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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

University Ethics: How Colleges Can Build and Benefit from a Culture of Ethics

Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

James F. Keenan, S.J., spoke about his new book, University Ethics: How Colleges Can Build and Benefit from a Culture of Ethics at Saint Mary’s Hall on February 2. Keenan, Canisius Chair of Theology, director of the Jesuit Institute and director of the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College, began his talk by describing how the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic archdiocese of Boston motivated him to investigate breaches of ethics related to the university. He called the university the other institution, like the Church, that teaches ethics but often fails to act ethically. 

Despite little academic literature on university ethics, Keenan researched a wide array of ethical failures occurring in university settings. These included recent athletic scandals, the treatment of adjunct faculty, sexual assaults, cheating in the classroom, the commodification of education and hazing episodes at American universities. Keenan pointed to numerous incidents related to gender and race that were also troubling. The problem is not a new one. That does not mean it should not be addressed, according to Keenan. 

Keenan argued that the modern university is not designed to embody a culture of ethics, despite the number of courses offered on the topic of ethics. The structure of the university perpetuates the problem of an environment without ethical behavior. Keenan explained that the university confines its members to areas of their own special interests and limits their interactions with the rest of the community. Furthermore, faculty and staff are separated from student life, making it difficult for them to understand student culture. 

According to Keenan, a university cannot establish a culture of ethics if its students, faculty and staff are unable to engage in conversations about the ethical issues that take place at the university. A university that seeks to establish an ethical culture must promote added communication and transparency. Until universities develop a culture of ethics, ethical crises will continue to occur.