Reflections on Ethical Principles in University Teaching

Reflections on Ethical Principles in University Teaching
by Sheldon Wein
Sheldon Wein, Philosophy Dept., Saint Mary’s University,
or Fax: 902-420-5181

Recently, the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, an organization then based at York University, distributed a document titled Ethical Principles in University Teaching. The cover lists five 3M Fellows as the authors of the document, and the Preamble tells us that Ethical Principles in University Teaching“was developed by the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education” and that the document “is endorsed by the winners of the national 3M teaching award whose names appear on the cover”. (On the copy I received, these names are illegible, but the number of people who endorsed this document seems to be quite high.)

The Preamble tells us that the Society and the authors intended Ethical Principles in University Teaching to stimulate discussion among faculty, students, and administrators and that, after appropriate discussion among all three groups, universities should consider adopting ethical principles similar to the nine the Society favors. Ethical Principles in University Teaching is quite sloppily written, and the authors seem partially aware of this and are careful to note that the document is “not a final product ready for adoption”. (I have tried to follow the document’s rather eclectic use of capitalization in what follows, just to give you an idea of how slap- dash the product is.) Unfortunately, there are so many serious problems with Ethical Principles in University Teaching that it seems not even to provide the basis for beginning a useful discussion on the issues it raises. Nonetheless, since the President of Saint Mary’s, my Dean, and SMUFU’s President all asked for comments on the document and since so many people have provided me with complaints about it, I offer the following contribution to the discussion.

The discussion below is by no means exhaustive. There are very good general reasons for thinking it is usually unwise for professional groups (such as university professors) to adopt codes of ethics at all. Sometimes such instruments do much more harm than good, in terms of the sorts of considerations which may have legitimately motivated the adoption of such instruments. I have avoided repeating such general criticisms here. (For those interested in such matters, a good place to start is Kluge, 1992. For a careful defense of the value of academic freedom in the face of challenges from speech codes and other devices, “from an anti-truth squad of relativists, subjectivists, neo-pragmatists, post-modernists, and similar critics”, see Dworkin, 1996.) Furthermore, the Canadian Association of University Teachers has recently put out a detailed response pointing out many problems with Ethical Principles in University Teaching, and I have tried to avoid repeating the observations contained there.

I will begin by raising some general concerns about the way the document is organized. I will then turn to an examination of the nine principles listed in it.

The authors do not make it clear why they titled the document Ethical Principles . . . rather than Moral Principles . . ., whether they recognize a distinction here, and, if so, what they think it is. But, be that as it may, it is important to note that the document is called Ethical Principles . . . . What it contains is nine “Principles” that concern ethical university teaching. As I will show, the title that the authors and the Society chose for their document is only slightly inappropriate. But the choice to advocate the adoption of principles (and, as it turns out, policies) rather than rules was an unwise one.

Perhaps the primary legitimate function that a code of ethics for a particular profession can have is to guide behavior in ways that give rise to legitimate expectations among all concerned. If the code of ethics accepted by a professional group says that members of that group shall not x, then if one is a member of the group one will know not to x, one can expect one’s colleagues not to x, and those who interact with members of the professional group can expect x-ing to be rare or non-existent on the part of members of the profession. Administrators will acquire related duties to ensure that the professionals in question can accomplish their tasks in ways that will not require them to x. Furthermore, there will arise a general expectation that members of the profession will x only when there are (usually exceptional) circumstances which give special rise to the need to x.

It is widely believed that the best way to use a code of ethics in order to coordinate behavior in this way is to have the code consist of a set of rules, rather than of principles or policies. There is good reason for this. Unfortunately, this wise route was not followed in this case, and, I suspect, this is part of the reason why the result is such a disaster.

We can begin by distinguishing two ways in which the word `rule’ is employed. Sometimes we use this term to mean little more than a habit. This is so, for instance, when we say that someone makes it a rule to walk a mile every day. The person who makes this his rule is in the habit of walking a mile every day. We say that he makes it a rule to do so, rather than that he is in the habit of doing so, usually to point out that he both is conscious of his action and approves of it. (Someone who either was unaware that he walked a mile every day, or who did so and regretted it, would not say that he made it a rule to do so.) This is not the sense of `rule’ which interests those seeking to guide the behavior of a professional group.

The sense of `rule’ that we are interested in is that employed in a game. In baseball, for example, a batter is out if she has three strikes against her. Now it is not simply that a batter who has three strikes against her thinks of herself as being out; nor is it that she makes it a habit of counting herself out when she has three strikes against her. Rather, when a batter actually has three strikes against her, she is out. How she feels about this does not matter. (One may play baseball and think this a stupid rule, but if one plays the game one realizes that this is the rule.)

Rules, in this sense, control behavior in a specified way. In baseball, if a person has three strikes against her, then she is out. There may be controversy about whether or not a batter, as a matter of fact, has three strikes against her. She may claim, for instance, that others have made a mistake in counting or that she did not `go around’ on the (alleged) third strike. But if she knows the rules of baseball, she will concede that if she has three strikes against her, she is, in fact, out.

Rules apply in an on/off way. The rule either applies or it does not. If it does, it, by itself, decides the case; nothing else matters. If someone has three strikes, we do not say that this is a factor which argues strongly for the conclusion that she is out. Rather, the rule completely decides the case.

Of course, there may be what appear to be exceptions to a rule. In baseball, if the catcher drops the ball on the third strike then the batter is not out. But in fact this is not an exception but only indicates that the statement `Three strikes and you’re out’ is not a complete statement of the rule. The statement `Three strikes and you are out providing the catcher the ball on the third strike. If the catcher not drops the ball on the third strike, then you are not out until tagged or forced out first.’ is (I think; I’m not baseball expert!) a complete statement of the rule in baseball. It alone decides the status of the batter–that is, whether or not she is out. If she has two strikes it does not mean that she is two-thirds out. It may mean that there is good reason for thinking that soon she will be out (perhaps she swung and missed two really bad pitches), but the batter with two strikes against her is no more out than the batter with no strikes against her.

There may also be ambiguity in the statement of a rule. The rule might employ, in its statement, equivocal terms which might make it difficult to decide what comes under the terms of the rule. To take an absurd but clear example, imagine the batter playing on her university baseball team. She could be said to have three strikes if she has twice missed the pitch and once participated in her union’s picketing of the university during a contract dispute. But she does not have three of the required sorts of strikes against her and, hence, she is not out.

Typically, ambiguity about the terms of a rule may be settled by asking about the intentions and legitimate purposes of those who made the rule, as well as about past decisions regarding interpretation of the rule. The baseball czars did not have industrial action in mind when they formulated the `three strikes’ rule, and this counts in favor of the interpretation that the batter’s industrial action does not count when tallying her strikes. But when all the facts are known, including all the facts about the meaning of the terms used in the rule, and when all its exceptions are known, the rule when applied to a particular situation completely determines whether or not the batter has struck out.

We are now in a position to distinguish between rules, on the one hand, and principles and policies on the other. Rules differ from both principles and policies in that rules apply in an all-or-nothing fashion, while both principles and policies have weight. Rules lack the dimension of weight. The rule that when one has three strikes one is out does not weigh in favor of a batter’s being out; rather, it determines that she is out. But both policies and principles, by contrast, have weight. They can conflict with one another. A policy or principle can be overridden and still remain, whereas if a rule is overridden it is no longer a rule.

Suppose that the government has a policy of furthering the production of cabbages. This policy will have a certain weight in competing with other government policies. It may be, for instance, more important than the government’s policy of increasing the production of wheat. These two policies may conflict. If I am growing wheat on land better suited to cabbages, the government may offer me an incentive to switch from one to the other. But it may judge that the policy of increasing the production of cabbages is not important enough to warrant having me grow cabbages.

It is true that rules may be functionally more or less important. The chess rule that players move in turns is more important than the rule which allows for castling. This is so because if the former rule were altered, the resulting game would be much more different than were the latter rule altered. But two rules cannot conflict in the sense of one’s outweighing the other. If two `rules’ conflict, one must be denied or altered. Principles are like policies in that two may conflict and the weaker give way to the stronger without our holding that the weaker principle needs to be altered or that it is not really a principle. For instance, in our legal system the principles that a person’s home is her castle and that one may not maliciously cause people distress often conflict without our supposing that one or the other is not really a principle.

Principles are distinguished from policies in that the latter aim at some goal thought worth pursuing, while the former are standards constraining actions in the pursuit of goals. Principles are standards that must be followed, not because following them is thought to lead to something worthwhile, but because following them is a requirement (or thought to be a requirement) of some aspect of morality. Thus, while the goal of increased cabbage production is a policy, the legal maxim that no one shall profit from his own wrong (which is a constraint on how one may attain his goals) is a principle. But, because principles have weight (and consequently may be overwhelmed by the weight of competing principles), it follows that one may perfectly legitimately act in a way which goes against what a principle recommends. If in the circumstances I find myself Principle A gives me a weak reason for x-ing and Principle B gives me a very strong reason for not x-ing, then the fact that I have x-ed does not show that I have violated Principle A; it shows only that I found Principle B to be more weighty in the circumstances. So, a very important consequence of using principles, rather than rules, in a code of ethics or similar document is that people cannot simply rely on the code to predict behavior. Someone who knew of Principle A and concluded that I would not x in the present circumstances would be disappointed!

In short, then, rules apply in an on/off fashion; they lack the dimension of weight. Policies and principles do not apply in an on/off fashion; they have weight. Policies and principles may conflict, with one outweighing the other and without our holding that either has no force. But if two `rules’ conflict, one is not a rule. It is for this reason that rules are so much more appropriate in codes of conduct than principles are. Rules more readily give rise to legitimate expectations than do principles.

We can also distinguish between arguments of policy and arguments of principle. Arguments of policy justify a decision by showing that the decision advances or protects some collective goal of the institution or community as a whole, while arguments of principle justify a decision by showing that the decision respects or secures some individual’s or group’s right. This leads to an important feature of what we might call the doctrine of administrative responsibility. This doctrine holds that administrators must make only those decisions which they can justify within the general framework that justifies the other decisions and actions they propose to take. This doctrine condemns administrators who make decisions which, though they seem to them correct when taken in isolation, do not fit within a general pattern of decision-making which is itself justified. Put another way, the doctrine of administrative responsibility demands a certain level of articulate consistency on the part of administrators. They must be able to articulate what arguments of policy or principle justify the body of decisions they make.

Now, because one may attain a policy’s goal by many different means and because once a goal is secured and protected the actions taken to secure it may not need to be continued when an administrator relies on an argument of policy to justify her decision, the doctrine of articulate consistency imposes only very weak constraints on the administrator. But things are quite different when principles are involved. Because arguments of principle do not allow for the idea of a strategy which imposes unequal burdens or benefits in order to reach a goal, administrators who rely on arguments of principle to justify their actions must meet very high standards of distributional consistency from one case to the next. Thus, it is important to realize that if a document like Ethical Principles in University Teaching were to be adopted at Saint Mary’s, the flexibility with which administrators could operate would be greatly limited. Whether Saint Mary’s administration is in a position to take on the additional obligations such a document would place on administrators, and whether this would serve as an impetus to further bloat the bureaucracy, is something that requires careful consideration. The Administration owes everyone an account of how various administrators would propose to function according the additional requirements the doctrine of administrative responsibility would place on them.

I should note that the authors of this document seem to have ignored the well-known distinction between considerations which serve to justify a rule (or principle) and considerations which bear on the justification for actions which fall under an accepted rule or principle. (The tennis czars might justify a rule requiring men to use only wooden rackets by claiming that the use of composite rackets has made the game a boring power-servers’ domain. But such a consideration would not serve to justify a tennis referee’s decision only weak- serving Sheldon may use the new composite rackets.) As we will see, the failure to make this distinction results in the discussion of Principle 6 one that might well be seen as insulting, insensitive, and lacking in respect for alternative communities (which, I am assuming, was not the authors’ or the Society’s intention).

In addition, there is nothing in the document which would serve to guide someone concerning how to act in those cases where one principle conflicts with another. Of course, since they are principles they would have to be weighed against each other in order to determine in the case at hand which was more weighty. But surely something like priority rules or at least some form of guidance should have been provided here.

With these general considerations in mind we can turn to the individual principles.

Principle 1: Content Competence

A university teacher maintains a high level of subject matter knowledge and ensures that course content is current, accurate, representative, and appropriate to the position of the course within the student’s program of studies.

The discussion of Principle 1 confirms that Ethical Principles in University Teaching really is a very rough work. The discussion says that instructors teaching survey courses who confine their teaching to subjects they are interested in violate the principle of content competence. But this is absurd. If the document as stated were correct, then everyone (and this happens to include most of us) who has an interest in all the standard areas that are covered in survey courses in their discipline is technically violating this principle every time she teaches a survey course. It can’t have been the intention of the Society to have those of us with catholic interests develop a lack of interest in some areas of our subject so that we can teach those areas (with the requisite lack of personal interest) and thereby comply with the principle of content competence, but that is what the document says.

I raise this (seemingly sophistic) point not because it raises a genuine difficulty but because it illustrates how loose a document this one is and how such looseness is not acceptable in a code that is supposed to guide professional behavior and which will (inevitably) be misused to punish those who deviate from it.

Principle 2: Pedagogical Competence

A pedagogically competent teacher communicates the objectives of the course to students, is aware of alternative instructional methods or strategies, and selects methods of instruction that, according to research evidence (including personal or self-reflective research), are effective in helping students to achieve the course objectives.

Principle 2 says that instructors are supposed to be aware of alternative methods of teaching and choose “according to research evidence” the one most appropriate for the course content. Now, let us be realistic. I suspect that virtually all honest professors (those who are still capable of remembering their first year or two of teaching after graduate school) will acknowledge that they violated this principle. The first year that one teaches full time (usually after having worked quite intensively on research) one does not survey the alternative instructional methods and the evidence supporting those methods and choose those which are most effective for the course one is teaching. Rather, one scrambles to gather materials for whatever courses one happens to have been assigned and does the best one can. And, usually, one’s enthusiasm, love of the subject, and energy (and perhaps fear) conspire together so that the students are well served. Indeed, I would be inclined to think that a student who went through her entire university career without taking a course from a fresh Ph.D.–someone likely too fresh-out-of-grad-school to follow this principle–would likely be missing something valuable. So, this principle seems to have been badly thought out. Furthermore, if Saint Mary’s were to adopt Principle 2, then no administrator could in good conscience ever allow a department to hire someone who was either an ABD or a fresh Ph.D. Consequently, all hiring would have to be of more senior teachers (people several steps up on the pay scale). The Society is silent on the issue of where the money for this is going to come from.

The discussion of Principle 2 reveals how deep the confusion in Ethical Principles in University Teaching runs. It likely would be a good idea for all of us to examine the research evidence on pedagogic matters and to take this into account in our efforts to provide the best education possible. But some teachers–and some very good teachers–do not do this. Indeed, I would guess that somewhere on this planet right now there is a truly great teacher who violates this principle. This illustrates an important error I suspect the authors of Ethical Principles in University Teaching are making. They are assuming that it follows from the fact that it would be a good thing for every teacher to x that it is unethical for some teachers not to x. But this is clearly fallacious. However, as it would seem that even the most casual reflection would have revealed this to the document’s authors, I suspect that I have misunderstood them here. Unfortunately, Ethical Principles in University Teaching is written in a way that encourages this sort of misunderstanding.

Principle 3: Dealing With Sensitive Topics

Topics that students are likely to find sensitive or discomforting are dealt with in an open, honest, and positive way.

This is the principle which I think is most disturbing and most dangerous. Perhaps this is because I teach philosophy and because that subject, both because of its nature and its history, regularly deals with “[t]opics that students are likely to find sensitive or discomforting”. If we philosophers avoid such topics, then we are not doing our job. The recommendation that such topics be “dealt with in an open, honest, and positive way” sounds innocuous enough. And, with the recent demise of deconstructionism and the plummeting popularity of postmodernist prejudices within the academy, it might seem unnecessary to worry about any supposed threat from a document titled Ethical Principles in University Teaching. However, I don’t believe this is so, because interpreting the phrase “an open, honest, and positive way” could easily lead to all sorts of problems, including threats to academic freedom. Surely, before the adoption of such a document is seriously considered, the Administration should, as a minimum, take a prominent public position that defending academic freedom is their first priority. Such action would be in the best long-term interest of the University and its students.

As a minor example of how difficult it would be to comply with Principle 3, consider the teaching of Plato’s famous Euthyphro’s dilemma. This is, and ought to be, a topic some students will find discomforting, for the dilemma shows that it is logically impossible for the connection between their deeply held religious beliefs and their moral beliefs to be what they (usually implicitly) always assumed it was. (Plato has Socrates ask whether the gods love pious actions because those actions are pious or whether the actions are pious because of the fact that the gods love them. Today the dilemma is usually posed to someone who thinks that God’s commands are good, or right, simply because God has commanded them. Plato’s argument shows that thinking that God’s commands are right because God commanded them puts God in a rather unflattering light, while rejecting that option serves as the basis for the discomforting view that God and morality are logically independent of each other.) Here the advice Ethical Principles in University Teaching offers clearly won’t do. We are told to explain at the outset why the topic is sensitive. But on Plato’s understanding of the topic one simply cannot get people to appreciate how deeply the argument of the Euthyphro undermines their settled beliefs–how, and how much, it will unsettle them–without taking them through the reasoning. So (assuming Plato is right about this), one simply cannot first explain why the topic is sensitive without exposing students to the assault on their fundamental beliefs. The only way to follow the advice is to avoid the topic, but doing that involves committing a serious lapse in fulfilling one’s responsibilities. (Indeed, Plato took the extreme position that Socrates did the right thing in so offending the sensitivities of his fellow Athenians that they decided to put him to death in order to rid their society of such a troublesome teacher. Not many of us would agree with Plato in holding that a teacher’s responsibilities go that far. But the other extreme, the one advocated by the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, is not the correct one either.)

Philosophy professors are not the only ones who should worry about Principle 3. Those in other departments–biologists who teach evolution to creationist students, economists who expound on the virtues/vices of the free-market to students with other views, even astronomers and physicists who teach about the big bang–should worry about this pernicious principle.

Finally, we should remember that this this institution is Saint Mary’s University, not Saint Mary’s Feel-Good Day Care Centre. Part of what a university traditionally has done is to awaken in the minds of students certain intellectual discomfort. It is one of the things we are supposed to be trying to do, and, when we succeed, we certainly are not being unethical, but just the reverse. No one should gratuitously cause students intellectual discomfort, but we should all be causing them intellectual discomfort in the aid of engendering intellectual strength.

Principle 4: Student Development

The overriding responsibility of the teacher is to contribute to the intellectual development of the student, at least in the context of the teacher’s own area of expertise, and to avoid actions such as exploitation and discrimination that detract from student development.

Here we are told that our overriding responsibility is to contribute to the intellectual development of the student. But in the discussion which follows Principle 4 we are told that other principles can override this one. In which case we are, apparently, supposed to ignore Principle 6 and consult with other faculty about students having academic problems. I do not know what “overriding” is supposed to mean here. However, as Principle 4 is well discussed by the CAUT response, I will not discuss it further except to say that even those of us who think that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds might nevertheless wonder if we at Saint Mary’s really want to endorse something that is so blatantly inconsistent.

Principle 5: Dual Relationships With Students

To avoid conflict of interest, a teacher does not enter into dual-role relationships with students that are likely to detract from student development or lead to actual or perceived favoritism on the part of the teacher.

While thinking about Principle 5, I happened to receive a flyer about an intensive course being offered in Cuba by the International Development Studies Program. The flyer seems to have the University in the position of advertising to students that they can take this course which, on a natural interpretation of the above, would have to count as an unethical course.

Some dual-role relationships are unethical and should be avoided. But one of the features of Saint Mary’s which we (rightly) advertise is that students and faculty have a closer relationship than that found at many universities. We should be careful that we do not waste one of our most important assets simply by casually adopting a poorly thought out, supposedly ethical, principle.

Principle 6: Confidentiality

Student grades, attendance records, and private communication are treated as confidential materials, and are released only with student consent, or for legitimate academic purposes, or if there are reasonable grounds for believing that releasing such information will be beneficial to the student or will prevent harm to others.

Principle 6 is labelled “confidentiality”, and it deals with non- disclosure of students’ marks. It is, of course, wrong to treat as public that which the people involved have a reasonable expectation will be kept private. But that is not relevant to the question of what should, as a matter of policy or principle, be deemed public and what deemed private. I think there is quite a lot to be said for adopting a policy of keeping (final) grades private. But others disagree–for instance, members of native-American cultures and education systems, which hold that shame can play an important educational role. If they are correct about this, then that provides the basis for a powerful argument for a system where student grades are public knowledge. But if the authors of Ethical Principles in University Teaching are correct, then native-Americans and others who disagree the Society on this issue and and adopt educational systems where grades are regularly made public are simply unethical people. But that is absurd.

The discussion of Principle 6 suggests that relationships between teachers and students should be thought of on the lawyer-client or doctor-patient model. (It fails to mention that the courts don’t see things this way.) It is, of course, unethical for faculty members to reveal things their students have told them in confidence, and only immoral administrators will fail to respect this fact. Unfortunately, Saint Mary’s Administration, by giving conflicting accounts of whether it will respect the faculty member’s moral duty when students pass information to faculty members in confidence, has weakened the potential for trust between faculty members and students. In this context then, Ethical Principles in University Teaching serves us well by giving the Administration an opportunity to state in very clear terms that they are going to be respectful of their faculty and students in this regard. (I should note that at the moment it is difficult to know what the Saint Mary’s Administration’s position is on these matters. It has provided faculty members with conflicting advice regarding how they should deal with complaints concerning sexual harassment, and attempts to get clarification from the Administration have not been successful. Perhaps when the Administration provides faculty and students with its comments on Ethical Principles in University Teaching we will discover the Administration’s position on this important issue.)

Though there is serious confusion in the discussion of Principle 6, it is well worth reading for the claims contained in the last two lines of the discussion. These have to do with the practice (quite common at Saint Mary’s) of leaving graded papers outside one’s office for students to retrieve–a practice which provides an opportunity for students to see each other’s grades. Apparently, this practice is unethical. But it seems to me that the wrong can easily be corrected: simply put one of those little Post-It notes over the grade! (These 3M executives are clever folks. When they sponsor something, they get their money’s worth!) Oh yes, one final observation. The discussion points out that teachers can avoid being unethical (through such practices as giving out tests and essays in class or leaving them outside their office doors) by the simple expedient of having students come individually to their office during office hours to pick up their tests, essays, or assignments. Of course, if you teach as many students as most of us do, this will leave no time at all for actually helping students during office hours. But, the views of certain native-American communities notwithstanding, we apparently should consider confidentiality to be much more important than education.

Principle 7: Respect For Colleagues

A university teacher respects the dignity of her or his colleagues and works cooperatively with colleagues in the interest of fostering student development.

It has been pointed out to me that those who genuinely believe that another faculty member is incompetent usually think that, contrary to what Principle 7 says, they have a duty to point this out, especially if they are directly asked. (As it was put to me, suppose that a student comes to you and tells you she is thinking of doing her thesis with Professor A and asks for your advice. You think Professor A is incompetent. Are you to lie to the student?) I do not know whether this is correct. But clearly there is room for disagreement with the Society on this matter.

Principle 8: Valid Assessment of Students

Given the importance of assessment of student performance in university teaching and in students’ lives and careers, instructors are responsible for taking adequate steps to ensure that assessment of students is valid, open, fair, and congruent with course objectives.

Like Principle 2, Principle 8 requires faculty members to be aware of research on various methods of assessment and to select the best for the course. This is plainly not something that every good faculty member does, especially during the first few years of her career. What could be the point of advocating the adoption of a principle which a moment’s reflection reveals is regularly ignored by many perfectly good (and even some great) teachers? While it might be appropriate for the Society to encourage faculty members of make themselves aware of such research–and for the Society to make such research readily available to us–it is quite a different thing to advocate the adoption of Principle 8 as an ethical one.

Principle 9: Respect for Institution

In the interests of student development, a university teacher is aware of and respects the educational goals, policies, and standards of the institution in which he or she teaches.

Principle 9 seems to suggest that, unless almost all faculty members at Saint Mary’s are prone to compulsive lying while in the faculty lounge (a hypothesis on which I will not venture an opinion), a whole lot of us are behaving unethically. Even discounting for the normal exaggeration expected when people are grumbling about something, it seems clear that many of us seem to think that in recent years the administrators at Saint Mary’s have sought to lower academic standards in order to attract more students. We think this policy completely wrong-headed. And we don’t respect what administrators are doing, which, on the standards laid out in Ethical Principles in University Teaching, makes us unethical. But, of course, this is just plain silly. It simply is not the case that respect for an institution, in any adequate understanding of that phrase, requires one to agree with and abide by all its passing policies.

It is not that many years ago that Saint Thomas More College in Saskatchewan adopted a policy that all classes (in philosophy, at least) were to be taught in ways that would serve to further the teachings of Jesus Christ (or some such nonsense). Those faculty members who did what Ethical Principles in University Teaching counsels and went along with the policy were, in this case, the unethical ones. Those faculty members who (in some cases quite courageously) refused to accept such a policy were the ethical faculty members, the only ones who showed true respect for the institution. Furthermore, Principle 9, as currently worded, would require substantial administrative changes. In particular, the Administration would be under an obligation to keep faculty members much more closely informed of policy changes than they have in the past. For example, senior administrators recently decided that Saint Mary’s University was going to focus on business education. They did not inform faculty of this (nor even the Deans); instead we found out when the President of Dalhousie University made the decision public. If Principle 9 is correct, then what the Administration did was unethical. Now, many faculty members, many students, and many of those administrators not informed of this decision until it became public thought the decision to focus on business was not in the best interests of the institution. Some thought the decision unwise, even stupid. But I venture to say that none of them thought that the decision was unethical. Surely we do not want to adopt a document which, on its most natural interpretation provides the basis for an argument–albeit not a good argument–that deciding to make business the focus of the university for the next few years was an unethical decision.

In Conclusion

Most of the particular objections I have raised to Ethical Principles in University Teaching have focused on the sloppy wording and vagueness of the document. No doubt most of the intentions of the Society and the authors of this document are ones which most of us would support. But, good intentions notwithstanding, this is an unacceptable document. It starts with a muddle and (to mix metaphors) goes downhill from there. Adopting it would make Saint Mary’s a worse place, for faculty, for administrators, and especially for students. Had the Society developed a set of rules to guide students, faculty, and administrators in their interactions, it might have produced something worthy of being a starting point for discussion. By focusing on principles (and sometimes confusing these with policies), it produced something which, while it might appear attractive, could not serve to better our institution. I should note that the Society has not offered any empirical evidence to support the view that the adoption of a document like Ethical Principles in University Teaching would decrease the level of unethical behavior at a university–even if the Society’s account of unethical behavior is accepted. It cannot offer such evidence because none exists. There simply is no evidence to support the central idea of this document, that adopting such a document would make universities more ethical places. Many will find it amazing that the very group which holds that it is an ethical requirement for being a morally good teacher than one examine the empirical evidence regarding different teaching methodologies did not itself bother to check for empirical evidence that the so-called ethical principles it advocates has any support. But this is the best explanation I can offer for this serious lapse.

Recently, Hilary Clinton has argued that those who single-mindedly pursue “family values” do their country a disservice. Part of her argument holds (famously) that “it takes a village” to properly raise a new generation of well-rounded citizens. Whatever the merits of this counter-attack against the forces of religious fundamentalism, it alludes to Thomas Jefferson’s counter-attack against the religious fundamentalists in his day in which he said, “I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man”. He saw the creation of what he called an “academical village” as part of such a battle for free thinking over tyranny. That village, which he tried to foster at the University of Virginia, was one opposed to the sort of virtues touted by the Society for Teaching and Learning. Those students, faculty, and administrators concerned to promote, protect, and defend an academical village at Saint Mary’s are more likely to be able to create the sort of genuine ethical environment for teaching and learning if we forsake the confused and legalistic route advocated in Ethical Principles in University Teaching.


Dworkin, Ronald M.

    1996 “Why Academic Freedom?” in Freedom’s Law. (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1996) (The quote is from page 246.)

Jefferson, Thomas

    1800 “Letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, dated 23-ix-1800. (The quote is inscribed on the Jefferson Memorial in Washington.)

Kluge, Eike-Henner

    1992 “Codes of ethics and other illusions”, Canadian Medical Association Journal, April 1992.


*I received numerous comments on earlier versions. I am grateful to Thea E. Smith, Susan Wake, James O. Young, and especailly Steven Maitzen for help with the most recent revisions.