Wednesday, September 23, 2009

ethical responsibility and faculty work

Before my Professional Ethics class on Monday, I found a presentation by an ethicist named Michael Davis about engineers’ ethical responsibilities in large organizations. One claim Davis made had to do with the relevance of professional ethics in large organizations. To paraphrase: large organizations exist to do large tasks. They do them by dividing them into smaller tasks and assigning them to a series of people. The more thoroughly ‘bureaucratized’ one’s work is, the less one can know about how it fits into the whole task, how it affects other people, or how one’s work affects other members of the organization.

This is entirely true of large corporations, and is a fundamental reason they exist. They limit the ethical and legal liability of individuals by spreading it throughout the organization. Some nameable engineer at Ford is less individually responsibly for deaths and injuries caused by Explorer roll-over accidents and exploding tires, because that responsibility is spread out.

Davis takes this to its logical conclusion: at a certain level of bureaucratization of tasks, professional ethics becomes impossible to retain, because the modicum of responsibility accorded each individual becomes too small to permit professional ethical standards to remain relevant.

For example, if a for-profit university were to divide up the tasks involved in teaching a class to the point where one person designed the course, someone else was responsible for ‘managing’ the course, another person ‘delivered’ the course, yet someone else graded assignments, etc., at a certain point it would be impossible for any of these people to hang on to the ethical obligations of faculty – in effect, none of them would even be faculty.

The next day, at the first Academic Senate meeting for the year, there was a presentation on the role of the academic senate and of “shared governance” in the university – faculty’s democratic right and ethical responsibility to develop academic policies. This was presented by way of an orientation for new senators, but this year the particular spin on it emphasized the faculty’s responsibility more than I recall in years past (or perhaps it was on my mind already).

The idea is that faculty, as experts in their fields and as experts in the direction of university education, have the primary responsibility for all academic and academic personnel matters affecting the university. This is essentially a claim to a professional “monopoly on service” and “self-regulation” which are basic elements to any profession’s legitimacy.

What happens, I thought, when the bureaucratic order of the university divides faculty work up into segments small enough that no one can occupy a position to take that responsibility? What becomes of the legitimacy of the claim to professional status? What becomes of the idea of ethics as applied to what employees of universities do?

So began my present inquiry into the current state of professional ethics of college faculty. I think it is vitally important to consider that the majority of college faculty in the US are part-time, and that upwards of 75% lack the security and professional autonomy afforded by tenure. In my mind, as a basic approach to the matter, these facts must make a difference in how we understand the condition of ethical responsibility of faculty. Someone in a position which precludes ethical responsibility may still have it, but exercising it or insisting upon it in those conditions makes very little practical sense, I should think.

Back to teh Interwebs, to find material on professional ethics and academia. I found that the American Association of Colleges and Universities has published this year a report on “The Future of the Professoriate.” According to a brief article in Inside Higher Ed by one of the authors of the report, the report claims that the difficult employment and work situation of academics, and the erosion of tenure, are due to a lack of understanding of and commitment to the social contract faculty have with the public. I haven’t read the report itself yet, but one of its two authors has written that the only way to restore tenure, and tenure-track faculty, is for faculty to embrace that they have a commitment to the public good, and to clarify that commitment to the public at large. The failure of faculty to do so has led to the economic conditions (withdrawal of support for public institutions being the main factor) that have undermined tenure.

Initially, this strikes me as the tail wagging the dog. I will look forward to seeing what evidence there is that faculty do not understand their work as a public service, or bound by a social contract. In any case, I have to confess that this interpretation strikes me as dubious to begin with. Few faculty I’ve ever come across, and fewer still of the majority-underclass part-time contingently serving faculty who are my closest colleagues, have seemed unaware or uncommitted to their ethical commitments to the public. In fact, in my experience, it has been those outside of academia, and some executive administrators, who have expressed this doubt and misunderstanding – not the faculty themselves.

And for the most part, also not the students we serve. Now there’s a quandary for you: If, by and large, students believe their faculty are strongly committed to serve them (their clients), and have clear and active ethical commitments to their professions, then wherefrom does the perception arise that faculty have failed in this? Could it be an artifact of the bizarre media image of college faculty as intellectual oppressors and un-fire-able political wackos? Could it be a prejudgment of persons with their own agendas, for instance against public funding of higher education? Or who demand that universities operate on the same autocratic, hierarchical principles as some of the worst-run corporations, since for some reason these are models of “success”?

I’ll be working on this a bit and posting some stuff in the coming weeks.

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