‘University Ethics’ asks that colleges practice what they preach

Arts & Culture

Universities regularly teach ethics across their curriculum and in graduate courses at professional schools, but as James Keenan writes, the university itself does not engage seriously with ethics when pursuing its goals and mission. Simply put, Keenan asks that the university practice what it teaches.

The lack of such ethical engagement has consequences so dire that merely establishing a code of university ethics will not correct the problems the book relates. Rather the whole university—administration, faculty, staff, and students—must create a culture of awareness first, and then a culture of ethics. The culture of awareness will expose the areas where ethical behavior is flourishing and the (often hidden) places where it is sadly lacking. Given a strong and generous commitment, the university will then be positioned to create, celebrate, and cultivate a culture of ethics.

Keenan, a well-published ethicist, has researched his topic thoroughly. The book is replete with references to the works of other experts; this alone makes it a valuable asset for those interested in higher education. In straightforward prose, Keenan begins with the adjunct faculty whose situation is one that ethically should embarrass both tenured faculty and administrators. Cheating, gender, racism, classism, fraternities, and student misbehavior are among the other issues explored. Before you conclude that all these have been discussed ad nauseam in recent years, I invite you to read Keenan’s analysis of, and suggested solutions for, their amelioration.

It is on this point that I find myself conflicted. I was a faculty member for many years and provost for six. The problems Keenan cites are real; his analysis of their causes is astute. However, in my opinion, both need to be scrutinized and refined by each university so that their implementation might be worthy of the author’s intention.


This review appeared in the November 2015 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 80, No. 11, page 41).