THE latest trend in education, popping up everywhere from William J. Bennett's speeches to Harvard Business School endowments, is ethics. It hasn't escaped Derek Bok either, who made ethics the focus of "The President's Report: 1986-1987."
According to Bok' report, every action universities take bears on the moral development of their students: discipline, counseling procedures, even "the standard they achieve in dealing with ethical issues confronting the institution."
Bok's assertion should leave few in disagreement. "The only question," he adds, "is whether [universities] choose to proceed deliberately and with forethought." In other words, it doesn't matter what you do, as long as you think about it first.
Well, there seem to be some inconsistencies between what Derek Bok says and what he does in administering Harvard University. So I have a few additional questions for our President.
Does his support for the ethical education extend beyond the "ability to reason carefully?" He states in his report that the issue of divestment from businesses that profit from the repression in South Africa offers "the ultimate example of the difficulties of trying to demonstrate a serious concern for moral standards." Agreed.
But what is Bok's solution? Not divestment, despite vociferous demands from students, faculty, and alumni. "Campus debate can clarify moral choices and improve the quality of official decisions," Bok says. Harvard has ad-boarded divestment protestors and tolerated South African officials on its campus. Where does Bok show the willingness to be moved by campus debate or moral choice?
MAYBE I'm too demanding. Maybe President Bok doesn't think an ethical education includes demonstrating a concern for communities on the other side of the world. Does it include, as he says it should, support for community service--let's say in the general Boston area? If so, he seems to have missed a news item a few weeks ago concerning Phillips Brooks House, the center for most undergraduate public service programs.
Bok praises PBH for encouraging 60 percent of Harvard undergraduates to volunteer their time; but he didn't do a thing when PBH was forced to cut its budget by 56 percent. Colprep, a PBH tutoring project for local high school students, will be able to sustain its services only if it can raise the $1500 it lost in this year's budget cuts. To whom will Colprep turn for these funds? Not the $4.5 billion-endowed Harvard, but the Boston public schools.
Maybe the general Boston area is still too distant for Bok. Does an ethical education include concern for the community right outside Harvard--that is, the 90,000 residents of Cambridge? If so, maybe Bok could enlighten his students about the need for the new hotel that will destroy the Harvard Square Gulf station--an old-fashioned, unimposing building that advertises itself as "the last parking garage before Harvard Square." Of course, he delayed enlightening the tenants themselves, who guessed Harvard's plans only by hearing rumors and seeing trucks.
The present tenants of the Gulf station--like many members of the Cambridge City Council--think that the new hotel will create traffic, will remove desperately needed parking space, and will make Harvard Square uglier and more expensive. How does Harvard, speaking through Associate Vice President for State and Community Affairs Jacqueline O'Neill, counter these charges? With the comment, "Change is always threatening to people."
MAYBE President Bok doesn't think the ethical education of his students should include concern for anything at all outside of Harvard. If so, the drive to form a union for Harvard's Clerical and Technical Workers should qualify as a legitimate student concern. Bok was actually in his office to receive a 3000-signature petition asking the university to stop intimidating employees into voting against the union.
Bok's reception of the students, however, was less than warm. While students presented evidence of an antiunion campaign--such as asking work supervisors to oppose the unions and spreading rumors about senior employees' loss of status--Bok denied any knowledge or complicity. When the students offered to give reasoned arguments in a written list of complaints, Bok said he probably wouldn't have time to look at it. Still, it doesn't bother Bok to say that "universities should be the last institutions to discourage a belief in the value of reasoned argument and carefully considered evidence in analyzing even the hardest human problems."
It is hard to believe that defending the University's unethical decisions is enough to foster ethics in students. Yet Bok's report gives nothing but lip service to the dilemma of educating ethics, and concludes only that students can learn from the vague power of example. "Universities will never do much to encourage a genuine concern for the ethical issues...unless presidents and deans take the lead." It might strike some readers of the President's Report that the wrong person is addressing the wrong people about the need for ethical education.