously and introducing ethical correctives into the mix could be a win-win situation for American universities.
Both the 1996 and 1999 studies warned us that if we increased racial diversity without attending to the overall campus climate, we would create a more negative atmosphere at the university. We can see that today while walking across campuses where we often find a certain self-selected racial segregation that further confirms the 2012 investigation. It is but one of many signs, I think, of a disinterest in university ethics.
This article appeared in the February 2015 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 80, No. 2, pages 17-20).