Academic Ethics — Inaugural Post

Just what is the right thing to do, the right thing to do morally?  That is not always so easy a question to answer, maybe hardly ever is it such an easy question.  In higher education there are many situations that pose just that sort of question.  Moral issues, questions and dilemmas have existed and new ones continue to arise in higher education as they do in the very profession of education. Members of board of trustees and administrators, faculty and students all face situations with a moral dimension, or two, involved where decisions need to be made.  This is the first of a continuing series of posts on such matters that in one way or another involve academic ethics.  These posts will give consideration to and invite discussion of the moral dimension of quandaries and ordinary challenges and will make perspicuous the interplay and conflict of social and institutional values, academic values, professional values and both moral values and ethical principles in attempts to achieve elucidations and, perhaps, possible resolutions.

In higher education the social values of social cohesion and progress, social welfare and service, the institutional values of economy and efficiency and the academic values of knowledge, truth, and increase in intellectual capital are all in play and juxtaposed in deliberations common to the institution along with notions of the greater good, utility, universalizability, justice, caring and even self interest.  The moral dilemmas resultant from conflicts amongst values held will be examined in these posts with more than a little evidence of philosophically informed discourse becoming evident over time. Philosophy may serve here to make transparent the more general contexts and the conceptual frameworks that might assist sharper focus and

For educators and administrators and institutional officers, with or without formal codes of conduct, which are rather rare in institutions of higher education, there exists  sufficient role ambiguity and autonomy as to support  a wide range of responses as to the morally correct response to a situation and to permit unique and unusual responses to become institutionalized as expected practice. What is needed in the practice and profession of education is awareness of the values in play when faculty and administrators and trustees respond to moral challenges.  This awareness would have increased utility when the moral principles being acknowledged in the resolution of dilemmas and conflicts are made perspicuous so as to make the moral status of practices and policies transparent and subject to continuing review.

While awareness of the most common elements of “academic ethics”, if not an actual interest in them, should be de rigueur for members of the academy, unfortunately too many members of collegia do not and cannot give even a passing reference to those elements and to the basic tenets of anything considered as a code of conduct or ethics for academicians.  Too many members of the profession of education at the level of higher education appear, in thought and deed, unaware of their status as professionals and of the concomitant ethos of the profession of education into which they have chosen membership.

While nearly all professional organizations have their codes and statements describing standards of behavior and obligations and duties (but one hallmark of a profession) there is almost always the need to measure and balance various sets of responsibilities and values that surround any particular situation extending beyond what are given in such statements.  In the AAUP  Statement on Professional Ethics  there is recognition that while  educators always have the  basic duties of any human being to others and to society itself and yet as professionals they “ measure the urgency of these obligations in the light of their responsibilities to their subject, to their students, to their profession, and to their institution”. The ‘rub’ is in knowing how to conduct such considerations in a satisfactory manner and then the ‘proof’ is in the courage to act according to the conclusion to moral deliberations. So it is that addressing both actual cases and general situations such laudatory statements of professional desiderata often need at times painfully, careful consideration amidst the actual pressures of the present moment and serious explication of the values in play, if there is to be any indication of a path of action consonant with the ideals of the profession .

What autonomy the profession of education may have as a mark of it being a profession may not in practice extend to having the basic ethical precepts guiding the profession derive from within itself but from the society being served by the profession and thus exacerbating the conflict evidenced in many professions of having professional duties at times be set in opposition to social expectations and the more general sense of moral obligation.  Consider just the clear and forceful expressions of the social expectations for higher education and educators found in UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel or in the  IAU Statement on Academic Freedom, University Autonomy and Social Responsibility and then consider how they are weighed into resolutions of even the most common of the moral dilemmas today in higher education that set the provision of career preparation or job training beside the development of knowledge and intellectual capital through the study of the Liberal Arts and Sciences.

As subject matter for these posts the most significant elements and features of actual cases will form the basis of reflective analysis hopefully leading to suggestions of possible resolutions.  Beyond that, hypothetical cases will be offered in the hopes of producing multiple perspectives on the moral problems presented therein.

We anticipate guest contributions of analysis of cases, real and hypothetical, as well as serious responses to postings that prompt further inquiry.

Readers are invited to send dilemmas, problems, questions and cases for possible treatment in this blog.

Philip Pecorino is Professor of Philosophy in CUNY at the Graduate School and University Center’s School of Professional Studies and Queensborough Community College. Contact him at

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don't impersonate a real person.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s