Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: A Survey Course in Campus Ethics

December 7, 2014 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment, Tips

Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicist, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is a take on today’s post, ”A Survey Course in Campus Ethics.”

I teach part time at a well-respected regional college. For the past few years, the college has accepted several students from China who do not, in my opinion, have the language skills to actively participate in my class. After two Chinese students failed the midterm exam, I approached representatives of the college and recommended that they provide these students with special assistance. The university didn’t act, and those students failed my class. What obligation does a college have to foreign students? Is the college pulling a bait-and-switch by offering an American college education to students that they are fully aware cannot succeed? NAME WITHHELD, N.Y.

My Answer: You write about the college like it’s an abstract entity unrelated to you. As a teacher, you’re part of the organization. This sentence, “The university didn’t act, and those students failed my class,” makes you sound like a helpless, passive observer. Who turned in their grades? Who knew about the situation all semester long, at least since the midterm?

What do you mean by obligation? If you wonder if the school has a legal obligation, ask a lawyer. If you wonder if it has any other obligation, there is no book of obligations in the sky that magically records all obligations. If you consider the school obliged, it is only obligated to what you hold it accountable to, the same as anybody else. If you don’t know your own opinion on the matter, writing a journalist for their opinion won’t help you form your own. What are your values? What responsibility are you willing to take? What behavior that you disagree with are you willing to tolerate?

If you see something you consider wrong, what do you do about it? You can’t fix every problem in the world. You only have time and resources to do some things. Based on your values, if this is important enough relative to your other business to work on, only you can figure out what you will do. So far you acted fairly minimally—approaching “representatives,” failing some students, and now writing a journalist who has almost no information about the situation. If everything else you’re working on is more important, you may have to file this along with the billions of other things happening every moment on the planet that you’d like to change but also don’t have the resources to act on.

Instead of asking abstract questions or third-party opinions, I would consider the consequences of your actions. The only way anything will happen about the situation is if someone does something about it. As you’re one of the few who knows about the situation, you seem a prime person to act.

The New York Times Answer: It seems unlikely that a college student from China studying abroad would be under the impression that instruction would be offered in Chinese, in the same way it’s insane to imagine a competent student from Omaha applying for a semester in Beijing without realizing his professors might not speak English. Adult students attending school in a foreign country must assume (and accept) that they will face certain challenges. But if your school recruited these students and assured them that such complications would be addressed — and particularly if they were told the language barrier would not limit their academic pursuits — then it’s consciously doing something damaging: It’s taking money from people who will get almost nothing in return, it’s fabricating an illusion of diversity and it’s potentially wrecking the lives of naïve students who will spend an academic year alienated and confused.


One of the three foundations of our university, emblazoned on our seal, is veritas — truth. Part of freshman orientation for all new students is a theater performance that addresses some social issue, like sexual orientation or race. A discussion follows the performance. The organizers have “plants” in the audience posing as freshmen, who contribute provocative comments, such as “Gays should not expect a welcome environment because it’s against the teachings of the Catholic Church.” These comments have resulted in actual freshmen publicly agreeing or expressing similar points of view. Moderators subsequently guide the discussion and reveal the deception. I believe that this guerrilla theater is unethical, as these remarks are solicited under false pretenses from a young, vulnerable audience. MICHAEL P. RUSSELL, VILLANOVA, PA.

My Answer: I don’t see a question here, only someone recounting behavior he considers unethical but instead of acting on it with people involved, writes a third-party. As ready as you are to judge your peers who organize this event, how do you feel about your role considering something unethical, yet doing so little about it?

Oops, I spoke too soon, before a quick Wikipedia search on “Villanova.” There aren’t that many universities near Villanova, Pennsylvania, and Villanova University has three foundations on its seal, one of them being veritas, and happens to be Catholic. You don’t seem to be doing that little about it. You seem to be publicly trying to shame your school on a national forum, unless I’m misreading you.

Not that you asked, but I would consider the consequences of my actions more than talk about abstract concepts like ethics. I’ve found more success influencing people by working with them and building relationships than by unilaterally going public in the press. You sound like a “young, vulnerable” student annoyed at being duped or seeing peers duped by the event. If so, I expect as you mature, you’ll learn more effective ways of handling such situations. If not, if you’re a faculty member, well, I hope you find more effective ways to handle such situations.

Oops, I spoke too soon again, this time before searching the web on the writer’s name and “Villanova.” Oh brother. If you’re the faculty member there with the same name, I wouldn’t have gone to the press like this. For that matter, if I worked at the New York Times I wouldn’t have published this letter, unless they checked with the writer. This letter probably won’t be that big a deal to anyone involved, but others involved might not appreciate your unilaterally involving them in a national forum. In any case, I wrote something relevant to this years ago in “Get out what you put in.” I wrote that post almost seven years ago, so it was more confrontational and snarky than I would have written today and I wrote it toward entrepreneurs, but I think the general idea applies.

The New York Times Answer: I don’t have a problem with this, ethically or otherwise. This performance does not contradict your school’s commitment to truth. Yes, the actors are lying. But that’s what acting is. It doesn’t matter that they’re not on a stage. At the program’s actual conclusion, everyone involved knows what really happened. Truth doesn’t need to be instantaneous — it only needs to reveal itself before misinformation inflicts harm. In this case, “lying” to new students for 10 or 15 minutes before explaining why these “lies” were theatrically employed is not a dishonest act. I realize it might be embarrassing for an uninformed freshman to realize she has publicly agreed with the provocative, reactionary sentiments of an actor, but it does not appear that the “real” students are required to speak, or that they’re penalized for whatever they say.


Years ago, I was taking a philosophy class and was on track to earn an A, so I was surprised when I got a B. I arranged a meeting with the professor. A key question on the final was a logic problem, which the professor had solved incorrectly, thus causing him to mark correct all of the wrong responses and incorrect all of the right answers. This impacted nearly every student’s final grade. Given that it was difficult to change grades after submitting them to the school administration, he offered me a deal: He would do the paperwork to change my score to the correct grade, on the condition that I not reveal this to the other students. I agreed, provided that he also re-evaluate just one other final exam (that of my close friend in the same class). My question is not whether the professor did wrong, as that is clear. The question I have is: Was there any obligation on my part to inform the other students or the administration? DORON STEGER, MARTINSVILLE, N.J.

My Answer: After you accepted his deal and even augmented it, how could your opinion about your behavior differ from your opinion about his?

Why don’t you ask the opinion of someone involved instead of a third-party? Even if you want to honor your deal with the professor, you can ask an administrator at the school, or at least the ombudsman if you want to keep anonymous. Or go back to the professor and talk about it with him. Instead of judging right and wrong, which amounts to opinion since there is no absolute measure in the sky of such things, consider what you can do.

The New York Times Answer: Had this happened to me when I was in college, I probably would have done exactly what you did, especially if I liked the instructor. But here was a guy who made a mistake within his own field of expertise, gave every single student the wrong grade and was then too lazy and ashamed to fix the error. He deserved to be fired. You personally benefited by covering for him as he rewarded bad students and punished good ones. Q.E.D.

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