'Hippocratic' oath for academy could well do harm, swears scholar

Proposed vows are said to be status anxiety-driven and inimical to free thought. Jack Grove reports

September 1, 2011

A call for the equivalent of a Hippocratic oath for academics stems from a misguided desire to define them as professionals, a scholar has claimed.

In a paper published in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, Peodair Leihy of the University of Melbourne argues that proposals for a code of conduct arise from a pervading “status anxiety” among academics.

He says that too many scholars believe they should be considered professionals, akin to doctors or lawyers, and command the same societal standing.

Mr Leihy, a doctoral candidate at Melbourne’s Centre for the Study of Higher Education, argues that scholars do not form a profession and generally view their employment as a calling or vocation, which is unsuited to prescriptive ethical codes.

He believes the debate has been sparked by the creation of codes, such as the managerial oath for business consultants at Harvard Business School, drawn up for new professions keen to heighten their standing for self-serving commercial reasons.

“Academics are already part of a community - but not a ‘professional’ one that needs to circle its wagons to defend its integrity like aspiring professions,” Mr Leihy writes.

The article is written in response to a paper published last year in the same journal by Geoff Sharrock, programme director of the master of tertiary education management at Melbourne, which proposed “10 commandments” for scholars and managers.

Dr Sharrock’s rules are: dare to know; teach well; be public-spirited; be responsible; be transparent; be collegial and be respectful; be open-minded; be impartial; and be scrupulous.

Mr Leihy writes: “The spectre of academic oaths preys on a scholarly psyche so concerned with its freedom.”

Referencing the “often unpleasant history of oaths” within universities, Mr Leihy notes the requirement for UK universities to affirm allegiance to the monarchy and the Church of England until 1871.

Scholars’ unease with such oaths were a factor in the founding of University College London in 1826.

He also highlights the oaths for academics created by US institutions in the wake of Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist hunts in the 1950s.

Warning that any oath would merely “inspire lip service and a feeling of unfairness from its takers”, he concludes: “It is difficult to imagine anything that looks and sounds quite so inimical to free thought and freedom of expression as an oath.”

Mr Leihy also expresses doubts about whether university management should be cast as a profession. However, he recognises that many university managers are considered professionals and could be governed by a code of conduct.

In a reply to Mr Leihy, also published in the journal, Dr Sharrock disagrees that the idea that a code or oath for academia is “incendiary” and says it is important to establish a universal code to “define and regulate (the sector’s) practices”.

“As a self-declared force for good in the world, scholars often claim moral authority by taking public stands on various matters of principle,” he writes.

“But it is hard to do this credibly if, so far as the public can tell, you don’t appear to have any.”

Dr Sharrock adds that his ‘Hippocratic oaths’ were “not (designed) to impose a new set of regulations on scholars, but to inform and articulate a much less certain and less widely accepted set of ‘rules of the game’ for university managers”, and to avoid clashes between the two groups.

jack.grove@tsleducation.com.

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