Blog confidential: An ethical dilemma

Each week, Dr Margot Feelbetter poses a dilemma and offers advice for readers to respond to online

February 25, 2010

This week: An ethical dilemma

I have become increasingly concerned about my university's relationship with China. I have been a long-term critic of the country's human rights record, but in the past few years I have been able to avoid confronting my institution's engagement with the regime. Perhaps this was cowardly of me, but I justified my head-in-the-sand attitude with the thought that I had to keep a roof over my family's heads and pay the bills. However, in the past six months the problem has become unavoidable.

My department has been negotiating with officials in Beijing about inviting a large number of Chinese students to our university, and for several of our teaching staff to go to China for at least two months to support the development of postgraduate qualifications and mentor their staff on new courses. I feared this would happen, but always hoped - perhaps naively - that I could avoid getting involved.

Unfortunately, I have become a victim of my own success. Because of my developing credibility in my field of study, the Chinese have asked for me by name to come and teach. I fear that this is the thin end of the wedge. I know that a great deal of pressure will be heaped on me by management to conform and accept the invitation.

I know that the arrangement is worth a great deal to the university, but this profit issue is getting out of hand. Has the academy become a business, pure and simple? Do we know only the cost of everything and the value of nothing?

In my university's drive for ever greater profits, it has colluded unethically with a dangerous regime and has disregarded China's appalling human rights record. Hand on heart, I cannot take much more of this.

I have about 15 years to go before I retire and it would be hard for me to relocate to another university. I want to take a stand and refuse to go, but I presume that I would be disciplined for doing so. Any suggestions?

You are to be congratulated on your ethical stance, but are you living in the real world? You must realise that universities' public funding is contracting. Private income is taking up the slack, with all the contradictions that go with it.

Are your ethics worth more than your monthly wage? It seems to me that you are ethical only when it suits you. The system is changing and there are going to be all sorts of challenges to your conscience. Unless you have a hefty research grant for a few years, which would make you relatively untouchable, you will have to go or face the consequences.

Universities want conformists and staff who show total commitment: that's business and the way the academy is going. It is unpalatable in many ways, but that's the reality.

If you refuse to go, the university's reaction will depend on several factors - your perceived value, your reputation, the negative publicity disciplinary action may generate, your relationship with senior staff and their willingness to compromise.

Don't expect an easy ride, but do expect more dilemmas based on profit and loss. Fifteen years is a long time to resist.

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