Be prepared to respond to moral dilemmas

Universities must be clear about their ethics to avoid tripping up on the precarious path from principle to guidance

October 4, 2018
Donald Trump on the phone
Source: Getty

When Donald Trump was first given the keys to the Oval Office in January 2017, he made a series of phone calls to other world leaders. Much to everyone’s surprise, what Trump described as his “worst call by far” was with Australia’s then prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull.

Turnbull is a conservative, but social media was rife with speculation that Trump had assumed otherwise, having read in his briefing notes that Turnbull was leader of the Liberal Party of Australia.

The theory chimed with the sense that the US president’s knowledge of global politics is rather less than encyclopedic. It also underlines what a difference an ocean can make when it comes to the meaning of “liberal”.

The American understanding of “liberal” as left wing makes the venerable phrase “the liberal university” a particularly troublesome one. Although its coiners meant it to denote enquiry free of religious or political shackles, it is also in tune with the American right’s common perception of universities and academics as political opponents. Trump himself is not slow to wade in on Twitter when the latest furore blows up over a university’s (or its students’) supposed denial of a platform to a right-wing speaker.

A similar perception has arisen in the UK, especially over Brexit. Only last week, the Brexiteer politician Kate Hoey blamed academics for “indoctrinating” students into supporting remain (although the fact that she is a Labour MP underlines that the left-right split over the merits of EU membership is by no means a neat one).

University leaders are understandably wary of making public statements that suggest favour for one political party over another. Apart from anything else, even US private universities rely on political favour for their research funding – not to mention their tax-exempt status. But politics in a broader sense is impossible to escape.

One obvious example is admissions. The merits of broadening participation are widely agreed upon, but the means of achieving it are not. The left’s affirmative action is the right’s social engineering, and there is little prospect of hitting upon a policy that keeps both camps equally happy.

Another prickly admissions case is reported in our news pages this week. It concerns the admission by the London School of Economics of Peter Cvjetanovic, a prominent participant in the far-right protests in Charlottesville, Virginia a year ago that set off a chain of events ending with the killing of a counter-demonstrator.

Should he have been admitted? One way to approach that question might be to ask what the English brand of liberalism would prescribe (albeit that the LSE’s roots lie in democratic socialism). The classic English liberal, John Stuart Mill, framed it in terms of the so-called harm principle: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

Might it similarly be argued that the freedom of a qualified student to attend a university should only be curtailed to prevent harm to others?

The difficulty comes, though, in defining what harm is – and who gets to decide. Clearly hate speech should not be permitted, but is there harm merely in obliging students to study and live alongside someone whose views are likely to challenge their own? Advocates of safe spaces might well argue that there is.

Another tricky case is flagged up in our opinion section. It concerns a US academic who refused to write a letter of recommendation for a student who wanted to study in Israel because of his objections to the country’s treatment of Palestinians.

Would the English liberal argument be that academics should be allowed to conduct themselves as they see fit except where it harms students? But, again, what level of harm counts? And shouldn’t students also be allowed to study where they want, except when it harms others?

As philosophers all know, the path from abstract principle to concrete guidance is laced with tripwires. And, as university leaders know, principle is one thing and pragmatism is something else. Indeed, modern Western universities are routinely accused of being “neoliberal”, in the sense of being concerned above all with their financial bottom lines. If that is true, harm to institutional reputations is likely to figure highly in leaders’ thinking.

But it is clear that in a frenzied political climate, such contentious cases will continue to attract great publicity. And while the pragmatic path might often be clearer than the principled one, surely universities should be ready with morally serious answers that at least attempt to draw on substantive values.

Those values and principles will inevitably sit more easily with some party political positions than others. But if leadership means more than attending meetings and functions, it surely involves making a few big calls – even if that risks the president’s hanging up on you.

paul.jump@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Lessons in morality

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