ERIC Identifier: ED350970
Publication Date: 1992-07-00
Author: Wilcox, John R. - Ebbs, Susan L.
Clearinghouse on Higher Education Washington DC.| George Washington
Univ. Washington DC. School of Education and Human Development.
The Leadership Compass. Values and Ethics in Higher Education.
Colleges and universities are custodians of knowledge. Because the possession of knowledge is the source of power, understood here as the ability to influence decisions in contemporary society, these institutions are also the gateway to power, significantly affecting the quality of economic and social life throughout the world. Thus, insofar as colleges and universities create and disseminate knowledge within a particular society, they are institutions with moral responsibilities to maintain the well-being of that society.
WHY IS THE COLLEGIATE ETHOS SO IMPORTANT TO VALUES AND ETHICS
IN HIGHER EDUCATION?
The role of the higher education professional should be
looked at by means of ethical analysis more broadly conceived than scrutinizing
campus ethical dilemmas under the microscope of ethical theories. Of cardinal
importance is the impact of ethos--customs, practices, and institutional
contexts--on the quality of life and on the ability to sustain a connected view
of things characterized by loyalty, commitment, and love (Kuh and Whitt 1988;
Palmer 1987). With a focus on the ethos of higher education, any normative
discussion of ethics--and of values--takes place within the broader contexts of
organizational structure and society.
WHAT IS AN ETHICS OF THE ETHOS?
Morality is not an issue
only when problems arise. Responsibility for individual and social welfare is
part of the institutional landscape, a daily occurrence manifested in decision
making on all levels of the college or university and in the goals toward which
the decision making is directed. An ethical analysis that highlights the
interconnectedness of all elements in the institution--an ethics of
ethos--brings to attention the complexity of the moral life and the subtle
nature of responsibility in higher education.
WHAT DIMENSIONS OF HIGHER EDUCATION MERIT ATTENTION?
Work in academic life, like any other kind of work, is laden with values and
has a moral dimension that emerges from the ethical reflection characteristic of
institutional self-scrutiny. Students are vulnerable before and unequal to the
scholar; trust must characterize faculty-student relationships. Ultimately,
however, professorial knowledge is not proprietary but communal, dedicated to
the welfare of society through the transmission and extension of knowledge. The
role of the scholar can be conceived in four phases: teaching, discovery,
application, and integration, each of which has its own ethical assumptions and
problems (Boyer 1990). Often the competing needs of these roles cause conflicts
for the scholar teacher/researcher. In responding to these problems, the scholar
must balance individual with group realities and requirements. An important
pedagogical conception to help achieve the balance is the learning community.
Leadership in higher education continues to be under intense pressure to
respond to societal issues resulting from trends in demographics and enrollment
and economic and social forces that bring both possible disruption and/or
opportunity. The use of values expressed by the mission statement and ethical
reflection as resources in decision making can positively affect the
institution's ability to respond to complex decisions about funding and the
Models of ethical decision making help inform the practice of successful
leadership in the face of ever-increasing complexities in higher education.
These models have in common the process of defining the issues, making decisions
by reviewing alternatives based on intuitive evaluation or on ethical rules and
principles, deciding whether to carry out the action, and then implementing it
using the best deliberative judgment.
Students on today's campuses encounter a variety of complex situations for
which they are often ill-prepared by experience or individual development. The
relationship between students' attitudes and values and the environment that
supports or challenges them stands as a dynamic dialectic of confirmation and
rejection that affects the ethical positions and choices of both the individual
and the institution. The distinctive nature of the institutional ethos affects
the values and interests manifested in the campus climate and the overall effect
of the college experience on the student.
Issues facing higher education, such as racism, sexism, homophobia, substance
abuse, and academic dishonesty, argue for the pursuit of an ethical environment
that consistently asserts the importance of human dignity, nourishes growth and
achievement, and insists on respect in interpersonal communication and
WHAT DIRECTION DOES AN ETHICS OF THE ETHOS PROVIDE?
literature detailing the immorality of individual actions or policies
underscores a more pervasive problem in higher education: the lack of community
and the lack of a sense of shared values that give direction and purpose (Bellah
et al. 1985, 1991). Strategic planning for the future must emphasize the
learning community as the institutionalization of a program that responds to
concern for values and ethics in higher education (Gabelnick et al. 1990).
WHAT IS THE LEARNING COMMUNITY?
The learning community can
be provisionally construed as an ideal type of higher education culture that
seeks to overcome current tendencies toward individual alienation and
intellectual fragmentation with regard to present academic specialization and
special interests. The learning community does not deny the value of research or
the scholar's freedom of inquiry, but, as a moral community, it does seek to
organize them within an ethical domain of connectedness and mutual
WHY IS THE LEARNING COMMUNITY SO IMPORTANT?
community embraces a distinctive ethos, one that is laden with values and
sustains the only fitting context for ethical analysis. Based on the curriculum,
the learning community addresses many important concerns already touched on. The
learning community enables faculty who feel isolated by the limits of their
discipline and miss the richness they knew so well in graduate school to reach
out to other disciplines. At the same time, learning communities address the
growing diversity among students in terms of age, race, ethnicity, religion, and
marital and enrollment status. Most important, the learning community allows for
a wide variety of applications, not simply application in the small liberal arts
In many ways, the learning community brings together the themes of
leadership, faculty, and students. Leadership is essential to colleges' and
universities' sensitivity to values in higher education. The learning community
symbolizes the delicate nature of that task. At the same time, collaboration
among faculty in this learning project is of the essence. Such communities can
bring out the best in faculty and resolve several of the tensions faculty face
in their careers, especially the tension between research and teaching.
Community gives direction to students and anchors their collegiate experience in
the intellectual life (Astin 1985). Only such an approach will do justice to the
complexity of ethical issues facing higher education.
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