The Moral University

I was reading this thoughtful piece by Chad Wellmon, a professor at UVA after the disastrous events in Charlottesville. The article is probably behind a paywall so I am going to excerpt portions that matter to my argument. Chad starts with a frank admission

The contemporary university, at least in its local form in Charlottesville, seems institutionally incapable of moral clarity. 

Wellmon's expressing that sentiment in the context of a repulsive ideology that descended on the UVA campus and from all appearances that ideology is blessed by none other than the president of the United States. While his university president, Teresa Sullivan, condemned the event, Wellmon says

Sullivan’s missives, especially her initial ones, read like press releases from the bowels of a modern bureaucracy, not the thoughts of a human responding to hate.

Which makes him think that

As a university president, Sullivan is, in the words of Thorstein Veblen, a captain of erudition, not the leader of a community bound to a common moral mission.

Which feels about right to me. But to be fair to universities, while they have failed in having a common moral purpose, they do instill certain virtues

robust epistemic virtues —— an openness to debate, a commitment to critical inquiry, attention to detail, a respect for argument —— embedded in historical practices particular to the university. They provide those within and outside the university with essential goods.

That feels right too - every scholar I know takes those values seriously and whether at MIT or at UVA, those epistemic virtues are passed down the generations. However, are these epistemic virtues enough? Wellmon doesn't think so

these scholarly practices and virtues are also insufficient. The university has moral limitations. Universities cannot impart comprehensive visions of the good. They cannot provide ultimate moral ends. Their goods are proximate. Faculty members, myself included, need to acknowledge that most university leaders lack the language and moral imagination to confront evils such as white supremacy. 

That lack doesn't stem from individual failure; it's built into the system. For

They lack those things not because of who they are, but, as Weber argued, because of what the modern research university has become. Such an acknowledgment is also part of the moral clarity that we can offer to ourselves and to our students. We have goods to offer, but they are not ultimate goods

(bold is mine)

So if universities can't offer ultimate goods who can? Wellmon thinks

universities need to look outside themselves and partner with other moral traditions and civic communities

Which is possible when understanding racial prejudice and white supremacy because the university was never at the heart of that moral struggle. As a thought experiment, let's replace racial justice with climate justice. Unlike racism, which predates the modern research university, climate justice is a response to a condition caused by modern technologies and forms of production and consumption researched by, for and with universities. Complex models created by university researchers help corporations dig for oil in the Arctic and complex models created by university researchers help those protesting the melting of the Arctic.

The university is central to the climate problem in a way it's not to race. And a university such as MIT historically tied to the successes of the fossil fuel industry has an additional moral burden. We can't take the Wellmon route of looking outside ourselves or stop short of offering ultimate goods. 

How do we look within? How do we embody ultimate goods?


Rick Shankman's picture

"How do we look within? How

"How do we look within? How do we embody ultimate goods?"

Well, a good start would be devoting less effort to purely esoteric and distracting ClimateX postings and more effort towards focused climate action.

For that "look within"... just walk one block down Portland to N16.