The Autonomy of University Ethics Centers


[Georgia O'Keeffe, "Red Canna" (censored)]

[Georgia O’Keeffe, “Red Canna” (censored)]

Wednesday afternoon, Gordon Hull, associate professor of philosophy at University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and director of the school’s Center for Professional and Applied Ethics, put up a post on the Center’s webpage about the recent police shooting of an unarmed black man, Keith L. Scott (see the bottom of this post for that text).

The central message of the post was summed up in its conclusion:

I do not know exactly what happened last night, but even more than I hope that the CMPD will conduct a thorough and transparent investigation, I hope that something triggers white America to care about the deep structural racism that permeates so much of our society, and about the incalculable damage that racism does to real people, real families and real communities, every day.

The next morning Hull received an email from his dean, Nancy A. Gutierrez, ordering him to take the post off the site.

Hull complied, and then posted about what had happened at New APPS. There, he says:

We live in a world where University Ethics Center directors are not allowed to attempt to exercise moral leadership in the communities they serve, even as those universities claim to commit and recommit to their communities. And where Ethics Centers are forced to be strangely silent on moral issues like HB2 and police violence.

Hull tells me that Gutierrez affirmed his right to say whatever he wants about the case on his own personal website. But why not the website for the ethics center?

It is not unreasonable to think that it’s well within the responsibilities of the director of a university ethics center to comment publicly, in that professional capacity, on ethical matters of current concern. To speak in that professional capacity is not to speak on behalf of the university. Rather, it is to make use of the expertise for which one was hired to express one’s professional opinion on a subject well within the scope of concern of the institution. If a school is going to bother having an ethics center, ought it not respect the academic freedom of its employees to speak to the public about ethics?

It would be interesting to learn of similar controversies and clashes at ethics centers at other schools.

Generally, what does and what should the academic freedom of directors of university ethics centers (as well as others at such centers) protect?

Below is the text of the post Hull was asked to remove. You can also read it on New APPS.

hull-on-charlotte-shooting

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Joel Pust
Joel Pust
5 years ago
Bharath Vallabha
5 years ago

Agree with Hull’s views on structural racism, and admire his speaking out. But I find this sentence strange: “We live in a world where University Ethics Center directors are not allowed to attempt to exercise moral leadership in the communities they serve.”

How does one get to exercise moral leadership in a community? Partly by the community feeling that the person speaks for them, and is organically connected to their interests and life situations. But is this possible when the hiring of the director, or any faculty member, happens through norms internal to a global philosophy profession, and which aren’t about being organically connected to local communities?

An out-dated assumption in the background here: that a university is organically connected to its local community, so that a professor of morals speaks with moral authority to the community the university is in. But what happens when the criteria for professorial success is divorced from engagement in local community and is more concerned with what academics at other institutions think? Then being an ethics professor doesn’t mean one is a moral leader in the community.Report

Johnny_Thunder
Johnny_Thunder
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
5 years ago

“I find this sentence strange: “We live in a world where University Ethics Center directors are not allowed to attempt to exercise moral leadership in the communities they serve.”

How does one get to exercise moral leadership in a community? Partly by the community feeling that the person speaks for them, and is organically connected to their interests and life situations”

I don’t think that being so regarded by a community is necessary for the kind of leadership Hull is or should be talking about. Academics are able to provide a distinctively intellectual kind of leadership–to develop ideas and arguments that are, when all goes well, useful to society. We can do that without communities feeling as if we speak for them. This is because communities contain diverse parts, some of which will be open to new, even completely alien ideas and some of which will be able to figure out how to effectively articulate these ideas for the rest of the community, or how to come up with a concrete plan of action based on the new idea.

None of this is to not say that academia has intellectual “authority” or a monopoly on new ideas, or that the intellectual influence should only go in one direction.Report

Derek Bowman
Reply to  Johnny_Thunder
5 years ago

Hull is as much an intellectual expert when he posts on NewApps as he is when he posts at his University Ethics Center’s blog. So what is – or should be – special about the University as an outlet for this kind of attempt at intellectual/moral leadership?

Bharath’s analysis offers one answer: we presume (wrongly) that the university has a special role in representing the community. What are the alternative answers?Report

Alex Howe
Reply to  Derek Bowman
5 years ago

“So what is – or should be – special about the University as an outlet for this kind of attempt at intellectual/moral leadership?”

I feel like I’ve gotten a bit turned around by Bharath’s reframing of the question at hand by claiming that Hull is assuming some special representative function served by universities. I don’t mean to suggest that important distinctions and considerations are not being raised in this discussion, but…It’s an ethics center at a university, a place that serves to generate knowledge and harbor free inquiry, and Hull is the head of that ethics center. While that consideration doesn’t decide the matter in favor of Hull’s position, it does suggest to me that Bharath and you may be putting the burden of proof in the wrong place. I’m left wondering what exactly is *wrong* with Hull’s original post? On what legitimate grounds do we think Hull’s post was taken down?Report

Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  Johnny_Thunder
5 years ago

Academics do provide intellectual leadership re new ideas. But when the new ideas concern politically fraught issues, in order for the community to listen those new ideas, there has to be trust and an organic connection between the professor and the community that the professor is thinking about the ideas in a morally good way.

This organic connection is precisely what has gotten disconnected between many conservatives in America and academics. These cultural conservatives are clearly saying, “We don’t trust you professors, and so we don’t trust your ideas”. To respond by saying that trust and an organic connection are irrelevant because what matters is simply intellectual rigor (akin to a math proof) sounds, to my mind, to try to lead by theft instead of through honest toil.

If the Dean lets Hull post qua Ethics center director, then the Dean is agreeing that the director’s ethical expertise gives the director special qualifications to say there is structural racism in America. Now, of course there is structural racism. But does knowing that require some special ethical expertise one gains through a PhD or being a director of an ethics center? I doubt it. No more than that people realized slavery is wrong because ethics professors with special insight said so.

Academic philosophy in America after Dewey gave up on the community organizing model of philosophy. Giving that up is the legacy of Quine, Rawls, Nozick and others – qua philosophers they focused more on ideas than on building communal inter-subjectivity. No wonder then that in many communities there is no organic connection to academic philosophers.Report

Johnny_Thunder
Johnny_Thunder
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
5 years ago

“when the new ideas concern politically fraught issues, in order for the community to listen those new ideas, there has to be trust and an organic connection between the professor and the community that the professor is thinking about the ideas in a morally good way.”

Some kind of connection is certainly required. But it seems to me that trusting that scholars are working in good faith, that the community of inquiry is open to dissent, etc. will generally suffice. For example, I think conservatives who are discussing the issues in good faith could be persuaded of the conclusions of scientists and philosophers working on climate change even if those scientists and philosophers don’t speak for them and were hired according to professional norms that are disconnected from the conservatives’ communities. This might require that the ideas get transmitted from the university to the man in the street through several steps (e.g., conservative commentators, then preachers, then…). So it will require relationships with other institutions from the community, like the media. But, again, not the speaking for relation, or being connected to people’s life experiences.

It may be that the kind of organic connection you’re talking about (which involves representation and hiring norms that are more reflective of the community) would make communities *more* open to the ideas of academic philosophers. But I think this is a matter of degree. And there would of course be a tradeoff if we took some of the emphasis away from intellectual abilities and accomplishments in hiring decisions.Report

Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
5 years ago

Agree with much of what you say.

In case of teaching evolution, it’s fine if biology professor is not organically connected to community (even if some community members think otherwise). Am inclined to say the same for phil of physics, logic, parts of phil mind, even metaethics. This is because intellectual leadership in these subjects is not moral leadership.

But it is a very fine issue if the director of a center for applied ethics can only aim for intellectual leadership, or the more robust moral leadership. If moral leadership, then there has to be community backing (such as an outcry from community to let the director post on the center webpage). I imagine the Dean acted as he did because he thinks the applied ethics center provides only intellectual leadership, and cannot lay claim to moral leadership. Which raises the bigger question: can a philosophy professor qua professor lay claim to moral leadership? And if not, what are the implications of that?Report

Johnny_Thunder
Johnny_Thunder
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
5 years ago

I think your distinction between intellectual and moral leadership is a useful one. I think I agree that universities, as currently constituted, are not well equipped to provide moral as oppose to intellectual leadership. Where we might disagree is on whether they should aim to do so.

With your distinction in mind now, I suspect that Hull was talking about moral leadership.Report

Gordon
Gordon
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
5 years ago

That’s a really nicely put question. I used the phrase “moral leadership,” and probably meant it… but let’s assume I was wrong, and that my post is an example of intellectual, but not moral leadership (for the kinds of reasons articulated above: the idea that universities are organically connected to their communities isn’t really true, and so “moral leadership” is an odd term, given that faculty will always be, to an extent, outsiders). Would a post exercising intellectual leadership in my area of expertise be even more appropriate, along the climate scientist model?

The only other thing I’ll add – and I appreciate the conversation here – is that I think universities are sending very strange and mixed signals, or at least mine is. If a TV station calls with an ethical question about some local issue, they forward it to me. Presumably that’s “intellectual leadership.” If they want to know what a climate scientist thinks, I assume they call somebody who works on that. And that kind of media and community engagement is heavily encouraged. Also, today, a UNC Charlotte Professor appeared on NPR’s Here and Now (http://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2016/09/23/charlotte-inequality-protests), talking about the shooting, and racism in the South, and it was advertised on a university-sponsored Twitter feed. These distinctions are getting pretty subtle, and I say that as a philosophy professor who works on legal topics…Report

Bharath Vallabha
5 years ago

Gordon, I think there is no such thing as only intellectual leadership on a topic like systemic racism. Can there be only intellectual leadership on the question, “Is lynching wrong?” I don’t think so. Some topics are so wrong that the most basic response they call out for is a moral response. So I admire you aiming to have a moral response to systemic racism.

It is a separate question whether universities are set up for professors qua professors to have such moral responses. Right now they are not. They are set up more to collaborate, or compete, with other universities than to dig deep into the place where the university is – which erodes the moral voice of universities.

So can professors have a moral voice? When they are speaking of society at large, like any other citizen, no. But they can speak morally qua professor, with greater authority than a non-academic, about systemic wrongs in their workplace, in the universities themselves. That’s where professors need to focus. And if the public sees that the professors are doing a good job of morally affecting change in universities, then that might give a broader moral voice to professors.

This seems to be why universities are sending mixed messages. They can’t make up their mind on whether they are in a position to lead society, or if that would be hypocritical when all the same social issues apply in the universities themselves.Report

Johnny_Thunder
Johnny_Thunder
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
5 years ago

“I think there is no such thing as only intellectual leadership on a topic like systemic racism. Can there be only intellectual leadership on the question, “Is lynching wrong?””

Now I’m starting to wonder if the notion of “intellectual leadership” is as clear and useful as I thought it was yesterday… There are of course many questions concerning systemic racism that we need to research in a conventionally academic way–we need to follow the data and the logic (whether these be empirical or philosophical). I take this to be different from what you’re calling a “moral response”–that sounds like activism, exhortation, etc., though I certainly could be misunderstanding you. Maybe the people doing this kind of academic research are providing “intellectual leadership”, but maybe that phrase isn’t very useful in the final analysis.

Some of the questions that relate to systemic racism that I think merit purely intellectual/academic analysis include: what exactly is (systemic) racism? What are the causes of disproportionate incarceration and the achievement and income gaps? Is affirmative action just? What kind of affirmative action? And the same regarding reparations, sentencing, strategies for bringing about social change, and so on. Many scholars provide intellectual leadership on these issues. For example, Charles Mills, Tommie Shelby, Jorge Garcia, Naomi Zack, Michelle Alexander, Glenn Loury, John McWhorter, Roland Fryer, Anthony Greenwald, Mahzarin Banaji, and many more. Some of these thinkers provide moral leadership as well, but in my view, their intellectual/academic contributions are independent of these in that the two don’t stand or fall together. To give just one example: Mills’s conception of the racial contract is intended as an empirically explanatory hypothesis concerning international racism. The success conditions for such a hypothesis are different from those of a public speech at a rally or an op-ed.

We all know that the American practicing of lynching was hideously wrong and racist. The questions I mentioned above are not so straightforward (that’s why we need scholars like those I mentioned).Report

Johnny_Thunder
Johnny_Thunder
Reply to  Johnny_Thunder
5 years ago

Small, hopefully unnecessary clarification: when I say that systemic racism merits purely intellectual analysis, I mean that it merits *some* analysis that is purely intellectual; I don’t mean that *the* consideration that it merits is purely intellectual.

This kind of intellectual analysis is what universities are best suited to provide.Report

Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  Johnny_Thunder
5 years ago

I agree with mainly intellectual inquiry of Mills, Zack and others you mention. I should have been clearer. Their inquiry also has a moral dimension, but it also allows for constructive disagreement, refining of views, etc. What I meant was: in a context where the moral dimension is extremely salient (like the context in which Hull was writing), it is the moral dimension of the intellectual inquiry into systemic racism which will jump out. Then it can seem like one is leveraging the intellectual leadership into moral leadership. I am questioning that transition.

One can be an intellectual leader about a topic (racism, climate change, etc.), and that intellectual work can be helpful for moral discussions, and still the intellectual leader might not be a moral leader. So in contexts where the moral dimension is extremely salient, it is unclear in what the intellectual leader can speak up – given that the context will make them seem like they are trying to be a moral leader. So, the expertise academics again might come at the cost of being able to take on a different role in the community qua academic.Report

Johnny_Thunder
Johnny_Thunder
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
5 years ago

Intellectual leadership can’t be all things to all people and, like anything else, comes with its own perils. But the question is whether ethics centers should be autonomous from bureaucrats and managers. I think these centers’ capacity for intellectual leadership secures that. We want our best researchers to be able to inquire and to share their results without interference from university bureaucrats and managers (who are answerable to governing bodies who have various agendas). Maybe when these researchers share their results they will sometimes wrongly presume to be moral leaders or representatives of the people. Maybe sometimes they will be wrongly interpreted as such by some people. Those seem to me to be very small prices to pay for the benefits I just mentioned. So I just do see any real problem posed by academics’ general lack of moral leadership.Report

Johnny_Thunder
Johnny_Thunder
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
5 years ago

*just _don’t_ see any real problem posed by academics’ general lack of moral leadership…Report

Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
5 years ago

So we seem to agree that the director of an ethics center, given the situation of academia in society, won’t be able to provide moral leadership qua director.

But can the director provide intellectual leadership which should be free of the Dean’s pressures? This is not clear to me either. Now the idea is that the director is teaching the public (passing on intellectual nuggets), and even if a part of the public disagrees, the Dean should side with the professor over the public. But is what the professor “teaching” in the blog post his particular view in the intellectual debate, or some broad consensus (doesn’t have to 100%) among ethicists? If just his view, then it seems he is using his platform to spread ideas which have not been vetted in the academy. And if it is supposed to be based on a broad consensus, would be great to see such consensus first among ethicists.

Suppose a director for a center for philosophy of religion wrote, as part of center’s blog, “It’s settled: there is no God”. Should the public respond by saying, “Great, the professors have figured it out for us?” I think rightly they might say, “This is not physics or math, or anthropology: we are not just going to take your word for it. We want to think for ourselves.” Then should the Dean allow the director to write that, implying that the university stands behind what its philosophy of religion center has determined? I can see the Dean not allowing that.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

This is a hard one. To defend the autonomy of the Ethics Center is easy in cases like this where we overwhelmingly agree with what is being said. But if Ethics Centers are autonomous, that also allows them to say things we disagree with, or even find abhorrent. If instead of urging that we combat racism, the Ethics Center had urged that we limit immigration by race or religion, should that be allowed?Report

the Onion Man
the Onion Man
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

“If instead of urging that we combat racism, the Ethics Center had urged that we limit immigration by race or religion, should that be allowed?”

No, because The Narrative must be preserved at all costs. Four legs good, two legs bad, etc.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
5 years ago

Who is decide what political opinions are defensible and which are not, except where the political views rely on established non-moral facts? Should the university be given power to decide which political views are defensible and ok for the ethics center to endorse? Should the APA decide?

Political opinions generally rest at least party on moral intuition and people’s moral intuitions vary widely.Report

Gordon
Gordon
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

I agree there’s a need to avoid false equivalencies. I am quite sure there are people who disagree with what I said. But if my job is to offer expert opinion, and I substantiate it (particularly the facts on which it was based, which I was very careful to do), then that sets up a space for a reasonable disagreement. Those are healthy, and if I generate a reasonable conversation, then I’ve done something worth doing. On the other hand, no actual expert says that we should limit immigration by race or religion, and if they did, the empirical evidence is overwhelmingly against them, which means they’d have to actually defend (not just say) that some religions are more valid in civil society than others, in a country that supposedly does not preference one religion over others in civil society, on the basis of something other than empirical evidence.

All of that said, there’s a lot of literature that says that part of our problem as a society is generated by the media’s push (CNN is the worst or maybe the initial offender, apparently, though I don’t follow this literature in any detail) to treat anything where people can articulate two opposing views as somehow presenting two equivalently legitimate views (Exhibit A: climate change). In my gen-ed students, anyway, it tends to generate a cynicism about all views, and a cheap relativism, with meaningless words like “opinion” and “bias” tossed around a lot. It’s very hard to teach the point that some views are actually more worth holding than others, and that there are evidentiary and argumentative standards that we can think about in evaluating those views.

This isn’t “political correctness” – this is what people like John Stuart Mill say.Report

David
5 years ago

Well, in many “technical” aspects, I doubt this is all that out of the ordinary. Here in South Carolina, for example, as state employees we are forbidden from using university resources to publicly express our personal opinions — i.e., writing op-eds or to government representatives. (Yes, this even means I cannot send an e-mail to my elected representatives from my university-supplied computer.) Likewise, when we write such things it should be clear that we are not expressing the university’s position, but rather our own — as citizens.
So the confusion, or ambiguity, might center on whether a director / moderator / etc. is communicating personal opinion or the center’s official position. Given the use of the center’s website, it is easy to see how someone could take this as the center’s official position. In expressing the center’s official position — one I hope would be informed by more than merely the director’s own opinion — it seems there should be academic freedom to pursue enquiry and report findings autonomously. Equally obvious (to me) is that the center’s website is not the appropriate forum for a director expressing her or his personal opinion. For example, I am authorized to edit our department’s official web-page, but I shouldn’t use it for my own take on issues — even philosophical ones.
Also, much of this might be cleared up with appropriate wording in terms of a center’s mission, a director’s duties, etc. If part of the mission is to comment on the ethical aspects of social situations such as this, then it seems fine. Autonomy might also be impacted by a center’s funding. If a center is merely “housed” at a university but funded autonomously, then we would expect the center’s autonomy to be enhanced. (I suspect many such centers are funded by donor’s to university foundations, thus strengthening university control and diminishing autonomy.) Similarly, communication-autonomy might be enhanced by housing the center’s website on non-university servers. While a university might reasonably have “standing” to control what appears to be endorsed public messages housed on their own servers, this would be much more tenuous on outside servers. Likewise, posting to a center’s facebook account would make it equally difficult for the university to claim they have a legitimate role in controlling those public messages.
Had an ethics center director called together the center’s affiliated scholars, developed an official statement, and released that, they would probably be on stronger footing. They probably should also clearly state exactly who is communicating and in what capacity.
These are all technical & legalistic concerns. In the end, the university should, perhaps, be reminded of Confucius’ guidance: Don’t use a cannon to kill a mosquito.Report