I attended a luncheon last Friday with the Dean of the Graduate School at Virginia Tech and several faculty and graduate students. While the discussions revolved around issues of ethics on a campus as diverse as Virginia Tech, with close to 7,000 graduate students from across the world, the central theme of the discussions was: Has the discussion surrounding ethics devolved into one of compliance alone?
Dean Karen Depaw noted that unfortunately this seems to be the trend, though there needs to be greater sensitivity to the question of ethics and its principles, at a deeper level. It is hard to have these conversations across the board with all disciplines, as some disciplines are more aware and naturally open to these ideas than others.
The nature of our work in a global setting has made it mandatory for us to evolve some global norms of ethics, all the while making sure that those who are new to the system of ethics on American campuses understand what the benchmark is. This in itself can become a challenge. Also, there is the problem of understanding the work of a university as a business or a public agency. This creates a tension in the paradigms that we apply to understand this problem.
While the university aims to educate, sensitize, and create awareness of these ethical dilemmas across the board, among faculty, students, and staff, one wonders whose responsibility it is to become aware of these issues?
I think the buck stops with each individual. Given the fact that as students we are all in an academic environment—to learn, do our research, and carry out significant work—the onus of learning is on us.
As doctors, lawyers, engineers, social scientists—all of us should be asking ourselves, What is the right thing to do? rather than just, How do we avoid getting into trouble?
While the university may facilitate the process of teaching ethics by putting together courses, by creating new avenues for sharing best practices, or disseminating the tools of the trade, the ultimate responsibility rests with the individual.
This is true irrespective of the discipline or the field of endeavor, as we will ultimately be held accountable for our actions—and the sooner that people engaged in research and academia realize this, the better.
This approach would also take away just the "compliance" mode of ethics and force all of us to be sensitive to these questions in a broader context.