What is the Academic Life? 3. Upholding Professional Standards and Ethics

by Steve McCarty

Professor, Osaka Jogakuin College and University

President, World Association for Online Education

Original Source: Education India Journal, 2 (2), 4-14 (May 2013)
[reprinted at this permanent URL by permission of the Editor]


Previous articles in this series ventured general answers concerning the nature of the academic life, the time-honored but contested mission of universities, and the interconnected world community of scholars (McCarty, 2012a; 2012b). To review those articles before this conclusion, see http://www.waoe.org/steve/academic_life_1.html

This article will apply the previous principles to further clarify the nature of education and the exemplary life of the educator. Ethics will be distinguished from values and morals, with professional ethics added to academic ethics. The role of educators in society is suggested, with examples given of how professional ethics are upheld or violated. In order to clarify standards and to uphold ethics in the real world of experience, it is necessary to challenge unethical practices, because there is quite a difference in outcomes in each individual and society depending on whether educators live the academic life or not.

The role of Educators in forming Cultural Identity

Parents start to impart humanness to infants, but then education becomes a strong force of enculturation, steering students onto a certain track in a society. To illustrate the process of enculturation, pre-school children in Japan, wearing the same uniforms, their back pushed if necessary to bow before a shrine, start to become Japanese. With every act of communication in their ethnic group, their membership in a culture deepens. A culture is a distinct set of implicit expectations to behave, think, and communicate in certain ways cumulative of the history of the group.

If the social environment changes and a person encounters a different language and culture, an acculturation process of accommodation to the other culture can be observed. When the individual’s first culture is well established through education, the process of becoming bilingual, and bicultural if desired, or multilingual and multicultural, can be entirely additive, with cognitive benefits. Regardless of the outcome in terms of career or enlightenment, there was a certain prior education, and each educator in the process held a great responsibility for the future of each child.

Provided educators are treated with due respect by decision-makers in schools and governments, then educators can serve not as nine-to-five workers but exemplars of cultural identity and the educated life. In higher education, where foreign teachers widen the scope of learning, a collegial faculty can represent multilingualism, multiculturalism, and peace where reconciliation between cultures currently in conflict is sorely needed. Thus educators are stewards of cultural identity and bridges for enquiring minds to a more global outlook.

Education as a Meta-Profession

Having seen how education and the living example of educators influence the cognitive development of young people, education continually influences the shape of society for adults as well. Majors in higher education, vocational school courses, continuing education, or self-study with educational materials largely determine the kinds of professions that exist, and influence their professional ethos. That is, a kind of education took place prior to each formal manifestation of the professions in a society. Moreover, what is learned in liberal arts or general education can apply to many if not all professions. Thus the educator is a meta-professional whose responsibility extends to the occupations that exist in society, the quality of work performed, and the level of professional ethics generally upheld.

The Professoriate as Stewards of the Professions

Focusing on professors and the worldwide community of scholars sharing academic standards and ethics, higher education is a meta-profession in various ways. American academics use the term meta-professional to describe the roles and skills expected of a professor besides the content area knowledge that they teach, particularly "scholarly or creative activities (including research), service to the institution and community, and administration" (Theall & Arreola, n.d.). The Kardia Group details the typical contemporary American faculty career trajectory, stating that "[f]aculty careers are considered to be a meta-profession: a complex collection of responsibilities, skills, and demands for which there can be no uniform training or preparation" (n.d.). While that is true as far as it goes, the formulation has been criticized as applying almost equally well to other professions. Gemma (2011) points to IT as an example of a meta-professional skill that is needed now by nearly all professions. The term "meta-professional" and the phrase "stewards of the professions" have also been used too narrowly to aggrandize a certain discipline such as management or some aspect of health care.

The above sources seem to completely miss the meaning of education as a meta-profession suggested here. Education is the ultimate meta-profession that sets the standards and ethics for the occupations that constitute each society, and as a global scholarly community, thus guides the world. Higher education particularly shapes and upholds the standards and ethics of professional occupations. It stands above other professions in providing their education, guiding principles, methodology, and ethical responsibilities.
That is, in real life the professions tend to function autonomously and do not necessarily respond ethically to issues outside of their technical expertise. For example, expediency may prevail regardless of the environmental impact. Across professions, doctors do not instruct lawyers or economists to follow the Hippocratic oath to do no harm. Doctors themselves may be corrupted by the profit motive to perform unnecessary tests or to cover up their mistakes, as nurses well know. The military is actually a profession that maintains standards well at most levels, but it relies on obedience, so it must be pointed in the right direction by global ethics. Only the professoriate plays a role in society that can plausibly uphold professional standards and ethics across different fields. This makes it crucial for professors to exemplify the highest academic standards possible in their own conduct.

Values, Morals, and Professional Ethics

While the professoriate is best placed to guide society on global issues with reason, the proper scope of interventions in professional ethics needs to be clarified. Educators can speak out when other occupations go astray ethically, or when everyday practices are harmful and could be improved. Values may be part of an inviolable culture or interpretation of a religion, what is considered good or bad, to be embraced or avoided, and what is more or less important when it comes to priorities. Individuals may also refine their own values. Yet there are customs in certain cultures that are harmful, for example to women's health. Their values reflect good intentions, so it is the practices, how they impart their values, that may need to be questioned, or education in alternative ways to accomplish the same goals may be offered.

There is some overlap among values, morals, and ethics, but morals tend to be widely accepted socially, and based in belief systems or ideologies. Morals are often codified in proverbs or narratives, where the conclusion is sometimes explicitly framed in English as 'the moral of the story.' Morals, however, tend to result in strong judgments that others are good people or immoral. To moralize would tend to just pit one cultural value system against another. Effective interventions would be constructive and probably indirect. For one thing, morals of individuals suffer under socio-economic duress, so the root causes may be treated, such as the lack of human dignity. The scope of peace-making may be limited where morals differ, except for educators to appeal to underlying common values and good intentions.

The concern of academics is more toward professional ethics, where being unethical is unprofessional (cf. Changing Minds, n.d.) and vice versa. Professional morals or values are not the issue but rather the ethos of a profession in the normative sense. Ethos or mores refer descriptively to the prevailing values practiced in a certain time and place. Academic standards and ethics apply particularly to professional ethics. For example, academic honesty versus dishonesty, where falsified research can be dangerous or misleading, can be readily applied to other professions.

Standards, as distinct from ethics, in an academic sense are scientific or mathematical signposts, statistical measurements or accepted practices to ensure quality, academic honesty, methodological reliability, and objectivity. To avoid subjectivity or emotionally laden value judgments, the quantitative paradoxically becomes qualitative as standards quantify quality. Conversely, to fall short of standards is considered poor quality, and to deliberately violate the standards of a discipline is considered unethical.

Upholding Professional Standards and Ethics

Thus far, this article has pointed out the great responsibility of educators in shaping the ethos of each society and the world, as each individual is educated either fairly or unjustly. Educators belong to a meta-profession that stewards the standards and ethics of professions that might otherwise devolve into self-serving occupations insulated from global ethical issues. While the scope of educator activism has limits, nowhere is critical thinking more justified than in academic professions and within educators themselves.

Previous articles in this series suggested that academic standards and ethics provide ample guidance for the educator to live by. That is, educators ought to play an active role upholding professional ethics in their society, but this mission would be undermined if they did not live it themselves. That is what the title of this series, the academic life, ultimately means. Not to privilege the professoriate, but professors are uniquely placed in society to publicly and credibly uphold professional standards and ethics, and, provided they have academic freedom, to speak truth to power. The responsibility to positively influence society has been entrusted to scholars through the centuries, represented by the idea of the university.

Unfortunately it is all too easy to make an endless list of betrayals of the academic mission, though it may sound judgmental to venture into specific examples. There are general problems such as economic and political pressures from society pushing universities toward vocationalization. University administrations and staff have swelled (Berrett, 2011) while part-timers teach more and more of the classes that students and families are hard-pressed to afford. Besides general problems there are institutional issues that go against Academia as a meritocracy, such as factionalism, nepotism, bribery, cronyism or favoritism. There should not be one set of rules for rank and file teachers, while insiders can abrogate the rules with impunity.

Universities lack universality either when their activities do not extend beyond their gates, or when opportunism and careerism determine what faculty members research and publish. When teachers find romance in the student body, even if they marry a former student, what began as an unequal power relationship was in effect exploited, and the non-physical social contract of trust in a credentialed authority figure was betrayed. Since the academic life does not end when the bell rings, the examples here simply apply academic standards and ethics to the conduct of professional educators.

In Japanese, 'salaryman professor' is a derisive expression understood by the general public. Whether male or female, there are expectations of academic and voluntary activities that distinguish a professor from a lower paid teacher. This also applies to side jobs, taking advantage of a lighter teaching load to supplement one's income. Or when academic activities are actively pursued only until entering the desired position or promotion to full professor, that is not the academic life.

A similar notion in Japanese is the 'salary thief,' a sort of "free rider" (Hardin, 2003) who does the minimum necessary. For accreditation reviews or university rankings, the aggregate of faculty academic accomplishments is measured. The professor with seniority or connections may have little incentive beyond social activities on campus. Of course to cut corners, to vanity publish, to use graduate students and take credit for their work, to list an author who did not write part of a publication, to list authors in order of rank rather than the amount contributed, or any other misrepresentation would be unethical.

Nowadays many Westerners can get advanced degrees insofar as their socio-economic background affords, but if their research day or free time is spent on hobbies and so forth, perhaps their character was not really suited for Academia. Professors are given time for self-motivated initiatives, research, mentoring, community involvement, and so forth, not so that they can moonlight, go bicycling or water their lawn before dusk. Colleagues ought to be collegial, not to gossip or withhold cooperation out of professional jealousy. Professors should be professorial and able to profess.

Educators are vulnerable to exploitation through excessive campus duties, classes at branch schools, or student recruitment activities. Such economically motivated duties are not justified insofar as they block scholarly activities and academic exchanges outside of the institution. Administrators from a high school background or who did not deeply internalize graduate education may overlook academic activities. Junior or community colleges may excuse faculty from research but assign them many classes, in some cases calling all teachers instructors, democratically equating them with driving school trainers, and then paying them accordingly.

A more positive notion seen in Japan is that of 'Ph.D. or equivalent (accomplishments).' While a degree is finished or terminal, graduate school is preparation for a career applying and building upon that concentrated study. A credential received years or decades ago is not an entitlement to a living without academic accomplishments having continually grown. An academic with a Master's degree could be on a doctoral dissertation committee at a major university because of expertise in the area of the thesis. Peer-reviewed publications or reviewing such manuscripts, along with other such demonstrations of expertise can be taken as equivalent to terminal degree training. Some institutions are merely swayed by impressive titles or credentialism, but the notion of 'Ph.D. or equivalent' is closer to proven scholarship. Also the notion of a specialization 'or related field' takes into account the interdisciplinary nature of contemporary scholarship, where a related 'cluster of specializations' can be more comprehensive. Narrow-mindedness is the antithesis of the academic life.

In conclusion, the question is what each person in the world community of scholars can do to uphold academic and professional ethics, to improve society while conducting an honest search for truth in their own lives. By working hard and upholding professional ethics, the educator or professor merits recognition for being responsive to the needs of society and the world. If that sounds idealistic, so be it. Academia is or should be a meritocracy, so those who live the academic life should become leaders in some ways in their institutions, exemplars of professional standards and ethics to their societies, and, with global networking, guiding lights to the world.


Berrett, D. (2011). The fall of the faculty. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/07/14/new_book_argues_bloated_administration_is_what_ails_higher_education

Changing Minds (n.d.). Values, morals and ethics. Retrieved from http://changingminds.org/explanations/values/values_morals_ethics.htm

Gemma (2011). The Meta Professional – like everyone. Gemma’s Reflections on Education. Retrieved from http://gemma-ed-thinks.blogspot.jp/2011/05/meta-professional-like-everyone.html

Hardin, R. (2003). The free rider problem. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/free-rider/

The Kardia Group (n.d.). Professional and Organizational Development in Academia. Retrieved from http://www.kardiagroup.com/node/65

McCarty, S. (2012a). What is the academic life? 1. General answers to essential questions. Education India Journal, 1 (3), 6-12. Retrieved from http://www.waoe.org/steve/academic_life_1.html

McCarty, S. (2012b). What is the academic life? 2. The idea of the university. Education India Journal, 1 (4), 52-65. Retrieved from http://www.waoe.org/steve/academic_life_2.html

Theall, M. & Arreola, R. (n.d.). The multiple roles of a college professor. National Education Association. Retrieved from http://www.nea.org/home/34715.htm

28 May 2013
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