Moral Crises and Ordinary Virtues
written by Jonathan O’Brien
The U.S. is slipping into a full-fledged moral crisis. At least that’s what the commentators and pundits in my morning newsfeeds are declaring. Higher education news outlets share in the nihilism with constant reports of corruption, neglect, and inept administrators. Admittedly, my bias is that higher education, like other social institutions, should be held to high ethical standards, so when I read about moral crises on college campuses, I get triggered. In this column I use “moral crisis” as a starting point to explore how we can sustain our campus communities during difficult times, from both an institutional and individual perspective. I argue that when serious abuses of power and trust occur, we often see strangers step forward to render aid to survivors and, ultimately, restore confidence in community.
Curious if this moral decline was a trend, I did an internet search for the phrase “moral crisis in higher education.” Hundreds of reports condemned leaders at the University of Virginia who stumbled before issuing a full-throated denunciation of the torch-bearing white supremacists who marched through the campus in 2017. More recently, I found dozens of articles criticizing willful ignorance and feeble responses of leaders at multiple universities in the wake of hundreds of reports of sexual assault and hazing deaths.
Two articles about sexual abuse, penned by local observers highlight the moral consequences and challenges involved in restoring trust among campus community members. In the first article, Kate Kennedy (2018) described several red flags that may have foretold the crisis at her university, like mistreating vulnerable populations (e.g., women, students of color, queer-identified), silencing marginalized voices in campus governance, and sidestepping ethical lapses to protect institutional reputation. In the second article, a group of deans (Beauchamp, Croson, David, et al., 2018) described their efforts to create a culture of inclusion and empowerment grounded in principles of awareness, honesty, and responsibility. For these authors, supporting survivors and holding perpetrators responsible were top priorities. They also remind us that moral crises impact the whole community.
Human crises marked by violence, betrayal, and abuse are critical moments when the core principles of a campus community are thrust into collective consciousness. These events offer a rare opportunity to revisit shared ideals. As people struggle to make sense of the dreadful events surrounding them, a key component of the healing process is institutional messages that affirm trust and inspire hope. Unfortunately, if these words exist, they are often buried in an obscure webpage a dozen clicks from the splashy home page. Even an institution that proudly exclaims its values on banners and business cards can face a moral crisis of epic proportions that sheds doubt on whether those time-honored principles still speak to contemporary realities.
In most institutions, when a disaster occurs, it falls on student affairs professionals to help the community heal and move through the pain. Moral crises are no different. How do we know what a healthy community looks like?
Six Principles of Campus Community
Nearly 30 years ago, Ernest Boyer (1990) observed that vibrant campus communities displayed six common values: purpose, openness, discipline, justice, care, and celebration. Purposeful communities involve everyone in the process of learning and teaching. Open communities value free and respectful expression for all members. Disciplined communities demand individual responsibility and shared decision-making that benefits everyone. Just communities value diversity and human dignity. Caring communities promote concern for others and actions that facilitate others’ growth as persons. Celebrative communities honor institutional traditions and consistently adapt rituals and ceremonies to incorporate the contributions of newcomers. The principles emerged from a year-long study involving hundreds of U.S. institutions, at a time when severe budget cuts and a “climate of endless ambiguity” (p. 7) forced professionals to make tough choices about how to address many of the same problems we struggle with today, like sexual and racial harassment and substance abuse. Amid increasing uncertainty, these principles offered a shared vision for a flourishing campus community.
And then came social media. This technological revolution brought us smartphones loaded with cameras and apps that incessantly expose us to new cultures and values, track our likes and dislikes, and broadcast our beliefs to the world as we kill time in line at the campus coffee cart. Among the many benefits of social technology is its ability to connect people and facilitate communities across boundaries, identities, and interests that were impossible less than a decade ago. There aren’t many drawbacks to these virtual connections. It’s always been possible for any idiot to create a community based on antipathy of outsiders. However, social media does offer some new twists on old tricks. For example, it’s never been easier to receive so much recognition for being a good person for so little effort and emotion. Millions of users can pile on to an offensive post by voting their moral outrage without doing anything about it. Similarly, individuals can increase their virtue score among hundreds of followers—er, friends who follow them —by strategically retweeting an article they’ve never read (who has the time anyway?).
Distrust in social institutions—already a trend before the arrival of social media—seems to have accelerated in the decades since Boyer’s principles were published. Fake news and alternative facts aside, Gallup (2018) has for decades reported steady declines in citizens’ lack of confidence in entities like organized religion, public schools, broadcast news, and Congress. The public’s opinion of higher education is mixed. One survey found respondents equally divided in their views, positive or negative, about the return on public investment in higher education; however, three-quarters of college graduates surveyed said that higher education was integral to their personal development (Drezner, Pizmony‐Levy, & Pallas, 2018). These graduates’ favorable opinion of higher education indicates a window of opportunity for professionals and educators to invest in developing our students into ethical leaders and change agents that the world desperately needs.
Boyer’s (1990) principles still have much to offer higher education professionals who seek a communitarian vision in response to moral ambiguity. But it’s also fair to say that our confidence in institutions has not improved much over the last 30 years. When people see that some moral positions are prioritized over others, they quickly become suspicious of faceless authorities and instinctively resist the imposition of institutional values that feel out of context and contrary to their lived experiences. There is little hope that mistrust in the morality of institutions will change if our preferred communication channel is a virtual world of people and interest groups whose opinions (on all things) reinforce our own. Thus, professionals who rely solely on a principle-centered approach to restore community in the aftermath of crisis, with the best of intentions, may be exacerbating the problem.
If principles are problematic, then what can we do to restore community after a crisis? Rather than a top-down approach, we must draw from the moral strengths that already exist in the community. This is the view of Michael Ignatieff (2017), who described five “ordinary virtues” of moral life in community: trust, tolerance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and resilience. These virtues emerged from dozens of interviews with poor and working-class people from diverse communities in Los Angeles and New York and global locales in Bosnia, Fukushima, South Africa, Myanmar, and Rio de Janeiro, where inhabitants were living in the aftermath of crises like war, ethnic and racial discrimination, or economic upheaval.
Ordinary virtues are “acquired practical skills in moral conduct and discernment” (Ignatieff, 2017, p. 27). Unlike principles imposed on a community, these are personal virtues that evolve through “a continuous process of identity testing” (p. 208). It’s worth noting here that virtues do not equal action. Obviously, virtues or principles alone cannot prevent malevolent behavior from happening. It’s also easy to get lost in the language of traits and dispositions and forget about the very personal impact of crisis in the form of suffering and loss. Each of us interprets a crisis differently and opinions about how to address it vary. Only individuals who have been harmed can bestow virtues like trust, forgiveness, and reconciliation, these cannot be expected or imposed by an external authority.
Bottom line: I think we’re wasting our time imposing abstract principles on each other in hopes of healing and change until we can value the moral qualities each of us brings to our communities and create environments where we all flourish.
At this point, I’ll pause to acknowledge that I am keenly aware that terms like tolerance or resilience—even virtue for that matter—will trigger some readers. This concern is well-placed since these terms are often used to frame students from minoritized populations as culpable for circumstances outside their control. Anticipating this critique, Ignatieff (2017) noted that resilience can indeed be abusive: “Praise for resilience can … make survival seem like an achievement, when in fact survivors know just how much their survival depended on chance” (p. 153). Still, after bearing witness to countless stories of courage and tenacity, he concluded that resilience aptly evoked the survivors’ “metaphysical commitment … to the future continuity of human life itself…[that] we will not only survive but prevail” (p. 166). One might say that Ignatieff is imposing his own moral biases on the interviewees, re-inscribing their trauma. In my view, he arrived at this interpretation through sustained dialogue and intense scrutiny of his privilege and biases, which is what many higher education professionals practice and they endeavor to instill in their students. Thankfully, ordinary virtues forego scholarly jargon, theorizing, and buzz words in favor of common understanding and mutual concern.
Ordinary Virtues and Institutional Crises
College campuses, like other social institutions, supply necessary resources, conditions, and structures to “make virtue ordinary” in our lives (Ignatieff, 2017, p. 195). Even so, campuses can be inhospitable places where conflict—intellectual, social, political—is unrelenting. In response, we form enclaves that operate like families where an ethos, shaped by the ordinary virtues that we hold in common, is reinforced and honored. Ignatieff referred to this ethos as a “moral operating system” (p. 27) that is always running in the background and outside of our conscious awareness until a major crisis requires a reboot of the system. As the initial shock of a crisis subsides, the moral operating system of the community tugs at our sentiments, compelling us to do the right thing, regardless of the institution’s values or policies. This was evident after the Paris bombings in November 2015, when strangers displayed “an inchoate, unformulated, but stubborn commitment to live together again” (p. 221) in the form of donations and small acts of kindness toward survivors and others affected by the tragedy.
For higher education professionals, rebuilding community after a crisis requires both fidelity to the institutional principles above us and a keen grasp of moral operating systems that function at the surface. Formal principles are important because they reduce uncertainty amid chaos; however, ordinary virtues capture the diversity of individual members’ lived realities in language that is authentic and reassuring. Most importantly, professionals must anticipate when principles become stale platitudes that counter ordinary virtues and be prepared to reconcile the differences among them to promote healing and avoid further alienation among community members. Ideally, we should be exploring and co-constructing moral operating systems before a crisis strikes. Many higher education professionals already do this work via intergroup dialogue courses and similar programs that build connections across faith traditions, race and gender diversity, and common sources of conflict.
Getting Personal with Ordinary Virtues
In truth, most professionals have little time to reflect on institutional principles and personal virtues until a crisis makes it real. There doesn’t have to be a crisis to learn about the moral systems operating in your institution. In fact, there are important professional and career reasons for doing so. In your current position, it is important to know the ordinary virtues that are prevalent on campus, the moral operating systems of various communities, and how these interact with institutional principles. Rather than assume institutional principles apply to everyone, we can make sure that programs and services, especially those designed to build community, align with participants’ experiences and core beliefs.
From a personal and career perspective, learning about the moral operating systems at your institution can reinforce your decision to stay or to leave. When applying for a job, most of us read up on the institution’s values and principles as we prepare to interview. Unfortunately, moral operating systems do not reveal themselves fully for some time after we accept the job. If you are pondering a move to a new institution, it may help to reach out to trusted colleagues at your current campus to discuss the deeper reasons for working where you do. Besides practical concerns that convince us to stay, like location, compensation, or flexibility, it can be rewarding to know that there are others around us who share our interests, both in good times and bad.
In this section, I conclude with questions for further learning and application.
- What ordinary virtues are most salient in your life? How well do they fit with the duties of your current position?
- Describe the moral operating system(s) prevalent on your campus. How well do they align with the principles and/or values of your institution?
- How do your personal qualities and virtues align with the principles and values of your institution? What ordinary virtues do you and your colleagues share?
Beauchamp Jr., N. J., Croson, R., David, P., Hendrick, R., Jeitschko, T. D., Largent, M., Long, C. P., & Sisk, C. (2018, July 11). Can Michigan State recover and chart a new path for higher education? Eight deans outline three imperatives for creating needed cultural change. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from www.insidehighered.com/views/2018/07/11/ eight-deans-michigan-state-university-outline-three-imperatives-cultural-change
Boyer, E. L. (1990). Campus life: In search of community. Princeton, NJ: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
Drezner, N. D., Pizmony‐Levy, O., & Pallas, A. (2018). Americans’ views of higher education as a public and private good. New York, NY: Teachers College.
Gallup. (2018). “Confidence in Institutions.” In Depth: Topics A to Z. Retrieved from https://news.gallup.com/poll/1597/confidence-institutions.aspx
Ignatieff, M. (2017). The ordinary virtues: Moral order in a divided world. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Kennedy, K. (2018, June 28). How to avoid a federal investigation. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from www.insidehighered.com/views/2018/06/28/lessons-universities-wake-sexual-abuse-charges-university-southern-california
About the Author
Jonathan O’Brien is assistant professor of educational leadership at California State University, Long Beach, where he teaches in the Student Development in Higher Education master’s program and educational doctorate. He teaches courses in law and ethics, leadership, and qualitative research methods and his scholarship focuses on professional competencies in student affairs practice and moral development.