As UVa’s Leaders Equivocate, Professors Shine an Ethical Light

August 16, 2017

Chronicle photo by Julia Schmalz
A statue of Thomas Jefferson, who was well-known for the ambiguity of his attitude on slavery, looms over the campus grounds at the U. of Virginia.

I am teaching a summer course on virtue ethics in Pune, India, where my colleagues and students are astonished at what has happened in Charlottesville, Va., and are even more bewildered by President Trump’s moral inability to denounce white supremacists.

Here in India, comments about Mr. Trump immediately draw analogies to Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister who gives sanction to the so-called alt-right, coming as he does from the Hindu organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which argues for a Hindu state. You cannot hear Mr. Trump ‘s name invoked without a comparison to Mr. Modi, and vice-versa.

When it comes to universities’ reactions to the prime minister, however, there’s a different story. Faculty members might share privately with each other what they think, but they don’t share with their students nor with anyone publicly. They might share elsewhere at colleges I have not visited, as in New Delhi, but I have not heard those voices where I have taught.

India helps me see the distinctiveness of American colleges and universities; as a critic of them precisely for their lack of ethics, I know that my perspective from Pune places them in a much better light.

In April, several colleagues and I hosted a national conference on university ethics at Boston College, where I teach. While discussing a range of ethical issues that unfortunately, but routinely, arise at our universities — undereducated student athletes; unsustainable tuition; gender bias; sexual violence; cheating and plagiarism; the lack of accountability and transparency of tenured faculty, administrators, and trustees; binge drinking; conflicts around race, class and homophobia; and finally the treatment of adjunct faculty — we argued that these issues are specific "ethical interruptions."

We held that the contemporary academic culture, in its disinterest in professional ethics, effectively promotes or at least enables these harmful, compromising policies and practices. The college, the very place where ethics is taught, has a systemic problem with its own ethical accountability.

Despite that claim, I want to acknowledge an ethical awakening of sorts from the University of Virginia. Certainly by all accounts, the administration was neither vigilant nor prepared, informed nor prudent on the eve of the white-supremacist entry onto their campus. As noteworthy as was the failure to protect students, the administration’s subsequent comments were astonishingly bereft of any moral clarity.

However, others from the university were more instructive. For instance, after pursuing lessons in nonviolent resistance, university professors donned their academic robes for the morning protest for people "to see there are faculty not intimidated by white supremacy … We will stand up for basic values of equality, justice and civility." Their witness provided a moral backbone to their own students’ courageous resistance.

Subsequent to the weekend’s chaos, the university’s department of religious studies issued an open letter rejecting "the white supremacist ideology of intolerance and its practice of hateful speech, as well as the violence it engenders." Reflecting on their own political and religious diversity, the authors argued that they "stand united in our unanimous and unequivocal condemnation of those who promote hate, by way of violent speech and action — the white supremacists, the neo-Nazis, the neo-Fascists, the anti-Semites. And we regard this condemnation as the expression of a simple, moral truth rather than a political statement."

That statement along with their actions, and not the comments by the university’s president, Teresa A. Sullivan, offered moral insight in a time of profound equivocation.

But the moral wisdom was not limited to religious studies. Faculty and students across the university are working together to create greater accountability from its administration, while at the same time preparing themselves for subsequent supremacist incursions. What Cornel West said about Charlottesville by extension includes the university: It has become "ground zero for the struggle against white supremacy and the alt-right."

In solidarity with them, more than 350 professors of Christian ethics across the country published a statement that "unequivocally denounce[s] racist speech and actions against people of any race, religion, or national origin." Rejecting a broad number of issues from racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism to the so-called "America first" doctrine, they committed themselves "to the ongoing, hard work of building bridges and restoring wholeness where racist and xenophobic ideologies have brought brokenness and pain." Significantly, they signed as members of universities, all with their particular affiliation. Their call to action resonates with the University of Virginia faculty’s leadership.

As we faculty begin our preparations for the fall semester, Charlottesville is on all of our minds. We now know that what happened there might happen where we teach. But the university faculty has given us something to consider — more than has the president of that university, or of this country.

In a provocative essay in The Chronicle, Chad Wellmon, an associate professor of German studies at the University of Virginia, wrote, "Faculty members, myself included, need to acknowledge that most university leaders lack the language and moral imagination to confront evils such as white supremacy. They lack those things not because of who they are, but … because of what the modern research university has become."

I disagree. He offers an acquittal before there is adequate cause, giving a blank check of innocence for ineffectual presidential leadership. Let it be said, his president’s lack of a moral compass is not because she, or any university president, is the product of the modern research university.

College and university presidents have, as we saw time and again at our conference in April, assiduously avoided transparency and accountability on university matters. They have done that, in part, because faculty members have not raised with them the ethical issues that are urgent on our campuses.

Now the faculty at UVa has begun setting a universitywide moral agenda while demanding moral clarity from their president, at least so that their students are protected. That double set of demands strikes me as a worthy program for all of us in the days ahead.

James F. Keenan, S.J. is professor of theological ethics at Boston College and author of University Ethics: How Colleges Can Build and Benefit from a Culture of Ethics (Rowman and Littlefield, 2015).