Professional Ethics, Day by Day

By Roworth, Wendy Wassyng | Academe, January/February 2002 | Go to article overview

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.

Guiding Principles

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. …

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