ETHICS AND THE PROPER FUNCTION OF A UNIVERSITY

LaRue Tone Hosmer


This document may be too large for your printer buffer to handle. We suggest downloading this document to a disk if printing difficulties are encountered or e-mailing the author for a hard copy by clicking on his/her name.


I should like to propose, late on this pleasant Saturday afternoon in the gentle Tennessee springtime, the very unpleasant allegation that major research uni­versities within the United States have failed, and failed badly. There are, in my view, two very basic reasons for this failure:

The first reason is that our research institutions have not adjusted to the in­credible diversity with which they have been either blessed or burdened over the past 30 to 50 years. Think for a moment about the large number of divisions --"divisions" meaning splits or chasms -- that exist currently within a university:

Forty years ago Clark Kerr, then president of the University of California, in an elegant book titled "The Uses of the University" foresaw these divisions. He forecast that universities would become "separate academic disciplines and departments held together by a central heating system and common disputes over parking" He also said that planning, under those circumstances, would be limited to "a division of the spoils rather than a determination of the goals".

The latter prediction has also come true, and this is the second cause of the failure of research-based universities. We have not produced a clear statement of the mission or goal, or a compelling "vision of the possible" that is relevant to all of the members, all of the stakeholders of the university

I am 70 years of age, and have been privileged to hold appointments, either tenured or visiting, at a number of what are considered to be first-rate universities. I have never heard a college president discuss the goal or vision of a university in meaningful terms, except upon one occasion. That made an indelible impression upon me, and evidently also upon the others who were there then for they still speak of it now, so let me share that statement with you.

Why is what he expressed 50 years ago not a worthwhile purpose for the research university today? Why should not a university exist for the purpose of improving the society of which it is a part? Why should we not, faculty, students, administrators, alumni, and donors together, select, study, design, experiment, and attempt to solve some of the major problems that exist within our society, and why should we not work jointly, rather than separately.

What has ethics to do with all of this? My answer is that ethics is central to any effort to focus a research university upon very pragmatic efforts to improve the society of which we are all a part: If earlier efforts failed because they neglected the "common good", then it would seem essential that some notions of that good must prevail.

Let me make very clear that by "ethical principles" I do not mean any specific political or economic system, and by "ethical consideration" I do not mean any particular social outlook. I mean only that we must consider "what is right", "what is just", "what is fair". What, if anything do we "owe" to other members of society? What, if anything, do we mean when we talk of integrity, excellence, and character?

The traditional ethical principles can help us to answer those questions. I look upon these principles as together constituting a filtering device. They will not individually lead us to an irrevocable conclusion which all will necessarily support. They will, however, jointly lead us to an improved understanding which all can openly discuss. Let me describe nine of these principles very briefly:

In conclusion, ethical principles of the type just noted should not just be part of the curriculum at a research university. They should be part of the university. They should be the means of focusing our abilities, resolving our differences, and inspiring our efforts. Ethicists for years have been asking such questions as, "What is the common good?" "What are our rights and duties?" 'WVhat is justice, and how is it that attained?" 'What is liberty, and how is that maintained?" 'What is integrity, and how is that produced?" "What, in short, is excellence in all its manifestations?" I think that those same questions should permeate, direct, and focus the research university. Thank you.


Copyright LaRue Tone Hosmer

FAX: (313) 764-2557


Talk to the Conference Participants


Questions and comments may be directed to the Conference Convenor, Alvin G. Burstein or individual authors by clicking on his/her name.

HOME


This page has been accessed times.

Last updated: June 23, 1996