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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

The University in the 21st Century: Thinking about Ethics, Persons, and Discourse

Event Recap

This year’s Prophetic Voices Lecture marked the tenth in our annual series designed to honor extraordinary people who have drawn upon the prophetic traditions of their faith communities to challenge the consciences of all who hear them. Our honoree, James F. Keenan, SJ, is an internationally renowned moral theologian and one of the most widely admired professors at Boston College, where he is Founders Professor of Theology. He presented his lecture, “The University in the 21st Century: Thinking about Ethics, Persons, and Discourse,” before an enthusiastic crowd in Higgins Hall on the evening of November 18.

Taking his cue from a series of recent scandals involving embezzlement and abuse of power at several American universities, Keenan noted with chagrin that ethics training is virtually nonexistent for university faculty, staff and administrators. In fact, he noted, the Catholic Church was in the same situation until the sex abuse crisis brought such issues to the fore. How could it be, he asked, that other professions such as law and medicine have well-established codes of ethical conduct and mandate ethics training, while the church and the university do not? Keenan responded to this challenge by sketching some of the practices needed to develop a hospitable climate for academic ethics, and describing the sort of discourse that would take place in this environment.

Chief among the practices required in a university culture of ethics, Keenan argued, is transparency regarding the activities of faculty, administrators, staff and students alike. This transparency is realized through open course evaluations and syllabi, administrative reviews, and student journalism, among other activities. Community building is another key practice, which BC is doing quite well through faculty-student dinners, Intersections lunches, student retreats and more. Horizontal accountability would improve the tenure review process and curricular decisions, Keenan said, while vertical accountability would ensure that deans and senior administrators were doing their part as well.

These practices, he argued, should help us to see the university as a place where people learn ideas from other people, not an anonymous place for the transmission of information. This interpersonal ethos fosters a discourse guided by several important virtues, including justice (with regard to those close to us and others around the world), fidelity (to colleagues and benefactors), self-care and prudence, which helps to understand and adjudicate among the preceding virtues. In this manner, the academy will be better equipped to answer the call to solidarity and justice and reverse its current trend towards individualism and isolationism.

The event concluded with a lively discussion with the audience about ethics, interdisciplinarity, and the need to bridge the gap between our academic and personal lives. It was, by all accounts, an exceptionally thought-provoking evening with one of BC’s most compelling thinkers.