Ethics and the University: Connecting the Dots

Ethics and the University: Connecting the Dots

Anne M. Hornak
Central Michigan University

For this column I had the great pleasure of interviewing Father James Keenan (Jim). Father Jim is an ordained Jesuit Priest and Canisius Professor Director of The Jesuit Institute at Boston College. Additionally, he holds faculty status in the Theology Department at Boston College. I was first introduced to Father Jim when I read his book, University Ethics: How Colleges can Build and Benefit from a Culture of Ethics (Keenan, 2015). The book offers discussion about the role of ethics in higher education and very much serves as a call to the higher education and student affairs communities that we need to be doing more to focus on ethics in our work, from both a practical and scholarly perspective.

Anne: Much of your work has been focused on ethics and theology framed within the church. What was the catalyst for the university ethics book?

Father Jim: Honestly, it was the sex abuse scandal within the Catholic Church. I live in Boston and it was in the newspaper every day for 17 months. We were living the scandal in our lives and the newspaper every day and we could not escape it. I am an ethicist and priest and began asking certain questions.  I started to ask questions about how the church, as an institution, practices ethics. I was concerned with the scandals impact on the church as an institution; the issue was not just about the individuals within the church, i.e. the priests involved, but the ethics within the church as an institution. I was concerned with the professional harm to all those involved and those affiliated with the church.

In 2002-03, I was in Rome at the Pontifical Gregorian University teaching for the summer. All of the American Cardinals were summoned by the Pope to address the issues happening in the United States with the scandal. Well, the media found out that I was in Rome and was from Boston. A reporter thought that interviewing a Jesuit Priest affiliated with Boston, teaching ethics in Rome, was worthy of an interview and discussion. I remember clearly walking on a rooftop piazza with the reporter and she asked me if I was afraid.  I said, I was afraid. She then asked why I was doing what I was doing? I said, “I am a Priest teaching ethics in Boston; I need to speak out.” It comes with the territory of my work and affiliation with the church. This is about more than the scandal but my profession and the greater good of the church in the modern day.

We need to address the issues; the summons to ask tough questions about the sex abuse scandal was larger and dealt with what is going on socially all around us. As higher education professionals we are all employees within an institution and have an interest in the success and ethics of the institution. If you do not that is a big problem. It is a big problem if you do not care about the success and ethics of the institution in which you work.  It was natural to move from the church as a teaching institution for ethics to the university as a teaching institution for ethics. The news media focused on church scandal, but what is going on at the universities is just as problematic.

My focus on ethics at the university really came to life in my living community. I live in a community with 5-6 other priests, and 4 are also ethicists. One day I told them I had a hunch that we should pay attention to ethics and the university. From that statement each morning I would come down for breakfast and they would say, “you have to read this,” “you have to read this.” It was truly one scandal after another. My colleagues just kept egging me to truly identify and explore these issues. I had a lot of support because we had survived the sex scandal in our own institution.


Some people believe ethics is boring. However, you need to be aware; very aware. Being in Boston in the height of the scandal, in the church as a teaching institution, and personally as a priest, I had a responsibility. I had the ethical responsibility to write the book due in part to my position.  Being in Boston in the height of the scandal coupled with the fact our church was a teaching institution, I felt compelled to attempt to impact the situation.  I had a responsibility to direct discussion to the university and the focus on what is going on at the university. For example, professionals working in development and advancement know more about ethics because they got caught taking gifts they never should have.

Think about who we are hiring to be vice presidents at our universities. More and more they are coming from business and industry. They do not come into the university and take an ethics course, nor do many understand higher education as an organization, which is very different from business and industry. They most likely had an ethics course in their discipline, but it is different to take an ethics course that focuses on the issues related directly to the work of the university. One must wonder how much they truly understand the university, as they are more interested in successful management than an ethical ethos and culture. Oftentimes, if administrators see a problem, they are more apt to bring in a lawyer than an ethicist. Leaders need to understand ethics is integral for the future of the institution. It can only be successful if it is truth bearing and reliable.

For example, Harvard had a huge cheating scandal and as part of their reaction they focused on teaching and how faculty were teaching. They missed a huge opportunity to understand what it means to be a university with high ethical standards and to truly understand who they wanted to be. What does it mean to be at Harvard and as an institution what does it mean to be part of this community? That is the conversation that was missed in focusing on what was going on in the teaching realm and stopping the cheating. In this case the lack of addressing this problem from an ethical perspective was the constraint. Understanding the role of ethics is not to constrain but to develop and help an institution become who they want to be.

Anne: Whose responsibility is it to create a culture of ethics?

Father Jim:  People want to fix it right away. Many who are doing this work have been doing it for a very long time.  However, we have failed to connect the dots. We need to take issues and truly connect across the institution, connect the dots! We need to be talking across the board, all units, academic and student affairs, faculty and staff, leaders at every level. Here at Boston College we have created a conference and put folks talking about different topics on the same panel so they can hear each other talk. It is about connecting the dots and talking to one another about how we are connected and how many of these issues have similar elements. We are not talking to each other enough. We have become organizations that work in silos.

I would argue that sexual assault on campus is deeply connected to how we treat adjunct faculty on campus. The neglect of ethics for adjunct faculty is related to the neglect our students have in how they treat one another, which can lead to sexual assaults on campuses. We are not inclusive with our adjunct faculty; we often do not include them in any governance decisions. They are limited in how much access they have to departmental resources, faculty, and the university more broadly, yet they are bearing much of the workload related to teaching. In terms of sexual assault we are not giving voice to victims or survivors. Many times sexual assaults on campuses are going unreported and victims are unsure where they go for support and justice. This is a problem on our campuses and one that we are not doing a good job addressing.

Originally university faculty were deeply connected to students, but over time, faculty gave connecting with students over to student affairs officials.  In my opinion faculty feel that the only place they belong is in the classroom and in a sense have lost a bit of the university. This is a great example of how faculty and student affairs can work together to reclaim the university and in that, reclaim ethics.  

I became an acting chair of the department and found out some of the shenanigans of faculty. We have created autonomous spaces and we do not want any horizontal accountability. We do not hold each other to higher levels of ethical behavior. Many deans are horrified by the behavior of faculty at the university, but are unwilling to address the behavior.  The reporting lines within the university are very medieval and unlike any other professions we are very autonomous.  In no other field do you find that people rarely come to campus and lack a larger sense of community. Many within the academy are academic nerds and their social skills are pretty low. We treat our students singularly; the very nature of our vocation is not collegial. We are singular professors who do work and believe our accountability is to write for an audience outside the university. We are seeing more and more collaboration among researchers, but it is still a novelty within institutions. This is also a lesson faculty could take from student affairs professionals who often work collaboratively.

Office hours are interesting as well, as the advertised times they are available are to their own making. There is no other place where a professional has this much autonomy over their work hours. Administrators do not even have this freedom.  We need to take a closer look at some of these issues and work to create a more horizontally accountable community. Beginning to look at these issues from a bigger picture would begin to connect some of these dots across institutions.

Anne: How do you help new professionals create a professional ethical identity?

Father Jim: New professionals need to go out and meet all sorts of individuals across the university. I run a center on faith and culture. Part of the work of the center is to run professional development for the university community. For many years the seminars were just for tenure track faculty. It has changed and now we have more adjunct faculty attending and one of the trends the faculty attending realize is that others across the university are feeling the same way they are: isolated, disconnected, and that folks at the university are more focused on their own discipline rather than betterment of the university.

At Boston College we have what are called professors of the practice. They are permanent faculty, not tenured or tenure track, but with long-term employment. I invited these faculty to dinner and they could not get over meeting one another. For the 6 months they were very excited to just get to know one another, then it turned into a book club meeting, and now they host a conference. The relationships have evolved and turned into a conversation about ethics and the moral responsibility of the university, which is what we address at the yearly conference.

People need to start realizing they know nothing about the university. We need to have folks meet one another and get out of their spaces.  Many faculty do not even know the names of the residence halls on campus. They are hard pressed to name one residence hall or even buildings on the other side of campus. Additionally many have no idea what goes on for students outside the classroom and who does that work. They are not involved in a student’s life outside of the classroom. We need to get to know one another and what we do to support the university together.  The more we collectively work the closer we get to making good ethical decisions and being able to identify ethical issues within our institutions.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s the medical profession underwent a radical transformation in how they deliver medical news to patients. Previously, it was the role of the nurse to deliver medical news to the patient and doctors would talk to family members and others involved in the decision, but not the patient. In conversations at their professional associations they began to internally investigate the practice and have debates at multiple levels. The decision ultimately was that patients should own their medical decisions and it was the ethical responsibility of doctors to give full information to patients and help them make the best decision for their situation. This is a great example of a collaborative discussion that resulted in changing an entire profession, but the decision was not made in a vacuum, but rather in a way that everyone had an opportunity to feel they had voice in the changes. I would like to challenge higher education to let the public examine their practice and decide if the institution is acting in ethical ways.


This interview was such a pleasure to conduct. The wisdom and insights of Father Jim can really aid in helping us think more deeply about ethics and how we address the very complex issues we are facing in higher education and student affairs. We have a moral responsibility to our students and those that call the academy their home. We have a moral obligation to do the hard work it takes to address these complex issues. We should be bold and brave in facilitating the tough conversations, as Father Jim challenges us to do.

Discussion Questions

  1. Ethics does not happen by taking a course but rather having conversation in the public and with the public.  How do you begin to facilitate those conversations?
  2. As student affairs professionals, how do you help create environments that embody the ethics of compassion, confidence, and accountability?
  3. Part of the difficult work around the identification of ethical issues is asking the right questions and then presenting choices. What are some ways you begin asking the right questions to be able to present the most ethical choices to the community being impacted?


Keenan, J. F. (2015). University ethics: How colleges can build and benefit from a culture of ethics.

Lanham, MD: Roman & Littlefield.

About the Author

Anne M. Hornak is a Professor and Chairperson of Educational Leadership at Central Michigan University. She teaches courses in student affairs and higher education administration, ethics, and social justice. Her research interests include ethical decision-making, transformational learning and international education, and community college students. She has been involved with ACPA as a Directorate member of the Professional Preparation Commission, where she coordinated with the ethics committee. Her most recent book is entitled, “A Day in the Life of a Student Affairs Educator: Competencies and Case Studies for Early Career Professionals” [Stylus, 2014] co-authored with Sarah Marshall.

Please e-mail inquiries to Anne M. Hornak.

The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *