Why I.. think students need to learn about ethics

September 5, 2003

Simon Lee Vice-chancellor Leeds Metropolitan University.

All students should learn about ethics while at university - and not just in the curriculum. There is much to learn at university from the ways in which individuals and institutions conduct themselves, especially when their challenges are not easy and leave a sense of unease however they are met.

Drawing attention to extracurricular opportunities that aim to promote ethical awareness helps students in private and public life as well as being of intrinsic value. Students and graduates will need character, a sense of self, a respect for others, a questioning style and an active approach to citizenship.

Louis Montrose, one of my predecessors as professor of jurisprudence at Queen's University, Belfast, illustrated this in an inspiring matriculation address some 50 years ago by referring to the stained-glass window in the entrance hall to Queen's: "The light shines through and makes visible symbols of the qualities that Plato in his Republic taught... courage, temperance, wisdom and justice." He noted that "the republic of learning derives so much from Plato's Republic that a modern judge could describe a university as a continuing Socratic dialogue".

Students will be matriculating as the investigation into David Kelly's death by a modern judge from Northern Ireland continues, an investigation that is being conducted as just such a Socratic dialogue. The Hutton inquiry has an outstanding website. Its transcripts, documents and eventual report could be studied to advantage in every university, both within the curriculum and by those who have responsibilities for institutions or elements within them, including student unions and sports clubs.

In their working and wider lives, students will be expected to have the judgement and stamina to apply faithfully and consistently such norms as an employer's code of conduct. Applying, or in conscience challenging, principles is a real test of character.

Allfirst, the Allied Irish Bank subsidiary in the US, which employed this decade's most infamous rogue trader, John Rusnak, was not oblivious to ethics. The company instructed employees to ask: "Am I being fair and honest? Are my intended actions legal? Will my action stand the test of time? How would my action look in the media and in public? Will my actions damage the reputation of the organisation? Is anyone's life, health or safety endangered by my action?"

These are good questions for us all, from the Hutton inquiry to higher education, but asking the right questions is not enough. Lax monitoring of the answers cost Allfirst dearly.

Universities can also help develop character as students can take on challenges there that expose them to the kind of pressures that help them apply, stand up for and challenge ethical principles. Justice Byron "Whizzer" White, who came first in his Yale Law School class while being a leading figure in the National Football League, was described as "both Clark Kent and Superman". He showed courage as a war hero and again as deputy attorney general, defending Martin Luther King and black students from an Alabama mob.

On being appointed to the Supreme Court, he identified the formative influence of college sport: "This business of performing under some kind of pressure and being willing to face up to requirements proves its utility in other activities of lifeI While athletics is a manufactured environment, there comes that moment when you stand face to face with doing. The moment - perhaps a fraction of a second - comes when you either do or don't."

He did. So will today's students, even at uneasy moments, if their university education is enlightened by the classic virtues.

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