Wield that sword of truth with an iron will

February 18, 2005

When lies are the norm, academic integrity is bunk, argues Bob Brecher

As our universities busily reinvent themselves as second-rate businesses whose function is to supply so-called graduates (at their own expense) to serve the purported needs of the economy, so we are all having to deal with the various paraphernalia of the second-rate business scene.

It's something we're all familiar with, and a lot of it is depressing, a lot bathetic and some of it just straightforward farce. But worst of all is surely the lying that so often goes with it, because it's so corrosive, not just of what a university is supposed to be, but of the integrity of all those involved in university life - from academics and administrators to students and support staff.

In all too many universities, honesty is becoming conspicuous by its absence, and just where it is needed most. Fiddling the pass rate; accepting shoddy work; claiming academic authorship of "articles" written in-house by private companies - these are hardly micro-level rarities. And so at the macro level, when dumbing down is dressed up as rising standards, or crass competition aimed at ensuring a compliant discipline portrayed as assessment of the quality of research, then intellectual insult is added to political, cultural and material injury.

The realities of the neoliberal dispensation are bad enough, but as soon as they start to be disguised or denied, then our working lives are corroded and corrupted. It isn't long before lying to force something unpopular through the committee structure, or to satisfy some government-imposed edict, starts to replace open and honest argument as the modus operandi of the institution. Of course, this is hardly a deformation peculiar to academe: you only have to think of today's political scene. But in universities, deception is particularly damaging. For when lying comes to permeate how a university is run, then it isn't long before that is reflected in the substance of its work, in its teaching and its research.

And so the vicious cycle continues until the university is destroyed - not by the Government, philistinism or public apathy, but by its own cowardice.

So what should we do when managers, colleagues or anyone else resorts to lying, whether by choice or because lying seems to be the only "practical" option? In this, as in so many other instances, we surely need to start by recognising deception for what it is and then speak out. We might not win in the row that's likely to ensue. Of course no one likes to be told that they're lying. But if we don't at least challenge the latest lie, regardless of whose interests it serves, we undermine ourselves as academics and, with that, the very idea of a university.

Even if reasoned argument is thought by some to be a luxury we can't afford (or even something just quaintly nostalgic) in today's "real" world, others might just come on board and remember what a university is supposed to be about. If we do refuse to go along with the latest desperate pretence, we might even start to make a worthwhile difference. After all, nothing is inevitable. Just as a lie here leads to another there, so one refusal to lie - whether about the quality of a student's work or the reasons for closing down an "uneconomic" department - might lead to another. Of course, there will be genuine disagreements about these sorts of things: what sort of "academic community" would it be where these were absent? But the point is to resolve disagreements, openly and honestly. And who knows? Eventually the easy option of lying, whether to one's "customers", employees or paymasters, might come to be seen for what it is: a betrayal of our raison d'etre . At any rate, as John Stuart Mill observed in another context, it's surely better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.

Bob Brecher is reader in moral philosophy, Brighton University.

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