Peer Review, Summer 2002

Vol. 4, 
No. 4
Peer Review

Reality Check: Embodying the Values We Teach

In the wake of Enron and other highly publicized scandals, students may wonder whether it is any easier to find an honest person now than it was when Diogenes walked the streets of Athens with his lantern. Even a cursory glance at news headlines suggests that ethical choices and values-based decisions are all too often eclipsed by economic and political self-interest. In light of our mission as educators, what ought we do to reassure students and the wider community that we remain committed to our core values and to serving the common good?

"Liberal Learning and the Challenge of Uncommon Values," the 2002 AAC&U pre-conference symposium, focused on the diversity of values that today's students and faculty bring to our campuses and explored the role of liberal learning in negotiating among competing notions of the true and the good. Most participants agree that culture, family, religion, and peers shape virtually all the decisions and choices we make. At many colleges and universities, preparing students to engage the world as ethical and thoughtful citizens is integral to their institutional mission.

Currently, fundamental democratic values of free speech and equality before the law are being tested in a climate of escalating global political and economic conflict. Higher education is well positioned to take a leadership role in affirming the most sacred of American values including justice, equality, civil rights, the right of dissent, and the freedom of speech and religion. These core values have guided and inspired us in the past and must continue to illuminate our path toward the future. Whether we serve as trustees, faculty, administrators, alumni, or staff, we face complex ethical and moral dilemmas. If we have fiduciary responsibilities, we may be asked to balance institutional financial well being with social responsibility as we raise and invest money, assess tuition and financial aid, or determine areas of curricular growth. Whose values, for example, ought to determine the allocation of resources, those of donors or of institutions? Should controversial research be supported in the face of strong political resistance?

Policies that determine access to higher education continue to provoke debate. Those of us responsible for student recruitment, for example, must ask whether race and gender should still matter if support for affirmative action is waning. With regard to the admissions process, how do we negotiate among competing priorities such as the need for tuition dollars, the desire to maintain academic excellence, and the interests of athletic programs, academic departments, and alumni relations? Personnel policies and practices are no less vexed, particularly when institutional values conflict with personal rights. Should individuals whose views challenge our most cherished beliefs be hired or retained? How can we protect the freedom of speech of those who do not support current orthodoxies? Undoubtedly, these questions have gained significance in the aftermath of 9/11 and the heightened concern for national security.

Challenges, as we know, are also opportunities. As we grapple with contentious issues and ethical dilemmas on our campuses, how we choose to resolve conflicts and arrive at policy decisions becomes what has been described as a teachable moment. Institutions that practice value-based decision making, for example, model a process that includes identifying assumptions, naming priorities, clarifying differences, and weighing options in the interest of making good decisions that lead to effective policies. Core values remain immutable as strategies to manage cultural and institutional change are redesigned. Our efforts to foster a climate of mutual respect, civility, and tolerance among different constituencies on our campuses teach our students to create the kind of community we desire for them as they explore ways to live principled and productive lives amidst change and uncertainty. Embodying the values we hope students will learn is a powerful reminder of Diogenes' belief that virtue is best demonstrated through action.

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