Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Universities and the Rise of Moral Relativism

By Richard Vedder

Honestly, I increasingly believe universities don't know the difference between right and wrong, good and bad, just and unjust. This perhaps should not be surprising, given the rise in a culture of moral relativism that holds that the Ten Commandments are old fashioned or at least needing amending.

The latest incident to rekindle this issue in my mind is the plagiarism case at Southern Illinois University (SIU). I am a native Illinoisan with three degrees from two universities in that state (Northwestern and Illinois). SIU has always hustled hard to argue they are an emerging peer school to my alma maters (and the University of Chicago), but they have never quite made it. The current brouhaha reminds me why that is the case.

SIU has a president, Glenn Poshard, who has three degrees from that school, including a doctorate in education. He also has been a politician. Why a university would hire someone who never had any familiarity with one of the better universities in the United States is beyond me; why they would hire a marginally successful politician (he lost his race for Governor) is even more questionable. But I don't know the man and maybe there is something there.

Getting to moral relativism, our friends at the Chicago Tribune have written stories that makes it appear that Poshard plagiarized part of his dissertation. To me, plagiarism is a pretty serious academic crime, and for a university president to have engaged in it, even 24 years ago, is pretty devastating. Has the SIU Board of Trustees appointed a special committee to investigate, using non-SIU experts as resources? No. Have the faculty demanded that the President be fired for his dishonesty? No, at least not at the formal, official level. What has Poshard done? Asked the college that awarded him the degree to evaluate the charges. Aside from the obvious conflict of interest from the fact that the faculty work for Poshard, the faculty are also potentially guilty of improper conduct or at least professional negligence. No one seems to care much about this.

My own university, Ohio University, had a plagiarism scandal of its own recently, reported in this space and elsewhere, including the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education. Although my university was very slow in reacting, it finally did take some steps, including rescinding some degrees and punishing a couple of professors. I was mad because the faculty did not, and will not, take a principled stand against plagiarism and this particular behavior. It seems SIU may be following in the same path. We hear all the time of famous historians who stole parts of other persons work without attribution. What has happened to "thou shall not steal" in academia? Poshard is rightly innocent until proven guilty, but the general lackadaisical view of these transgressions shows that universities are increasingly losing their moral high ground, places where honesty and truth reign. In time people might say, "Why do we subsidize this behavior?" But again, maybe they won't --since the whole nation may be losing its way morally.

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