Speech: ‘What is right, and what will sell? A personal perspective on ethics in higher education’, 1 October 2018

Inaugural Lecture of the Ethics Conversation Club, University of Surrey

Good evening everyone.

I am very pleased to be here at the inception of the Ethics Conversation Club, which aims to establish a discussion forum that transcends academic disciplines, and to examine the relationship between ethics and the university. May I take this opportunity to congratulate all involved in initiating this club!

The title of my speech comes from a quote by Confucius: ‘The superior man understands what is right; the inferior man understands what will sell.’ Here, Confucius frames the question of ethics in terms of black and white. In the modern day, we face a wide spectrum of ‘grey’, in which we must try to stick to our personal and professional integrity, whilst recognising the need to survive commercially. This is not an issue that will go away. If anything, it will become more challenging.

The ethical issues faced by the modern university go far beyond traditional questions of research integrity, student plagiarism, or staff hiring practices. Higher Education today is complex and nuanced, facing all the snags and complications of society, in microcosm. It is now a question not just of ‘teaching ethics’, but of practising ethics in every expression of our institution:  embedding ethics in what we teach, how we teach it, how we work, and how we live.

Even as I say this – it sounds exhausting! Does it mean we have to spend every waking moment in self-reflection? Will paperwork swamp us, as we attempt to record, evaluate and justify our every decision? Is Ethics merely one more box to tick, in an already busy and over-regulated day?

Not, I argue, if we pursue the true spirit of academic ethics.

I mean: by fostering ‘the exchange of ideas and the difficult reflective analysis that comes with learning to reason things through to a just solution.’ [1]

We cannot, after all, expect an ethical and just society to maintain itself spontaneously; we know that we have to inculcate, for example, the concept of ethical business practices in our business schools. And we all know to our cost and distress — from global financial crises to the question of fireproof cladding on tower blocks – that ethical decision making is in no way a foregone conclusion. One only needs to read or watch ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ or ‘The Big Short’ to realise how the world is dangerously fraught with greed, deception and outright criminal scams.

Ethics is not pre-programmed into all of us in all circumstances; neither is it an organism with its own existence and self-determination. We are the guardians and the advocates of an ethical society.

In fact, Surrey is already a global thought leader in this area. The International Care Ethics Observatory is based here, researching and supporting the ethical values of carers in nursing and other care professions. Care ethics maintains that we can learn to be virtuous, selfless and compassionate. There are implications here for the wider possibilities for teaching ethical behaviour: namely, that ethical thinking within learning should not be an afterthought, nor an elective speciality, but a core and embedded exercise underpinning the healthy moral balance of the individual and of society. In other words, our aim should not be to ‘teach ethics’, but to establish an ethical culture.

Creating a strong ethical culture is one of the key pillars of our institutional values, namely “Ambition, Collaboration, Excellence, Integrity and Respect”.  As Vice-Chancellor, I would like to build a values-led culture which nurtures ambition, collaboration and excellence underpinned by the fundamental human values of integrity, ethical conduct and professionalism, and respect for the differences and diversity of people and ideas.  Only when such a culture thrives will the university be able to get where we want to go tomorrow, from where we are today.

Of course, like any reputable organisation, Surrey is governed by an Ethics Policy that codifies rules and guidelines for anything from good research practice, to preventing fraud, to handling data. This leads me to three questions about how we think about ethics today:

  1. Do organisations tend to follow the letter of these policies, or the spirit?
  2. Beyond an official ethics policy, what kind of ethical education is possible and desirable in a university? And,
  3. How does one live the values through the day-to-day grind of busy academia?

With regard to the first question, I am unavoidably reminded of the recent scandal that embroiled Facebook, its data, and Cambridge Analytica. Here the behaviour of the Cambridge University researcher in question fell into an ethical ‘gap’ between Cambridge’s ethics policy, which governs even ‘research undertaken by university employees outside the university and overseas’, and the university’s subsequent assertion that this only refers to work undertaken specifically as part of university duties.[2]

This high profile example is connected to more mundane questions of ethics, and to how closely an organisation aligns itself in action to the governing principles it publicly espouses. For example, is it ethical to claim a commitment to business sustainability, and then leave all the lights blazing in deserted buildings during the Christmas break? Can we claim to be ‘collaborative’ while departments remain territorial and siloed?

Ethical practices are living, breathing, evolving entities. Just when we think we understand them, they shift again. Technological advances throw up new ethical questions on an almost daily basis; old certainties and definitions evaporate, and we are adrift.

By extension, then, the practice and study of ethics needs to be flexible, adaptable, and accessible. Whoever dreamt we would be pondering whether robotic entities or their human creators should take responsibility for the innovations that might result from AI?[3]

With regard to the second question, about how to embed an ethical culture that grows and develops along with the university, the opportunities are numerous. An article in Times Higher Education claims that the significant issues of sexual harassment and bullying in the theatre world could be addressed by using the dramatic texts students are studying to educate about ethical dilemmas. [4]  For example, issues of bullying and power dynamics in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ may resonate with young actors who feel powerless to stand up to a director with influence over their career.

This could be the first, and welcome, step in introducing ethical reflection and training into drama education, just as it now exists in many medical, law and business schools. [5]

Reimagining the role of ethics in the university could also transform the relationship between academic bureaucracy, trust, and society. [6] If we want academics to be able to focus more on serving society’s needs through the impact of their work, we cannot constrain them with endless red-tape and paperwork. Cutting down bureaucracy requires building up trust. Trust within an organisation is an expression of an embedded ethical culture; rules, over-regulation and regulation rigidity are proof of its absence.

Increasingly, heightened competition amongst academics for status and recognition is leading to overpromising about the impact of research, and overinflating reputation. [7] Unrealistic promises in grant applications, for example, reveal how self-interest can overrule integrity and conscience. We hold students and academics to strict rules about academic integrity; how do we educate our community about the wider principles at stake, enabling them to apply and indeed live these principles even when the regulations are more fluid, or even absent?

Rather than addressing these ethical issues piecemeal, one possible solution is to add ethics as a new dimension into the university rankings system. [8] It is widely recognised now that ‘academic dishonesty can and does lead to unethical decisions in the future business practice of university graduates’; an ethical assessment of universities really is, therefore, the missing dimension of the present rankings system.[9]

This raises intriguing challenges of measurement and evaluation – and also questions of how this might change the ethical landscape of the university, for better or worse.

‘… it is already apparent that technology is introducing us to worlds we may not be ready for. If we know nothing else, we should realize that the skills needed to govern our decision making in this brave new world of tomorrow will rely less on the accumulation of knowledge than on being able to both access and evaluate that knowledge’[10] in such a way that serves the eternal principles of a just and ethical society.

Let me touch on the third question – of living our ethical values — by giving you a recent personal anecdote:

I received an email from a graduate of our business school, who got his degree in July, and now works for a startup company in London.  For privacy reasons, I refer to him here as Mr S.  In his email he said, “I really appreciate your great help so I was able to get through all my hardships, and get my diploma and a dream job. …I will always remember how you had my back in a very urgent situation. I am very grateful for that!”

Let me explain what happened. Early this year, Mr S was about to suspend his final year of study: his father had fallen very ill back in his home country, and the family could not afford to continue paying the rest of his tuition fees.  By coincidence, he was also working on a Kindness Project – an online app to make help and support readily available to those in need.

After exhausting all other avenues of assistance, he approached me.  I was at once impressed with what he was trying to achieve through his entrepreneurial activity, and very sympathetic to his plight of his father’s ill health and the family’s financial difficulties.

This left me with a dilemma:  on the one hand, the professional advice I received was not to help this individual further, on the grounds of unfairness to other students with personal difficulties, and at the risk of opening the floodgates for others to directly plead to the Vice-Chancellor for help.  This is unquestionably sound advice, according to our normal practices.

On the other hand, I felt strongly about helping such a talented student, who was facing suspension or even termination of his studies. I thought — we ought to try and help everyone who is in great need, and live our values by treating the needs of our students as high priorities.

Yes, we don’t have enough resources to fully help everyone in need, but should we not at least try to do something to help?

Yes, there might be others who will then try to reach out to the VC for help, but so what?

This was the first personal appeal for help I had experienced, and I just could not brush it aside using the excuse of ‘the usual channels’. I recalled another of Confucius’ sayings: ‘To see what is right, and not to do it, is want of courage or of principle.’

In the end, through my assistance, Mr S obtained the help he needed from a combination of hardship funds, philanthropic support and his friends. He paid off his tuition, and….. he graduated with high distinction.

Imagine what would have happened if I had hidden behind the usual rules, and insisted he apply for help only from the limited hardship fund?  It would have certainly been less trouble for me. But what about the consequences for Mr S, the lives he might go on to affect, and our wider university community?

What I learned from this is that we need to tune in more to the human needs of our people, and not rigidly follow some guideline or procedure.  Our rules and processes need to be ethically sound and carefully observed, but not at the expense of our humanity.

Similarly, I believe some of our academic rules are so harsh and inflexible that they lose touch with basic human understanding and compassion. This approach serves no one well: neither individual, nor institution, nor community.

I would like to close with a quote from the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung: “An understanding heart is everything in a teacher, and cannot be esteemed highly enough. One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feeling”.

In conclusion, I would also like to add that to a scientist, ethics fundamentally means commitment to good science.  In life science and medical research, it is particularly important to ensure no harm to the subjects, both human and animals, and observe all established bioethics regulations and guidelines. Ensuring the highest rigor, statistical meaningfulness and data reproducibility are also critical to good science.

Of course in many fields of study, ethical focus requires balancing benefits against risks.

I hope these thoughts on the question of ethics and its relationship to the University, though limited, will help open up the debate and serve as food for further enquires.  I will definitely watch this space with great interest, and I wish you well in your future discussions in the Club!

Thank you for your attention.

[1] https://www.questia.com/read/101014318/the-conscience-of-the-campus-case-studies-in-moral

[2] https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/cambridge-response-facebook-data-scandal-inadequate

[3] https://www.surrey.ac.uk/features/creative-computers-and-future-patent-law

[4] https://timeshighereducation.com/news/lecturer-calls-universities-tackle-abuse-theatre

[5] Ibid

[6] https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/cut-bureaucracy-create-time-third-mission-says-eua-head

[7] Ibid

[8] Science and Engineering Ethics, ed. Bird and Spier, Vol 23 Number 1 2017 pp 65-80.

[9] Ibid

[10] https://www.questia.com/read/101014318/the-conscience-of-the-campus-case-studies-in-moral