The Moral Imperative of Higher Education

Topics: Blog, News

I feel inundated every day with news, articles, and opinion pieces written on integrity, teaching and learning, or ethics. Directly or indirectly, these pieces all resonate with my view that academic integrity must be framed as a teaching and learning issue, not a student conduct problem. Yet I become overwhelmed because each piece may only stimulate a fragment of a thought, a germ of an idea, or a vague feeling that “I should bookmark this in case I need it for the future.”

I have so many bookmarks and so many tabs open that I feel like an information hoarder. Perhaps I could be the start of  new reality TV show – Virtual Hoarders – but instead of coming into my house to clean it out, they enter my computer to purge its clutter. Let’s face it, the underlying issue in both cases – whether you are physically or virtually hoarding – is mental blockage or overload.

This isn’t the future I imagined for myself.

So, I’ll beg for your indulgence now as I use this post to do some virtual purging of several “news” pieces to which I’ve been holding on. Stay with me – I think you’ll benefit from this too!

These pieces are all connected by a common theme – the role of higher education in developing ethical citizens and professionals.

You see, in the 20th Century, higher education got caught up in a values war with society, churches and families (read more about this in our Cheating in School: What We Know and What We Can Do book from 2009). Through this values war, higher education relinquished the historic role it had played in developing ethical citizens and professionals. In effect, one could argue that college curricula have become largely peripheral to moral education”.

To be sure, there are colleges that still focus on moral or ethics education – predominantly faith-based institutions. And there are plenty of universities where the student affairs professionals have picked up the mantle to offer students some experiential learning opportunities to develop their ethical or moral selves. However, it seems clear that developing ethical citizens and professionals is not a priority for most higher education institutions.

After all, fewer than 400 institutions worldwide are even members of the International Center for Academic Integrity, the mission of which is to cultivate cultures of integrity in educational institutions around the world. And, Josephson’s Character Counts movement has been largely limited to the K-12 sector of education in America.

I credit this chasm to many factors, not the least of which is this misunderstanding that the corporate or private good of higher education (preparing students for work) is disconnected in public rhetoric from the work of developing ethical citizens and professionals. Chad Wellmon suggests that “the transformation of American colleges and universities into corporate concerns” may be the cause of this shortcoming, yet it seems clear that corporations are concerned about the ability of graduates to engage in ethical judgement and decision-making because they list that skill among the top 8 skills desired in new college hires.

So, it seems that the private good of students – developing these ethical decision-making and judgement skills (along with communication, teamwork, critical thinking skills) – is aligned with what we think of the public good. That is, equipping students with the skills and habits of mind that elevate them beyond purely business or STEM acumen is critically important to not just the students, but the welfare of our society and of worldwide democracy.

The truth is, society wants higher education graduates to have the courage to act in honest, trustworthy, respectful, responsible, and fair ways, which includes making difficult ethical judgement calls when warranted by the situation.

In other words, our mission for ethical development (typically relegated to the “liberal arts”) is NOT in conflict with our mission to enhance the employability of our graduates (typically regulated to to the “professional” disciplines). Integrity is not a lofty, esoteric, self-actualization goal but a fundamental imperative for higher education institutions who want to be relevant to the 21st century society.

Integrity, then, is fundamental to the teaching and learning curriculum of higher education and should be formally and intentionally integrated into the academic and student affairs structures and curricula of all colleges and universities worldwide.

So, what can be done?

I propose three critical starting points:

  1. Establish an integrity/ethics infrastructure on the academic affairs side of the house that focuses not just on ensuring academic work is completed with academic integrity, but on supporting faculty and equipping faculty with the knowledge and skills necessary to infuse integrity/ethics into the curriculum;
  2. Reward faculty for attending to the ethical development of their students; and, 
  3. Establish an ethics curriculum that begins with students’ lived ethical experiences (e.g., roommate conflicts, cheating incidents, personal ethical dilemmas)  as teachable moments about the importance of ethics, as well as the skills for making good ethical decisions and following-through on acting on them. Once this core knowledge is established, only then should we scaffold student learning toward ethical judgement and acting in their professions, careers or lives after graduation. In other words, we must start from where students are at and move them toward where they need to be. Those interested in employing this strategy may find AAC&U’s Ethical Reasoning Rubric as a useful tool for engaging in a backward-design of this curriculum.

We can do this without sacrificing disciplinary “content”. And it is a moral imperative that we do. After all, as Samuel Johnson notes – Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful.”

Stay tuned for future “news” posts that will continue my quest to purge my information hoarding habit. Next I plan on writing about the teaching and learning strategies that these “news” pieces proselytize and I connect to academic integrity. But know that with each piece I write, I will attempt to live by the sage advice of Matt Paxton, author of “The Secret Lives of Hoarders”, – “Hoarding isn’t about how much stuff someone has, it’s about how they process those things.”

About the Author
Tricia Bertram Gallant, Ph.D. is the author of Academic Integrity in the Twenty-First Century: A Teaching and Learning Imperative (Jossey-Bass, 2008), co-author of Cheating in School: What We Know and What We Can Do (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), editor of Creating the Ethical Academy: A Systems Approach to Understanding Misconduct & Empowering Change in Higher Education (Routledge, 2011), and section editor for the Handbook of Academic Integrity (Springer, 2016). She is the Director of the UC San Diego Academic Integrity Office and Board Member of the International Center for Academic Integrity, and has been an ethics lecturer with the Rady School of Management. When Tricia blogs, the content is hers and should not be attributed to her employer or ICAI.
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