The Ethical Responsibilities of Universities

June 2018

The contemporary political moment, in which facts are mutable and science is ignored, raises questions about the ethical responsibility of universities.  As guardians of expertise, should universities take a political stands on the side of truth?  What would that mean in practice?  Other contemporary developments also place new ethical demands on universities: intensified globalization, improvements in information technology, greater integration of academic sciences with industry, reduction of state management and support in favor of market strategies for growth and survival, and pressures to admit a more diverse student body, all pose problems and opportunities with ethical implications.  However, there has been little scholarship or organizational discussion to guide universities in this changed context. This workshop will address this vacuum. We will examine the conditions of contemporary society to understand how universities’ roles and responsibilities are changing and look back to older scholarship and organizational norms to understand how the purposes and moral responsibilities of universities have been understood in the past.  Bringing the past and present in conversation, we will seek to articulate the contemporary roles of universities and their corresponding moral obligations.  We will ask how ethical principles can guide the actions of university governing bodies, institutional leaders, and faculty and consider how institutional diversity and local context should shape the implementation of ethical principles.  We will examine “hot spots,” such as fossil fuel divestment, to see if these moral principles provide guidance in these contentious debates.  Finally, we hope to discuss the “moral opportunities” of universities, areas in which universities are not obligated to act, but by virtue of their special capacities, they may be able to make important moral contributions to the world.

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