Colleges in Crisis
Apr 28, 2021 | 6 minute read

Tags: college enrollment, colleges in crisis, coronavirus, ethics in education, ethics in enrollment

Love Students: An Ethical Framework

By Sarah Birmingham Drummond

If colleges and universities are to successfully navigate challenges ahead, they are going to have to do more than getting used to words like “merger”, they are going to have to make hard choices. Choices that not only involve the standard financial, regulatory, real estate and legal issues but raise ethical issues as well. Here are a few:

  • Is it ethical to admit new students without high confidence that you can graduate them on time and with adequate resources?
  • Can you trade the well-being of future students (if you enroll them) with that of existing students?
  • Is it ethical to accept students who you believe would be better off — in all respects — going elsewhere?
  • Is it ethical not to tell students something (true) which, had you told them, would have led them not to enroll?
  • Is not doing something that would help students, ethically different from doing something which hurts them?
  • What obligations does an institution have to other institutions and their students?
  • What ethical frameworks can be used to balance the competing claims of staff, faculty, students (current and future), when trustees must make hard decisions?

The most asinine exchange I can remember from a job interview went something like this: I was interviewing for a position as campus minister in a large, public, flagship, research institution. Something was amiss in the campus ministry, and they weren’t sure whether or what to tell me about it. Why be so secretive, I wondered?

Here’s how I asked the question of this skittish search committee: “If you were me, how worried would you be in taking this job that it wouldn’t exist in three years?” Silence ensued. Then a member of the board said, “Well, I wouldn’t take this job, but I have three children.”

I found this response awful. This committee member knew nothing about me except snippets of my family situation. Yet, she projected onto me a tolerance for uncertainty that she herself didn’t possess, which didn’t make me feel like she thought me brave, but rather unimportant.

One core normative ethical principle many cultures consider self-evident is that of “equal regard,” where we treat others as we would like to be treated. In the Christian tradition, in which I am an ordained minister, some call this the “love commandment”. As we think about instability in higher education, an ethic of equal regard – love – can help us consider the extent to which we can rightly impose risk on others.

I think back to 2011 in my own institution, Andover Newton Theological School, now Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School. We were fragile. Extended and expensive affiliation negotiations with several other institutions had come to naught. We knew we were going to have to do… something. We didn’t know what that something would be, however, and we didn’t want to telegraph our weakness such that our concerns about future viability became a self-fulfilling prophesy. Did we lie to entering students? New staff and faculty hires? Maybe some felt we had, but we just didn’t know what the future would hold and were trying, in the moment, to be faithful.

There is a line, of course, between needing time to figure things out — and necessarily keeping deliberations private until the ideas are more than half-baked — and carrying out a bait-and-switch. Any higher education leader can concoct an argument for why even the most advanced point in a transformational process is still “too early to say.” However, uncertainty doesn’t free them from ethical obligations. “We admitted you for September. We closed your program in October, because how were we to have known?” I call B-S.

A humane ethic of equal regard – love – can help us make wiser decisions. Boards and administrators must love their students as they love themselves. Across the nation, boards already express great concern about student safety regarding sexual violence and racism. The same sense of responsibility must carry over to concern for students’ educational and life goals, with the guiding assumption that the student’s goals are important, even in the context of the collective goals of the institution.

Theologian and philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr was circumspect in his expectations that institutions would ever be capable of treating people with equal regard. The title of his masterwork, Moral Man and Immoral Society, written in the wake of World War II, reflects his thoughts on collective attempts at altruism. That said, Niebuhr also believed that institutions should try to love, while accepting that any successes would be fragmentary and focusing on what goodness is achievable given limited resources. In other words, institutions should strive for the ideal of treating all parties with equal regard amidst tough decisions even though they’re never going to be able to please everyone or fix everything.

Leaving people disappointed is a particular risk given the extent of parentification in higher education. We all carry with us a vestigial desire, sometimes perceived as a need, to have someone take care of us. Students look to their schools for it, trusting that their school would never allow real life to rain down upon them. This explains why students have been so bitterly disappointed with colleges that didn’t get a Covid-19 policy right on the first try. Students trust their colleges so much they think colleges must have secret, innate knowledge of how to handle a novel virus the world has never encountered! When leaders in higher education literally don’t know what they are doing, even when such knowledge is not available to humanity, students are shocked. That, my friend, is parentification.

And it’s not just students. Faculty, staff, and alumni/ae at times unconsciously place inordinate trust in institutions to shield human beings from the impact of bad things. As long as leaders are human, we are not always going to enough knowledge or resources to do the right thing. But here are some ethical principles that can guide us in imperfect situations that call for tough choices:

  1. Never lie. We don’t know what we don’t know, of course, but if we feel like we’re lying, we probably are.
  2. Love students. Not just the ones who enroll in our schools, but those who might choose not to in light of the truth about our institutions. And love the students at other schools too.
  3. Do all we can to suspend self-interest and imagine our constituents as having the same desires and needs we do.
  4. Recognize our limits in satisfying everyone or knowing what the future holds.
  5. Resist parentification and other dysfunctional projections that suggest that our institutions can perfectly take care of people even if we treat them with equal regard.
  6. Make no assumptions about what risks others might be willing to tolerate.

I have had professional experiences when I felt like my needs weren’t important to those with power. I’ve had other experiences where I’ve caused the same feeling in others. The experience of closing, moving, and reopening a school had dug in me a deeper well of compassion as I read about schools going through changes that require sacrifice and cause sadness. I am the last person to say, “Why couldn’t they have just…” (fill in the blank with some pat solution that the institution probably tried along with a hundred other ideas). I hope that an ethic of equal regard causes the burden of sadness to be divvied up among many, lightening its load and enabling healing and new life.

Sarah Birmingham Drummond is Founding Dean of Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School

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