The quest to re-moralise the modern university

Even in the age of greed is good, the fundamental job of universities is to produce “capable and cultivated human beings”.

What, exactly, is the university for? Universities once had clear ethical purposes but over the years we have lost our moral direction. To fulfil their true purpose, universities need to get back on course: we need to re-moralise.

To show you how much, I will take you back to when I was a five-year old living with my family in New York City. Thousand of people around the world died of polio that year; more than half were children.

This drama was repeated every summer.  Everyone was relieved when autumn brought an end to the polio season, but the cycle of fear would begin again the following year.

Then something amazing happened. Jonas Salk, a young, and previously obscure, university researcher, created a vaccine. The initial results looked promising but a large-scale research project was required to be certain that the vaccine was safe and effective.  A call went out for children to participate in a nationwide double-blind trial and my parents did not hesitate to enrol me. All together, two million primary school children, known as “Polio Pioneers” rolled up their sleeves for what became known as “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World”.

The trial proved a success; the vaccine was safe and effective and Jonas Salk became justifiably famous. Although Salk became famous he did not become rich. This is because he and the University of Pittsburgh, the private university where he worked, licensed the vaccine to anyone who wanted to manufacture it. The ethical premise driving Salk’s work was simple: the purpose of university research was the discovery and dissemination of knowledge for the benefit of society.  Making money was never their goal.

Would parents be as eager to sign up their children to this kind of experiment today? I am sad to say the answer is probably no.  Many of today’s parents refuse to allow their children to have tried-and-true vaccines let alone experimental ones. Today’s parents are deeply sceptical about science and scientists. They particularly distrust the commercial motives of drug companies, researchers and universities. They have a point.

Drug companies, for instance, have their in-house staff produce research articles extolling their product’s benefits. Company representatives then approach well-known medical researchers and ask them to put their names on the articles as the author. The result is that articles, actually written by company employees, wind up in prestigious medical journals under the names of famous scientists.

Publications are the coin of the realm in university scientific careers.  Some scientists agree to pose as authors just so they can add another paper to their CVs.

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