Moral perspective is the legitimate work of a university, for without it there is no possibility of intellectual fulfillment, advancement, achievement, or satisfaction. Intellect and morality are like inhaling and exhaling, one without the other is of no real utility. But moral perspective will draw lines in the sand which are loved and hated. Loved because they provide clarity about how things should be and hated for what that clarity reveals.
Public universities have tried moral abstinence for over half a century. It is not working.
We make rules and regulations to describe our moral perspective. It is profoundly debilitating to have a code that changes annually determine morality. Morality comes through developed human understanding. Someone once said that you do not become ethical by studying comparative ethics, but by living within a moral framework. Difficult and challenging though it may be personal responsibility and accountability, concepts that get to the heart of morality, are critical to healthy learning organizations and we must hold high the idea of moral perspective, discuss it, deliberate on it, and work to encourage it in our students all the while being respectful of differences.
In a graduate seminar recently we had a discussion about morality on the campus. It grew from a series of readings that addressed the issue of engaging the whole student. This subject fell into the pot of characteristics that should be part of the aspirational leadership of the university.
Thankfully all of the students held that a good leader needs a firm and well defined moral perspective, as it allows a triangulation of leadership and university mission. I was impressed that two of the members of the class were Eagle Scouts, and a thorough discussion of the Boy Scout Law, introduced by my cohort ensued. The Scout Law in summary says that a Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.
While the whole of the Scout Law generated a great deal of dialog, most interesting to me was the seriousness with which these advanced graduate students treated the ideas that make up this often quoted, better-than-so-much-else-remembered string of ideas from our youth, was prolonged dialog regarding reverence and its place in Our University. We tried to figure out why modern society elevates tolerance to a virtue, when reverence for each other is so much more powerful, positive, and uplifting. Universities get it wrong. Boy Scouts get it right. The Scout Law it says “A Scout is reverent toward God. He is faithful in his religious duties. He respects the beliefs of others.”
Reverence is elegant. Tolerance is acceptance.
While the university has a complex job to do, teaching the skills and attributes of professional life and a thoughtful, meaningful existence, there is no possibility that this good work can be accomplished in a moral vacuum. The university needs moral perspective. We will never be the economic development engine that we should be for Southern Illinois if we are unwilling to ponder moral perspective.
Richard Burdon (Viscount) Haldane, British Statesman and Chancellor, University of Bristol said, “It is in universities that…the soul of a people mirrors itself.”
We should be proud of what we see in the mirror. We should be proud of Southern – after all – it reflects us and it is Our University.