Lauren Bialystok: An Academic Code of Conduct for Proto-Authoritarian Times

Lauren Bialystok

Assistant Professor, Department of Social Justice Education, OISE, University of Toronto

Rachel Barney’s inspiring code of conduct for academics in these proto-authoritarian times taps into a long-standing and widely held recognition that academics are a unique kind of professional.  We have the opportunity and the responsibility to conduct disinterested research and promote public education that undermines false, discriminatory, and anti-democratic ideologies. Regardless of their significant ethical obligations and social contributions, few other professions are able (in principle) to influence public discourse and guard knowledge so directly.  This is why fascist regimes often begin by muzzling or “disappearing” public intellectuals.

While the weight of responsibility for each item in Barney’s list may fall differentially on academics who are primarily teachers and those who are primarily scholars, all academics, especially in Canada’s publicly funded university system, should take note.  Under the Harper administration, Canadian academics already experienced the direct silencing of scientific research that was deemed politically inconvenient, and the defunding of many areas of research regarded as superfluous.  Americans can only expect worse under Trump. If academics don’t speak out against these violations, who will?

That said, I want to comment on the individualist language of Barney’s code and reflect on the nature of responsibility within professional organizations.  All 10 of Barney’s codes begin with or include the statement “I will.”  I realize this is standard within professional ethics codes, and for good reason. The responsibility to behave ethically cannot be diffused amorphously across a group of professionals.  Consider doctors.  Each individual doctor must commit to do no harm, or they do not belong in the profession.

When it comes to acting ethically in the face of authoritarianism, I worry that individuals cannot be saddled with so much responsibility, or at least not equally saddled.  Professors may have different abilities to refuse to be complicit in authoritarian actions, depending on factors such as rank, employment security, gender, family status, physical health, and so on.  This goes for all political action and defiance of authority.  In a recent petition against an unpopular administrator, I was explicitly advised not to sign because of my precarious status as pre-tenure.  Professors bear our burdens as defenders of free inquiry in different degrees at different times.

I would hope that most or all professors would feel comfortable making a commitment to items such as 6, 7 and 10, which have to do with personal academic conduct; but items 1, 2, 4, and 5, for example, may require more than many individuals can safely promise.  In item 8, Barney writes “I will, as my capacities allow, discourage and defend against bullying and harassment…” Perhaps we can take the liberty of reading this caveat into the rest of the list as well.

This is not to say that I think professors can easily shy away from their ethical responsibilities.  Rather, I want to highlight that there are differences between what individuals can do, and consequently what they might promise to do.  Moreover, our individual abilities must be understood in the context of coordinated action.  I wonder if there is a way to articulate the collective code of conduct for anti-authoritarian professional ethics, one that takes seriously the categorical entity implied by the word ‘profession’.  If the values and commitments outlined in Barney’s checklist are in some sense specific to academia, then perhaps we should not leave them to the discretion of individual academics.

Indeed, effective actions in the face of repressive and anti-intellectual regimes usually stem from groups rather than individuals.  In response to Harper’s anti-science policies, the Canadian Association of University Teachers organized the “Get Science Right” campaign, which may not have altered federal policies, but at least built a visible coalition of concerned academics and reduced the risk to any single participant.  In my view such professional organizations and collective campaigns are now more urgent than ever. They can emanate from individual administrators or institutions – a responsibility that Barney recognizes in the 9th item on the checklist – but at their most effective they unite the efforts of individual academics, producing a result that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Because I am a catastrophic thinker, the anti-authoritarian code of conduct makes me think of how professionals have reacted historically to Nazis, witch hunts, torture, and the like.  Some heroes uphold all the commitments under unimaginable circumstances.  Barney has clearly explained that she is not demanding heroism.  But thinking about catastrophic circumstances helps to illuminate the fragility of individual responsibility.  Our ability to act ethically, and our courage in standing up to authoritarian rule, lie on a spectrum.  We all have our limits – which I hope we never have the opportunity to discover.  But as a certain presidential candidate once said, we are “stronger together.”