Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Faculty Conduct: An Empirical Study of Ethical Activism

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Faculty Conduct: An Empirical Study of Ethical Activism

Article excerpt

In the last ten years or so, the academic profession has been the subject of a good deal of suspicion and criticism. While some of what has been written about academics is shallow and splenetic (Sykes, 1990; Kimball, 1990; D'Souza, 1991), even this literature has tapped a sense of disquiet about the integrity of faculty members. Central to much of the criticism and suspicion is faculty misconduct, real or perceived. For several writers and researchers, instances of misconduct that have reached the public's attention, such as plagiarism (Mallon, 1989; Fass, 1990; Mooney, 1992; LaFollette, 1992) and sexual harassment (Dziech & Weiner, 1984; Davis, 1990; Small, 1990), are the visible signs of still-to-be revealed misdeeds of unknown but substantial dimensions, and commentators imply that faculty and their institutions either turn a blind eye to numerous other instances of malfeasance or suppress knowledge of them (Chubin, 1983; Cahn, 1986; Ghiselin, 1989; Caplan, 1993; Paludi, 1996). Others argue that faculty misconduct is infrequent, or suggest that the self-correcting mechanisms of the profession are reasonably effective in preventing misconduct or in punishing the relatively few individuals who are guilty of wrongdoing (Koshland, 1987; Merton, 1988).

Our concern is with one aspect of faculty behavior: the likelihood that a professor who is told that another faculty member may have engaged in unprofessional behavior will take up the matter with the accused or with an administrator. These are instances of what can be described as ethical activism, a willingness to inquire about or to protest possible unethical conduct. At what point and how faculty members interfere in faculty disputes mirrors controversies in the broader society about the "civic failure to stop private and public acts of injustice" (Shklar, 1990, p. 6). Shklar writes, "As citizens we are passively unjust . . . when we do not report crimes, when we look the other way when we see cheating and minor thefts, when we tolerate political corruption, and when we silently accept laws that we regard as unjust, unwise, or cruel" (1990, p. 6). Do professors engage in, to borrow a phrase from Shklar (1990, p. 6), "preventive civic activity" on their campuses with respect to faculty misconduct, and if so, what kinds of action do they take and under what circumstances? What demographic characteristics (e.g., gender and age) and what professional characteristics (e.g., academic rank, years in the profession, and service on an ethics committee) of faculty members help account for their ethical activism? To answer these questions, we use data from a large-scale national study of ethics and the academic profession that explored the attitudes of faculty members toward ethical standards and their experiences with particular ethical problems.(1)

Background: Is There an Obligation to Intervene?

Consider the following situation. A student complains to a professor that a faculty member has been sexually harassing her. The professor finds the student's account plausible and encourages her to speak with the department head. The student is unwilling to do so because she fears that she might jeopardize her academic career: the department head and the faculty member she has complained about are research collaborators, and her own research requires her to work with the department head. As an alternative to raising the issue with anyone else, the student looks to the professor for support. The professor wonders whether to speak with the other faculty member. How likely is it that the professor will take this step?

For some professors, speaking with the colleague will pose no problem. They are willing to do so on behalf of a student concerning an obviously important matter. Other professors, however, may find themselves under cross-pressures. They want to be of further help to the student, but speaking with a colleague about alleged misconduct is neither personally nor professionally an easy thing to do and may earn the enmity of the colleague. …

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