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Can ethical behavior be legislated?

If there is one underlying idea that drives the effort to pass Ohio’s Senate Bill 24, it seems to be the idea that college faculty cannot be trusted to behave ethically in their dealings with students, in what they teach and how they assess and grade.

College faculty are probably no better or worse than other people in their ethics. But in my experience, both university administrators and faculty know that it is in their interest to have everyone behave ethically. What this bill ignores is that there are already remedies available within the universities and in the courts for the most egregious violations of ethics, and tries to micromanage ethical behavior by detailing what can and cannot be read, taught, discussed, and examined in each course.

I am not convinced that people can be forced to behave ethically. The presence of rules can prevent the more obvious or overt forms of unethical behavior, but it cannot completely eliminate them. For example, we know that there are laws on the books, and official university policies, that prohibit discrimination against people based on their gender, ethnicity, or religion. We also know that we have to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities.

But do we really believe that the existence of such laws and policies has eliminated discrimination? People who want to can always find ways within the laws to discriminate against people. In fact, the creation of lots of rules might work against more ethical behavior because it shifts the burden of proof. Now someone can say that as long as they are following the rules, they are behaving ethically, although they may be violating the spirit of ethical behavior.

People who value ethical behavior will, if left to themselves, of their own accord go beyond the letter of the law. Putting a lot of rules and regulations around them is likely to create resentment and hostility and a rule-following mentality.

For example, there are lots of things that instructors can do to help or hinder students that cannot be governed by rules. How an instructor responds when a students asks a question in class or asks for assistance outside of class can have a huge impact on a student’s attitude and learning. The amount of encouragement that an instructor gives, the level of guidance the instructor provides, even the letters of recommendation that they write, are very important for students, but such things cannot be legislated.

The same thing applies to students. An instructor who puts in a lot of rules designed to ‘make students learn’ is, in my opinion, doing something counterproductive. When confronted with a lot of rules and requirements, most students will simply do what is asked for and no more. What an instructor should do is to try and create the conditions which makes students want to learn and then give them the resources to do so. Learning is an inherently voluntary act and you cannot force people to learn any more than you can force them to act ethically.

There will be the rare student who will abuse this freedom, just as there will be the rare professor who abuses the freedom given to him or her. But they have to be treated as special cases and dealt with accordingly. Putting in a lot of rules to take care of such isolated cases results in the learning experience being spoiled for everyone else.

In my own experience most, if not all, students react very positively to being entrusted to take charge of their own learning. Our goal in universities should be to create students who are self-directed and ethical learners, people who enjoy learning even when no one is looking over their shoulders, and to encourage faculty to trust students and be ethical in their dealings with them.

How can people learn to achieve this higher level of self-direction if they are always viewed with suspicion and constrained by detailed rules? What we should be aiming for are fewer rules, not more.

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