Lessons in moral­ity

Uni­ver­si­ties must be clear about their stances on tricky eth­i­cal dilemmas to avoid trip­ping up on the path from ab­stract prin­ci­ple to con­crete guid­ance

THE (Times Higher Education) - - LEADER - Paul.jump@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

When Don­ald Trump was first given the keys to the Oval Of­fice in Jan­uary 2017, he made a se­ries of phone calls to other world lead­ers. Much to every­one’s sur­prise, what Trump de­scribed as his “worst call by far” was with Aus­tralia’s then prime min­is­ter, Mal­colm Turn­bull.

Turn­bull is a con­ser­va­tive, but so­cial me­dia was rife with spec­u­la­tion that Trump had as­sumed oth­er­wise, hav­ing read in his brief­ing notes that Turn­bull was leader of the Lib­eral Party of Aus­tralia.

The the­ory chimed with the sense that the US pres­i­dent’s knowl­edge of global pol­i­tics is rather less than en­cy­clo­pe­dic. It also un­der­lines what a dif­fer­ence an ocean can make when it comes to the mean­ing of “lib­eral”.

The Amer­i­can un­der­stand­ing of “lib­eral” as left wing makes the ven­er­a­ble phrase “the lib­eral uni­ver­sity” a par­tic­u­larly trou­ble­some one. Although its coin­ers meant it to de­note en­quiry free of re­li­gious or po­lit­i­cal shack­les, it is also in tune with the Amer­i­can right’s com­mon per­cep­tion of uni­ver­si­ties and aca­demics as po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents. Trump him­self is not slow to wade in on Twit­ter when the lat­est furore blows up over a uni­ver­sity’s (or its stu­dents’) sup­posed de­nial of a plat­form to a right-wing speaker.

A sim­i­lar per­cep­tion has arisen in the UK, es­pe­cially over Brexit. Only last week, the Brex­i­teer politi­cian Kate Hoey blamed aca­demics for “in­doc­tri­nat­ing” stu­dents into sup­port­ing re­main (although the fact that she is a Labour MP un­der­lines that the left-right split over the mer­its of EU mem­ber­ship is by no means a neat one).

Uni­ver­sity lead­ers are un­der­stand­ably wary of mak­ing pub­lic state­ments that sug­gest favour for one po­lit­i­cal party over an­other. Apart from any­thing else, even US pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties rely on po­lit­i­cal favour for their re­search fund­ing – not to men­tion their tax­ex­empt sta­tus. But pol­i­tics in a broader sense is im­pos­si­ble to es­cape.

One ob­vi­ous ex­am­ple is ad­mis­sions. The mer­its of broad­en­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion are widely agreed upon, but the means of achiev­ing it are not. The left’s af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion is the right’s so­cial en­gi­neer­ing, and there is lit­tle prospect of hit­ting upon a pol­icy that keeps both camps equally happy.

An­other prickly ad­mis­sions case is re­ported in our news pages this week. It con­cerns the ad­mis­sion by the Lon­don School of Eco­nomics of Peter Cv­je­tanovic, a prom­i­nent par­tic­i­pant in the far-right protests in Char­lottesville, Vir­ginia a year ago that set off a chain of events end­ing with the killing of a coun­ter­demon­stra­tor.

Should he have been ad­mit­ted? One way to ap­proach that ques­tion might be to ask what the English brand of lib­er­al­ism would pre­scribe (al­beit that the LSE’s roots lie in demo­cratic so­cial­ism). The clas­sic English lib­eral, John Stu­art Mill, framed it in terms of the so-called harm prin­ci­ple: “The only pur­pose for which power can be right­fully ex­er­cised over any mem­ber of a civilised com­mu­nity, against his will, is to pre­vent harm to oth­ers.”

Might it sim­i­larly be ar­gued that the free­dom of a qual­i­fied stu­dent to at­tend a uni­ver­sity should only be cur­tailed to pre­vent harm to oth­ers?

The dif­fi­culty comes, though, in defin­ing what harm is – and who gets to de­cide. Clearly hate speech should not be per­mit­ted, but is there harm merely in oblig­ing stu­dents to study and live along­side some­one whose views are likely to chal­lenge their own? Ad­vo­cates of safe spaces might well ar­gue that there is.

An­other tricky case is flagged up in our opin­ion pages. It con­cerns a US aca­demic who re­fused to write a let­ter of rec­om­men­da­tion for a stu­dent who wanted to study in Is­rael be­cause of his ob­jec­tions to the coun­try’s treat­ment of Pales­tini­ans.

Would the English lib­eral ar­gu­ment be that aca­demics should be al­lowed to con­duct them­selves as they see fit ex­cept where it harms stu­dents? But, again, what level of harm counts? And shouldn’t stu­dents also be al­lowed to study where they want, ex­cept when it harms oth­ers?

As philoso­phers all know, the path from ab­stract prin­ci­ple to con­crete guid­ance is laced with trip­wires. And, as uni­ver­sity lead­ers know, prin­ci­ple is one thing and prag­ma­tism is some­thing else. In­deed, mod­ern Western uni­ver­si­ties are rou­tinely ac­cused of be­ing “ne­olib­eral”, in the sense of be­ing con­cerned above all with their fi­nan­cial bot­tom lines. If that is true, harm to in­sti­tu­tional rep­u­ta­tions is likely to fig­ure highly in lead­ers’ think­ing.

But it is clear that in a fren­zied po­lit­i­cal cli­mate, such con­tentious cases will con­tinue to at­tract great public­ity. And while the prag­matic path might of­ten be clearer than the prin­ci­pled one, surely uni­ver­si­ties should be ready with morally se­ri­ous an­swers that at least at­tempt to draw on sub­stan­tive val­ues.

Those val­ues and prin­ci­ples will in­evitably sit more eas­ily with some party po­lit­i­cal po­si­tions than oth­ers. But if lead­er­ship means more than at­tend­ing meet­ings and func­tions, it surely in­volves mak­ing a few big calls – even if that risks the pres­i­dent’s hang­ing up on you.

The left’s af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion is the right’s so­cial en­gi­neer­ing, and there is lit­tle prospect of hit­ting upon a pol­icy that keeps both camps equally happy

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