Mount St. Mary’s University, a well-respected Catholic institution, has recently been dragged into a public relation disaster by President Simon Newman. It started when Newman devised a plan to improve the school’s retention rate by culling students prior to the federal reporting deadline. The plan was to get students to complete a survey described as a “valuable tool that will help you discover more about yourself.” In reality, the survey was intended to identify students for the culling.
In response to moral concerns raised in regards to his plan, he replied that “This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t. You just have to drown the bunnies…put a Glock to their heads.” When this remark and the facts of the matter became public courtesy of the student newspaper, the trouble began in earnest.
Unfortunately, the president’s desire to cull did not end with the freshmen. Newman fired tenured associate philosophy professor Thane Naberhaus and communications professor and faculty advisor for the student newspaper Ed Egan. He also removed two other philosophy professors from their administrative positions. Joshua Hochschild was removed from the position of dean of the College of Liberal Arts and David Rehm was taken from the position of provost. John Schwenkler, a fellow runner and a philosophy professor across the tracks from me at Florida State University, created a petition to protest these firings.
While it is a common misconception that tenure protects a professor from being fired, the reality is that tenured professors can still be fired for cause. In the case of Naberhaus, Newman claimed the professor violated his “duty of loyalty to [the] University.” The philosopher was also “designated persona non grata” and banned from the campus.
This situation does raise many legal concerns which will, no doubt, be addressed by lawyers. Since I am not a lawyer, I will leave the legality of these actions (especially the firing of the professors) to the experts. However, I will address the moral issue of firing faculty on the grounds of violating a “duty of loyalty to the university.” Since the concepts of duty and loyalty are moral concepts, this is clearly a moral matter.
While one could spend countless hours battling over the semantics of “duty” and “loyalty”, I will stick with a concise account that has intuitive appeal. A duty of loyalty to an institution is violated when a person knowingly and willingly acts contrary to the proper purpose of an institution that justly imposes a moral obligation on the person. If a person has no moral obligation to the institution, then he cannot violate a duty of loyalty. If a person is not acting contrary to the proper purpose of the institution, then the charge of disloyalty would be unfounded. After all, the person would be acting in a manner that is loyal to the university.
While there is an ever increasing push to redefine the university as a business with “loyalty” a matter of contracts and payments, it is still reasonable to regard a professor as having the requisite obligation to the university. As Socrates argued in regards to the state, by remaining at the university and accepting the goods it provides, the professor has accepted the obligation. Naturally, there is the usual exceptions for force or fraud being used against the professor. This, then, obligates the professor to the proper purpose of the university. As such, a professor could violate her duty of loyalty.
A rather more difficult matter is working out the proper purpose of a university. This is critical to determining whether a professor has violated her duty of loyalty to that institution. One approach is to define the purpose in terms of whatever the administration (primarily the president) says it is. While this would simplify matters, it is a problematic and unappealing approach. To use the obvious analogy, the loyalty of those who have a duty to the United States belongs not to the individuals who happen to hold office, but to the Constitution. To use a specific example, officers in the United States military do not swear an oath to the person who happens to occupy the office, be it Obama or Trump. As such, if the president orders an officer to violate the Constitution, the officer’s refusal is an act of loyalty rather than disloyalty to the United States.
A similar thing should hold in the case of an institution like a university—they are not supposed to exist to serve the whims or needs of the leadership of the time, but to serve the foundational principles of the institution. As such, an alternative approach is needed.
While universities will vary in their specific purposes, the core mission of a university would seem to involve doing what it is that universities do. Going back to the analogy of the state, if the state is supposed to serve the good of the people and defend life, liberty and property, then the university should serve the good of the students and defend truth, academic freedom, and the advancement of knowledge.
Getting back to the case at hand, the faculty who were fired were serving the proper mission of the university: they were acting for the good of the students and doing so, based on the evidence, from compassion and moral concern. As such, it is the faculty who remained loyal to the university. In contrast, the president violated his duty of loyalty to the university by acting contrary to the true purpose of an institute of higher learning. Thus, if disloyalty should be punished by being fired, the president should be fired.