Professional Ethics, Day by Day
Roworth, Wendy Wassyng, Academe
The chair of the AAUP's Committee on Professional Ethics discusses our obligations -to our students, our institutions, and our colleagues.
Last June the Boston Globe published a story that caught many in the academic community by surprise. Joseph J. Ellis, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, author of the best-seller Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, and a respected member of the Mount Holyoke College faculty, was exposed as a liar. The Globe revealed that Ellis had fabricated stories about his military service during the Vietnam War and greatly exaggerated his role as an antiwar activist and participant in the civil rights movement. More disturbing than his distortion of the truth was the further revelation that for many years Ellis had recounted these imaginary exploits to students in his courses on Vietnam and American culture.
On campuses around the country, faculty expressed astonishment at Ellis's reckless deception, and for several weeks the Ellis affair was a hot topic of discussion in editorials, op-ed pieces, and talk shows. Journalists and professional historians debated Ellis's motives, the reactions of former students and colleagues, the anger of genuine Vietnam veterans, whether or not his research on Thomas Jefferson and the early Republic might now be called into question, how Mount Holyoke was handling the investigation, and whether or not Ellis deserved to be dismissed from his tenured position.
Ellis's prominence as a celebrity author and television pundit made this story newsworthy, but even after media attention waned, nagging questions remained. Why would such an acclaimed historian embellish his personal history with selfaggrandizing falsehoods that could so easily be unmasked? This popular professor whose achievements had drawn attention to the important role faculty can play in public life and the relevance of historical research had not only tarnished his own reputation; his actions also called into question the integrity of his profession and left many faculty feeling vaguely embarrassed. One commentator in the Los Angeles Times asked: "If students cannot believe in their professors, why believe in anyone?"
Were Ellis's tales of Vietnam really harmful if they helped to make a pedagogical point? How many of us might be similarly guilty of distorting the truth? In an article entitled "Why Are Academics Ducking the Ellis Case?" Elliot J. Gorn of Purdue University declared, "To lie to our students about ourselves, regardless of motive, is to patronize them, to not trust them, to fail them utterly by putting our own needs-for approval, for popularity, for control over the classroom-over their rightful claim to honesty." Quite simply, Ellis violated the ethics of his profession.
Most of us don't give much thought to professional ethics as we carry out our day to day duties as teachers, researchers, committee members, and advisers. We may read about a case of plagiarism or hear about scientific fraud at another university, but such serious violations seem to be rare or distant from our daily routines. Faculty who have no problem expressing views on teaching strategies, research methods, or university politics hesitate to question a colleague's conduct in the classroom, the space in which each professor reigns supreme.
Soon after the Ellis story broke, I was asked by a National Public Radio interviewer to describe faculty reactions to the Ellis affair. Feeling keenly the need to defend the integrity of our profession, I assured him that members of the profession certainly condemned lying to students, although, like Gorn, I sensed that some faculty were avoiding or skirting the issue. But there really shouldn't have been any ambiguity, because Ellis surely violated the most basic principles of the AAUP Statement on Professional Ethics. This important document states that faculty should practice intellectual honesty and "accept the obligation to exercise critical self-discipline and judgment in using, extending, and transmitting knowledge."
Furthermore, professors have a special responsibility to hold before students the best scholarly and ethical standards of their disciplines and to demonstrate respect for students as individuals by adhering to their "proper roles as intellectual guides and counselors." The emphatic language of the AAUP statement provides a reassuring basis for condemning what Ellis did; however, this document can serve only as a reminder of the professional obligations that derive from common membership in the community of scholars. Unlike the professions of law and medicine that have associations to enforce their standards, responsibility for enforcing ethical standards in the academic profession lies with individual colleges and universities. In other words, it's up to each of us to ensure the integrity of our professional conduct.1
The AAUP has always maintained that the privileges associated with faculty status demand a corresponding obligation to abide by professional and ethical standards. As early as 1916, just a year after its founding, the AAUP established a standing committee on university ethics and appointed the esteemed John Dewey as its first chair. Since then, except for a period from the early 1930s to the early 1950s, an Association committee dedicated to professional ethics and standards has continued to inform the higher education community about the principles of professional ethics and to encourage their observance.
But even though the Association's Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure and its Committee on College and University Government are authorized to investigate complaints of possible violations of recommended standards at particular colleges or universities, the Committee on Professional Ethics is available only to offer advice or mediation. In reality, the Association receives far fewer requests for advice on ethical infractions than it does complaints about alleged violations of academic freedom, governance, tenure, or other conditions of academic employment, so the Committee on Professional Ethics is only very occasionally called upon for help by individual members. The committee does not meet regularly, as do the committees devoted to academic freedom and governance, but it convenes as needed to examine ethical issues in response to requests or inquiries from, among others, the Association's president, national Council, and other committees. Several years ago, the committee grappled with a controversial statement, On the Obligation of Faculty Members to Respond to Misconduct, which was published in draft form in the November-December 1998 issue of Academe with an invitation for comment. The statement provoked both strongly positive and critically negative responses from members of the profession. Some believed that individual faculty members should be responsible for speaking out and reporting misconduct to authorities when they have knowledge of violations and that, furthermore, guidelines should be developed to handle ethical breaches by faculty colleagues. On the other hand, several faculty members expressed grave concerns about what such a policy might unleash. How could an individual be absolutely sure that he or she was right about a perceived wrongdoing? How could one assess the seriousness of an infraction? What would be the consequences of a false or mistaken accusation?
The divided reaction to the committee's statement highlighted the troublesome and perplexing question whether faculty can respond appropriately to misconduct by colleagues without trampling on individual rights or endangering other professional standards. It also revealed the need for broader understanding of ethical issues and individual responsibility for adherence to ethical standards.
The current edition of the AAUP's Policy Documents and Reports contains, in addition to the Statement on Professional Ethics, seven documents devoted specifically to issues of professional ethics. These include A Statement of the Association's Council: Freedom and Responsibility, which addresses the obligation to respect the dignity of others and differing opinions and "to foster and defend intellectual honesty, freedom of inquiry and instruction, and free expression on campus." There is a strongly worded Statement on Plagiarism, two documents related to the recruitment and resignation of faculty members, two that apply to conflicts of interest, especially in governmentsponsored or privately funded research, and one on multiple authorship. Other AAUP documents address directly or indirectly matters related to the ethical conduct and responsibilities of faculty, including the rights and freedom of students, assignment of grades, sexual harassment, consensual relations between faculty and students, the role of athletics in colleges and universities, collegiality as a criterion for faculty evaluation, and intellectual property and copyright.
New Areas of Concern
The sensationalism of the Ellis story prompted me to consider the many ways in which professional ethics influences our work, whether we recognize it or not. In addition, I wondered how ethical concerns may have changed or expanded in the years since the Statement on Professional Ethics was first adopted by the Association in 1966.(2) For example, ethical controversies in recent years have involved research on cloning and genetic engineering, informed consent of human subjects in social science research, potential conflicts of interest due to the greater role corporations now play in university research, the use of the Internet for research and distance education, procedures for reviewing and mediating ethics complaints by disciplinary associations, sexual harassment and racial discrimination, and the necessity of training graduate students in research ethics.
Following are a few thoughts on several other issues of professional ethics, some more critical than others, that I believe deserve more attention than they have received. They may not be as newsworthy as scientific misconduct, sexual harassment, or lying to students, but they are issues of the type that concern almost every faculty member on a daily basis. This is not intended as an exhaustive list of issues within the profession, nor does it reflect the views of the Committee on Professional Ethics. I simply want to highlight some of the ethical considerations that underlie our daily interactions with students and colleagues.
The Internet and e-mail have created a host of ethical problems for faculty and students. Just coping with the disruptions of e-mail and overloaded Listervs is difficult enough without having to worry about violating standards of confidentiality and privacy when we forward messages to colleagues or students. Yet such forwarding of personal messages happens every day. New Web sites help faculty identify student plagiarism, while other sites provide students with canned research and term papers. Faculty have an obligation not only to identify and punish cheating, but also to make sure students understand why it is wrong. Similarly, it's a simple task these days to find databases, syllabuses, course descriptions, and pedagogical materials on Web sites developed by other faculty. These can be easy and tempting to appropriate, but we should be scrupulous about acknowledging sources or seeking permission to use materials, and we should make sure our students do the same. Ditto for photocopying publications.
Another aspect of professional ethics that challenges us on a daily basis is the fair and equitable treatment of others within the academic community. As full-time tenure-track jobs have become scarcer and standards for gaining tenure and promotions have grown more demanding, the pressure to produce research, win grants, and publish has increased accordingly. This puts tremendous strain on faculty, especially those just entering the profession. If we believe that faculty should set standards for tenure and promotion, then we must set realistic goals for our peers. It may not be unethical to have higher expectations for a new generation of scholars, but we shouldn't apply higher standards or a lengthened timetable just for their own sake or because administrations demand it. Similarly, when faculty review the work of other faculty for publication, promotion, merit pay, grants, fellowships, or post-tenure reviews, the highest standards of professional ethics and responsibility should prevail. As internal and external reviews multiply and accountability continues to be a requirement for much of what we do, the necessity for responsible and fair reviews by peers and department chairs assumes even more importance. The contentious subject of "collegiality" has become another minefield of potential abuse, yet we should remember that the word "collegial" literally means shared authority among equals, among colleagues. The real question is: who are our colleagues?
Almost all universities and colleges rely on part-time and non-tenure-track faculty to help "deliver the curriculum." As part-timers take up more and more of the teaching load, the gap between the "haves" (tenured faculty) and the "havenots" grows wider. Tenured and tenuretrack faculty, who enjoy higher salaries, health and retirement benefits, funding for research and travel, offices, staff, and job security, seem to exist in another realm from the adjunct faculty, who for the most part have little hope of advancing or improving their status. Unless the privileged faculty treat part-time faculty with respect and expect universities to provide them with benefits, suitable work space, performance reviews, and participation in governance, institutions will have little incentive to improve the situation or to establish more fill-time positions. Strictly speaking, it may not be a breach of professional ethics to underpay parttimers or deny them health benefits, but simple decency and fairness suggest that faculty should strive to improve working conditions and professional expectations for all faculty.
Much the same can be said for graduate students, especially those who take on responsibilities as teachers and research assistants, trying to make a living while they prepare for future careers. Many disciplinary associations, including the Modem Language Association and the American Historical Association, are grappling with the problems that confront graduate students. Is their training really preparing them for the reality of the jobs they seek? Is it ethical to allow students to believe there will be jobs for them when they complete their degrees? Should we provide counseling in alternative careers or reduce the number of graduate students in our institutions? Are faculty exploiting graduate student labor so that professors can devote themselves to research or travel to conferences instead of spending time in the lab or the classroom? We must be responsible mentors, supporting graduate students in their roles as apprentice scholars and employees and upholding their right to organize for purposes of collective bargaining. We could also ask the tough question of academic institutions: is it ethical to charge full tuition when students are actually taught by cut-rate teachers?
One sentence in the Statement on Professional Ethics warrants special attention: "Professors accept their share of faculty responsibilities for the governance of their institutions." This critically important responsibility is too often dismissed as taking time away from important research or classroom duties. But if professors want to safeguard academic freedom and tenure and maintain faculty authority for setting academic standards, then they have an obligation to participate actively in shared governance. Service on a faculty senate or committee should never be dismissed as a waste of time; responsible professional service is crucial to the functioning of our institutions and to upholding the highest standards of our profession.
Finally, returning to the issues raised by the Ellis case, there is our profound responsibility to students. Especially now in times of such uncertainty, we must be unwaveringly honest and uphold the highest ethical standards of our disciplines, free inquiry, academic freedom, equity, and fairness. We must avoid exploitation, harassment, and conflicts of interest where students are concerned, while striving to ensure that our students also treat each other with equal respect. The theory of ethics presents us with lofty ideals; the practice of ethics provides a foundation for the freedom we enjoy as faculty.
1. After an investigation by a faculty committee, the Mount Holyoke College administration suspended Ellis for a year and stripped him, at least temporarily, of his endowed chair with a strongly worded statement that he had violated the ethics of his profession.
2. The current Statement on Professional Ethics, which was approved in 1987 by the Association's Committee on Professional Ethics, adopted by the Association's Council, and endorsed by the Seventy-third Annual Meeting, is a revised version of the statement originally adopted in 1966.
Wendy Wassyng Roworth is professor of art history and women's studies at the University of Rhode Island and chair of the AAUP's Committee on Professional Ethics.…
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Publication information: Article title: Professional Ethics, Day by Day. Contributors: Roworth, Wendy Wassyng - Author. Magazine title: Academe. Volume: 88. Issue: 1 Publication date: January/February 2002. Page number: 24+. © American Association of University Professors Nov/Dec 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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