A Code of Conduct for the Trump Era?

December 1, 2016

Yesterday’s Inside Higher Education carried a story about a proposed “anti-authoritarian code of conduct” proposed by Rachel Barney, a professor of classics and philosophy at the University of Toronto.  I read the proposed code with interest, but also found myself with some misgivings.

Neither the Rachel Barney proposal nor the IHE story make any reference to the American Association of University Professors Statement on Professional Ethics.  First adopted in 1966, and subsequently revised in 1987 and 2009, it is to this statement that I would first look for guidance about professional rights and responsibilities.  In its statements on tenure and academic freedom, on academic governance, on freedom of expression and speech codes (and much else), the AAUP has established itself as an organization with the standing and gravitas to voice the rights and responsibilities of members of the academy.  (The IHE story did make mention of a recent statement by AAUP resolution condemning hate crimes.)

The AAUP Statement on Professional Ethics is, I believe, a fine statement.  So why the need for a new code?  A colleague remarked, in support of considering the Barney proposal that “the AAUP code and other codes were not drafted with current circumstances in mind.” But that seems to me to speak against the proposal.  We shouldn’t trim our ethics to suit circumstances; a good code of ethics ought to speak generally to all times and circumstances.

Is something lacking in the AAUP Statement that it ought to have included?  To my reading, the Blarney proposal covers substantially the same ground with a few important exceptions.  Both speak to truthfulness, free inquiry and academic freedom, fairness and non-discrimination.  The AAUP statement is more general and timeless; the Barney statement more toned to current times.  In that choice, I prefer more general and timeless codes: they don’t look like they were written to combat a particular political movement or person; they speak to all times and circumstances.

I want to lift up this statement in Barney’s: “I will not be shy about my commitment to academic values: truth, objectivity, free inquiry and rational debate. I will challenge others when they engage in behavior contrary to these values.”  The corresponding sentences in the the AAUP statement reads “Their primary responsibility to their subject is to seek and to state the truth as they see it. To this end professors devote their energies to developing and improving their scholarly competence. They accept the obligation to exercise critical self-discipline and judgment in using, extending, and transmitting knowledge. They practice intellectual honesty.”  Perhaps there are shades of difference between these two, but I applaud the unabashed use of the word “truth” in both.  Recent academic fashion has not favored that word.

There are two statements in the Barney proposal that deviate from the AAUP Code:

  • I will not aid in the marginalization, exclusion or deportation of my undocumented students and colleagues.
  • I will not aid in government surveillance. I will not inform.

By contrast, the AAUP statement has this to say:  “As members of their community, professors have the rights and obligations of other citizens. Professors measure the urgency of these obligations in the light of their responsibilities to their subject, to their students, to their profession, and to their institution.”

Barney is lifting up issues that are matters of law that bear on all citizens.  I like how the AAUP statement addresses that.

When and whether we should cooperate with government officials is not something that is different for scholar/teachers than it is for other citizens.  Matters of immigration and surveillance are very much in play in American politics.  I have strong leadings about both matters, ones that almost surely align with Rachel Barney’s.  I would be reluctant to cooperate with government officials on both.  I might even flatly refuse cooperation, but I don’t think I would view that as part of my professional ethics.  Rather, I think it would be a political stance, even perhaps an act of civil disobedience.  I don’t think we well serve the cause of professional ethics by mixing in matters of political disagreement, no matter how strongly we feel about them.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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