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Should university presidents take ethical stands?


I was asked recently why university presidents aren’t speaking out about the state of affairs in our country. Of course, the issue of the moment is the lack of preparedness for the coronavirus pandemic, even when knowledgeable people were forecasting it. After all, universities are supposed to be moral forces in society.

Who is in a better position to remind the public of what the 19th-century English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said: “. . . the rule is absolute, the [nation] which does not value trained intelligence is doomed”? Yet the voices of university leaders are largely silent in the face of the most critical issue of our time, and trained intelligence is ignored when politically inconvenient.

Some argue that university leaders should not take stands on policy, that they should not be “political.” But what is political and what is polemical? Politics refers to the public affairs of a country. A polemic is an aggressive attack on the opinions or principles of another. Surely academic leaders can comment on the public affairs of the country without resorting to aggressive attacks, even if those whose policies are being confronted want others to believe that such comments are inappropriate.

Therefore, when scientific leadership on policies related to health care, clean water, air pollution and product safety, among others, is being replaced by lobbyists for the regulated industries, university leaders should be among the strongest voices expressing concern. Should they not call out falsehoods and fabrications passing as truth?

Education is the foundation of a free and democratic society. In any country, the university is unique in its mission to create, curate and critique. Laboratories create new knowledge, museums and libraries preserve the past, and journalists examine social policy by asking “Why?” But only the university is responsible for all three roles.

In these ways, the university fulfills its historic mission not as a political force, but as an ethical voice. For example, the founders of Adelphi were advocates for the advancement of women, the abolition of slavery and improved instruments for world peace. They adopted as their motto, “The truth shall make us free.” Surely there were those who thought the new institution should only teach classes, believing that school was separate from society. But the president and supporters knew the power of ethical arguments and the need for ethical thinking.

The ethical perspective considers fairness, the degree of bias, the consistency of application, the factual basis for assertions and the justness of moral judgments and public laws. Women had no right to vote, slavery was legal and war ignored diplomacy as the “first resort of kings,” as the author Richard Arndt described it, yet the Adelphi leaders had the courage of conviction and a visionary voice.

They knew that their role was to educate students, and the public, to reflect on what they read and heard, assess actions and policies, form independent opinions, and express impartial concerns as individuals. In this way, the university teaches us all to distinguish among the three paths to finding truth — through facts, faith and fear — and helps to clarify each.

To state facts is not polemical. People can have different opinions, but not different facts. The university’s role is to advance knowledge, both general and expert; skills such as writing and speaking with clarity and persuasion; abilities such as critical thinking and leadership; and values such as teamwork, respect for others and their opinions, and becoming active in society as citizens.

These are the missions of a university, and it is the university president who serves as the chief mission officer. If we do our jobs well, our graduates will be well prepared to see the results of political actions that ignore expert knowledge. They will be able to analyze propaganda masquerading as principle, and discern facts from unfounded superstitions. They will be able to call out the misguided actions of those who ignore science, history and the need to respect others. We will have prepared graduates for political action when it is needed regardless of the polemics surrounding them. And we will have taken an ethical stand.

Robert A. Scott is president emeritus of Adelphi University.