Are Colleges Earning an F in Ethics?

Dr. Purushothaman
December 12, 2013

Our academies of higher education are fine purveyors of knowledge. Yet, there is something missing. It has only been within the last twenty years that teaching applied ethics in college has risen to the forefront from obscurity in religion and philosophy departments. It seems striking that the debate still rages among faculty and administrators over whether or not ethics can even be taught.

What is even more incredible is the turf war among university departments who vie to teach it and yet fail to see the ethical dilemma that scenario alone creates. Colleges and universities alike have reluctantly been dragged into value-difference arguments and display what might best be described as a benign reluctance to teach applied ethics. They have no interest, nor do they wish to take the lead to teach pragmatic ethical behavior neither in their communities nor beyond their own hallowed halls. In other words, in their minds, why teach outside what they believe is not teachable inside.

This abysmal record of accepting ethical accountability to lead community ethics development efforts is not unique to educational institutions. This universal systemic problem exists nationally and internationally among many organizations that influence the public lifestyle, underlying culture, community morality, and individual day-to-day conduct.

On the other hand, organizations concerned with the public pressures of maintaining an image of ethical propriety and what is, or is not, ethical, are defining their own ethical conduct for public consumption. Unfortunately, words alone mean nothing unless there is follow through. Thus corporate reactionary ethics values and character training are often left wanting creating a whole new set of dilemmas for institutions pressured to step up to the plate.

The overriding reluctance of schools of higher learning to take the lead and join forces with business communities in educating citizens in applied ethics and character development is inexcusable. This non-committal has contributed to the rise of organization charlatans professing to teach and coach applied ethics to fill the void left by colleges. Ethical leadership demands effort and commitment. Who is better prepared to step into that role than our colleges?

Are there any colleges stepping up? Each year Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida, brings together over 200 colleges and universities throughout the USA to discuss college student values. In the flurry of presentations year in and year out by college professors and those trying to promote character, values and ethics training among colleges internally, there is little focus on direct contributions to the outside world. The excuse is that they cannot dictate ethical behavior off the campus. Those willing to hit the discussion head on will suggest in the end it simply is not their job.

They're right. If it's not in their mission statement, colleges logically assume they are not obliged to be community ethics advocates and proactive. At least, goes the argument, they suggest when it comes to officially leading character, ethics and values training programs throughout their communities, they prefer to remain passive. It is alright for their faculty to free lance and others to do it but not them, and not officially for fear they might offend some community leaders sense about whose ethics are being taught. For institutions of higher learning that teach about change and that it requires being proactive, there is no question that when it comes to community ethics leadership, this is a shallow argument indeed. The results are clear â€" They fail.

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