Should academics be moral agents?

Tayo Oke

this topic touches on a very sensitive, delicate issue of discipline in universities and other institutions of higher learning in this country. It is about the right boundary between a lecturer and their student and whether, aside from imparting knowledge, a lecturer also stands, or ought to stand in locus parentis (in place of parents) vis-à-vis their students.

Put simply, should lecturers be involved in teaching morality to students, or should that fall squarely on the shoulders of parents? Should campuses in higher institutions engage the services of moral police to put open display of affection in check? More crucially, should all forms of sexual contact between and amongst students be forbidden? We have seen a couple of ‘exposes’ on university lecturers allegedly engaging in “sex for marks” and how those caught have faced the wrath of the institution’s disciplinary brigade, and quite rightly so in many people’s view.

That still begs the question: Should there be a blanket ban on any form of sexual contact between a lecturer and a student, even where that is freely given and is between two consenting adults? This is a vexed question that has not been properly debated amidst the furore and moral outrage provoked by the news headlines on the “sex for marks” scandals of recent months.

While stories of sordid relationships and illicit affairs on campuses abound, the flip side is also that a lot of lasting marriages are known to have been consummated on campuses as between students, lecturers, or lecturer and student. Should there be room for, (excuse the phrase), ‘sex for love’ between a lecturer and a student? I ask this because it reminds me of my days as a student in the United Kingdom. One of my heads of department waited until he had officially disengaged with a female colleague of ours, before starting a discreet relationship with her, which eventually culminated in a marriage to the young lady, whom he then mentored along the academic path until she became a lecturer herself in the same department of the same university. No one raised an eyebrow, and everyone embraced them as if it meant nothing to anyone other than the couple themselves. The critical point there is that such an incident was never seen through the lens of morality, but only as a matter of policy. The intimacy between my then head of department and the student was not about sex at all, since it took place between two consenting adults. It was seen entirely as a matter of power and influence, which no longer existed at the start of their relationship.

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Having said that, even ‘sex for love’ is fraught with all kinds of risks so much that it is right for it to be forbidden with a student over whom a lecturer continues to exercise power and influence. Nothing to do with morality, but policy. That said, “sex for marks”, or for any other material gain is crude and it is in a completely different category. It is way outside the remit of the discussion in this piece. It is outright corruption, breach of trust, abuse of power, and is universally and roundly condemned. Now, going back to the question. Should university campuses be free for open display of affection towards the opposite sex amongst the student population? Or, is it the job of academics and school authorities to turn their students into hyper moral beings, willy-nilly? That is to say, no touching, hugging, petting or kissing with the opposite sex, pronto! Picture a scenario where students simply walk alongside one another ashen-faced, and in a zombie-like fashion. How unusual and incredibly disconcerting that would be? If, however, we choose to go down that path, is that not a slippery slope towards “Talibanisation” of campuslife? Because, in the final analysis, whose morality ought to prevail anyway?: Muslim? Christian? Hindu? Confucian? Jewish? Animist? Traditionalist? Eighteenth-century? Which?  And if it is not the job of university authorities to get involved in championing a moral cause, is there not also the potential for another slippery slope towards a free-for-all, anything-goes, nihilism?

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Should university authorities simply focus on collecting fees, and imparting knowledge in a moral vacuum? More like the old Philistines, who knew the price of everything but the value of nothing? This just goes to show clearly that the question of on-campus moral rectitude is not given to the black and white narrative that the media portrays sometimes.

It is never an open and shut case for any institution of higher learning. It would be easy for these institutions if parents had done their homework on their own children, instill moral values in them before packing them off to higher institutions. As an illustration, if a student with a penchant for recreational drugs enrolled in an institution that preaches zero tolerance to such, or one that preaches abstinence on campus, how does it enforce the established rules without being vilified as turning the institution into a “glorified secondary school”? Is there not the caveat; to be forewarned, is to be forearmed?

There is a strong strand of opinion in academia that denies moral agency of any kind of their lecturers. This was once strictly enforced in this country during the bad years of military dictatorship in the 1980s, when academics were routinely hounded out of their jobs for “teaching what they are not paid to teach”. Apparently, academics were not paid to delve into the morality of military presence in civilian life and the value of free speech.

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That was the reactionary elements in the military against academic freedom as it represented an existential challenge to them. But, that is what harping onto moral policing of any kind does; it stifles liberty, and flies in the face of rational thinking.

This is why many academics around the world do not conceive for themselves any role beyond imparting knowledge to students. Many do not even see themselves as “teachers” in the conventional sense, but merely “lecturers”, in to make a good delivery, and out once that is done.

Whatever the student takes from that is entirely their own business. That position is also reaching another extreme, of course, and it is untenable in the modern age. Students cannot and should not be treated as empty vessels waiting to be filled up and closed up at the behest of “lecturers”. There are a lot of extraneous matters in campus life that diverge from strict impartation of knowledge. No lecturer can bury their head in the sand like an ostrich and let things fly over.

The ostrich may end up being consumed by fire lit by a bunch of rudderless students in whom it had failed to instil discipline. You get my drift? For higher institutions, it is a case of damned if they do and damned if they do not.

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