Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The university as an 'ethics lab'

Jane Robbins has a gratifying piece about using universities themselves as ethics labs. In a professional ethics course, Robbins used UC Berkeley's recent decision to take DNA samples from their students as part of a 'first year experience program' as a case study.  Robbins had her students consider issues such as the possible conflicts of interest among actors within the university, the educational value of this program, student privacy, and the quality of the university's reasoning in defending the program. Robbins:

We tried to identify the university’s ethical stance, and to reason about what the ethical issues were. For example, did the university owe a duty of care to a vulnerable population -- 18-year-olds leaving home for the first time, a kind of in loco parentis -- or were these “adults” who had the maturity and knowledge as the well as the legal right to determine their choice themselves? This was one of many cases that provided the opportunity to discuss the difference between legality and morality. Did the decision represent what I call “structural immorality” -- misaligned organizational conditions or processes that put institutional integrity at risk? We examined the objections raised by external observers, and the language of Berkeley’s responses, for evidence and quality of reasoning. Berkeley did not fare well on this rhetorical analysis in its early defenses. 
No doubt this was a rewarding learning experience for students. Robbins notes that student interest only intensified as UC Berkeley modified the program in the face of criticism.

Robbins found a great example, one that students are likely to relate to and intuitively understand. I had a similar experience several years ago when I assigned students an essay in which they had to describe the university's policies concerning the privacy of student information. I asked students to investigate what rights they had with respect to their educational and enrollment records, their disciplinary and/or campus police records, their Internet usage and searches, their medical or psychological services records, etc. As I recall, students were sharply divided about the university's policies, with some thinking the university's policies were much too lenient in who could access this information and why, whereas others thought the university went overboard in trying to protect student privacy.

This suggests that universities themselves are excellent 'ethics labs,' chock full of interesting questions that students are likely to be motivated to think about. Here are some others I thought of:
  • information technology ethics: using university servers to download illegal material, create entrepreneurial content, etc.
  • sexual ethics: acquaintance rape, tolerance of gays and lesbians on campus, etc.
  • distributive justice: how should scarce campus goods (parking spaces, spots in prestigious academic majors, etc.) be distributed 
  • environmental ethics: the university's carbon footprint, etc.
  • academic ethics: plagiarism, research use of human subjects, etc.
That seems to me just to scratch the surface of how the university is itself an ethics lab. You could probably do a whole course just on these topics! (Maybe someday I shall...) Has anyone used their own institutions as sources of ethical questions in this way, and what were your experiences?

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