Book Review: Morality, Responsibility, and the
University: Studies in Academic Ethics
Steven M. Cahn, ed. Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press, 1990.
Reviewed by Sid Brown, Graduate Student Associate, TRC and Department of Religious Studies
All too often it is only when the flames are leaping about us and the air is thick with smoke that we consider the importance of having a fire extinguisher on hand. So it often is with questions of ethics in the academy. Although each of us regularly encounters a plethora of ethical issues in our professional lives, we often ignore smoldering concerns until those concerns demand our attention -- sometimes when it's too late. I never wondered, for example, what to say to a student for whom I could not write a supportive letter of recommenda- tion until that student was standing in front of me requesting such a letter. A close friend and fellow graduate student did not begin to wonder about the edges of sexual harassment until she was in a professor's office listening to him ask whether or not she was wearing a bra. I was asked out to a movie by the professor of one of my classes before I considered power relations between professors and graduate students and started exploring the differences between being friendly and nurturing a friendship.
Reading the essays in Morality, Responsibility, and the University: Studies in Academic Ethics is a good way at least to buy a fire extinguisher, if not to fireproof the house better in other, more structurally fundamental ways. The fourteen essays, written mostly by professors of philosophy, are easy to read and address issues such as freedom of expression, sexual harassment, diversity in the university, the advantages and disadvantages of tenure, the kind of relationships universities can safely encourage with corporations, and the kind of relationships professors can safely encourage with students.
Two of the essays are particularly relevant to problems that faculty members and teaching assistants struggle with at UVa. In "Beyond in Loco Parentis? Parietal Rules and Moral Maturity", David Hoekema argues that while a large university obviously cannot choose and voice a single moral code for our diverse student body, we can "agree all the same on the underlying need of all adults for the capacity to make and carry through moral decisions" (182) and attempt to foster that capacity. He further suggests that when we think we are standing back from moral issues in order to invite students to explore them on their own, we are really shirking our own responsibilities. Hoekema points out that one student handbook may take paragraphs to explain in detail the proper ways to use an extension cord, and another may clearly explain what plagiarism is and how to avoid it, and another may provide cartoon pictures of how to use a condom. Yet few handbooks carefully discuss issues of the personal moral decision of, for example, how well you should know a person before you engage in physical intimacies with him/her; or whether it is fair for that person's roommate to be forced to sleep on a couch in the common living area while you do so. These are examples of some of the moral issues that our students deal with every day, yet they lack "in contrast with the example of plagiarism . . . any clear or consistent model of responsible sexual behavior. The institution has renounced the attempt to provide one, leaving it to the individuals to find their own models and learn to emulate them" (188). Hoekema argues that the university continues to have a responsibility to provide students with an environment in which they are guided as they struggle to learn how to make moral decisions.
Whether or not one agrees with Hoekema, his argument inspires careful consideration about how our small decisions, or our refusal to make decisions at all, affect the whole of the university. Robert Audi does the same in "The Ethics of Graduate Teaching" as he outlines different aspects of teaching and then explores four models that most professors take toward the graduate students in their department: didactic ("Listen to me"), apprentice ("Follow me"), collegial ("Be my junior colleague"), and friendship ("Be my friend"). Each model yields opportunities for education, but Audi argues strongly against professors' befriending graduate students because it may create unfair evaluations. Although fairness problems may arise simply owing to unequal access to a professor (e.g., when a graduate student is shy to initiate conversation outside the classroom), the problem is intensified when professors and students become friends. Audi gives the strong example of the difficulty a professor might have in writing a fair letter of recommendation for a student-friend compared to one for a student of equal merit. The letter for a student-friend is more likely to contain, at the very least, vivid examples of the friend's qualities that a letter for a similarly capable student who is not a friend cannot. In the interests of fairness, then, Audi recommends, a professor should avoid friendships with graduate students.
This solution of avoiding friendships strikes at least one colleague of mine as detrimental to our intellectual quest. She describes the office visit of a colleague with his dissertation advisor in which they discussed, for two hours, the first chapter of his dissertation. After two hours both student and professor were drenched in sweat. The professor leaned back in his chair and exulted that this sort of discussion is what education is all about, not the delivering of a lecture to 70 inattentive students, nor the endless grading of short essays. Education at its height is the teacher and student united in an intense struggle with ideas. Concluded my colleague, "Professor and student might not have to be buddies, but if we're going to teach at that level, don't we at least have to admit the possibility of or the potential for the presence of the personal?"
Experienced professors will find this book helpful in rethinking decisions made, perhaps, long ago -- a convenient check on the fundamental structure of the house. Beginning graduate students may find that this book is their main text for moral decisions related to the academy. In the best of worlds, this book will be read by both and discussed for some hours, leaving all participants pleasantly exhausted and the university at least a bit more fire-resistant, the structure intact and the fire extinguishers ready-to-hand.