Loyalty is an ethical virtue; the whole concept of duty often depends on it. Loyalty is also the most dangerous of all ethical principles. Misapplied, misinterpreted, followed blindly or carried to extremes, it can lead to absolute wrong. A current controversy at Maryland’s Mount St. Mary’s University illustrates how.
A reliable source obtained information that the school’s president, Simon Newman had argued that the school needed to be ruthless in maintaining high standards by getting rid of less competitive students, and had done so by telling colleagues opposing him, “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.”
The student newspaper reported the conversation, which Newman hasn’t denied, and it was duly published in The Mountain Echo, the student newspaper.
Shortly after the “scoop,” The Mountain Echo’s faculty advisor Ed Egan was fired by Newman for violating the “code of conduct and acceptable use policies.” During the same period in which Egan was fired, Newman did a Michael Corleone on some other “disloyal” lieutenants.” Thane Naberhaus, an associate professor of philosophy, was dismissed after criticizing Newman’s policies, and David Rehm, was stripped of his role as provost after questioning university policies.
The dismissal letter to Naberhaus, signed by Newman, said “As an employee of Mount St. Mary’s University, you owe a duty of loyalty to this university and to act in a manner consistent with the duty. However, your recent actions, in my opinion and that of others, have violated that duty and clearly justify your termination.” Ed Egan says that he was also told that he had been “disloyal.”
I can’t speak to the dismissals of the other employees, but in the case of Egan, his loyalty was where it should be. President Newman doesn’t understand his own job, or the ethical principles applicable in academia.
One of the most frequent and difficult questions in legal ethics is “who is the client?” This issue usually arises in the context of organizational representation. A lawyer is bound to be loyal to his or her clients. Is the organization’s lawyer supposed to be loyal to the client organization’s board, CEO, Chairman, general counsel, or whoever hired him? For government attorneys, this is the Number One ethics issue. For example <cough>, is the U.S. Attorney General bound to be loyal to the President, the Democratic Party, or the Democratic Party’s struggling heir apparent who appears to have violated important national security laws?
It’s a trick question: the AG is ethically required to do what is in the best interests of the United States of America and its citizens, by enforcing the law vigorously, fairly and objectively without regard for partisan or personal loyalties. Somebody tell Loretta Lynch.
In the Mount St. Mary’s case, the president, whose background is corporate management, has misunderstood what loyalty requires from a faculty advisor to a newspaper. The job of that advisor is to teach journalism ethics, meaning courage, integrity, competence, and independence. The only questions to be asked regarding the story in question were…
1. Is it accurate?
2. Is it newsworthy?
3. Is it something that the readership would want to know?
4. Was the information obtained legally and ethically? (In a commercial newspaper, this question is usually deemed irrelevant. Sometimes it is, but not always.)
“Will the story embarrass the president?” is not on the list, nor should it be.
Ed Egan’s duty of loyalty was to the university itself, and meant upholding the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech, which any university is itself obligated to teach and uphold. His loyalty to the president only extends to conduct that is in the school’s best interest. In this case, that means choosing his duty to the students, the newspaper, journalism, education, freedom of the press and freedom of speech over the well-being, hurt feelings, embarrassment or anything else affecting Simon Newman personally.
It was unethical, and indeed ethically ignorant, for Newman to fire him.
What none of the reports on this incident mention is that the controversy over Newman’s remarks is pure political correctness, and nothing more. If Newman was adept at his job, he should have explained this, rather than acting like Richard Nixon in the Saturday Night Massacre. He is the president of a university, which means he should recognize a “teachable moment” when it’s sitting on his nose.
Okay, so he referred to students as “bunnies’ in a private meeting, and used a violent metaphor. Be still my beating heart—so what? Newman was arguing for higher standards, and should have immediately defended that extraordinarily defensible objective. He should have also said, “Stop having the vapours over vivid speech, you weenies. Grow up. This is the kind of nonsense that is getting Donald Trump followers.”
Simon Newman, however, decided to punish an employee for doing his job correctly and understanding where his loyalties belonged, thus breaching Newman’s ethical duty not to embarrass Mount St. Mary’s University.
Pointer and Source: Res Ipsa Loquitur