Universities as a community of autonomous scholars delving into knowledge and seeking to expand it is a model that’s long out of date. With the explosive growth of university, scientific, and granting agency bureaucracies, coercive oversight and imposition have grown by magnitudes.
One example is mandatory research ethics tests for professors and students. These became popular in the 1970s and 1980s, as universities became more ideological. When research ethics reviews were first proposed at McGill University, my senior colleagues argued that this wasn’t meant to be an imposition on faculty and students; it was a helpful opportunity for researchers to reflect on ethical responsibilities. But, of course, this non-imposition became an imposition once bureaucrats were appointed to administer and impose the requirement.
Early in the 21st century, I was supervising one of our strongest students, who was carrying out his doctoral research. At that point, his ethics plan had to be approved before he received permission, from a bureaucrat, of course, to receive permission from McGill to carry out his research and to access his research grant. This student, who was deeply thoughtful and responsive to feedback, was repeatedly blocked by the “ethics” bureaucrat, who unnecessarily asked for more and more explanation and detail.
“Unnecessarily,” except for the bureaucrat showing that her job was necessary and that she was in charge.
In Canada, “research ethics” didn’t remain long in the unsteady hands of universities. “Research ethics” was taken up by the three national research councils, and institutionalized as the “Tri-Council Panel on Research Ethics.” For anthropologists and other researchers into human life, there’s specifically the statement on “Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans—TCPS 2 (2018).” The panel came up with the brilliant idea of a tutorial on research ethics involving humans, which universities could, and many, such as McGill, did, make mandatory for researchers.
Did you know that, according to the Tri-Council Panel on Research Ethics, there are now correct and incorrect answers to ethical questions? Ethics is no longer an inquiry, a discussion, a debate, as it has been for thousands of years, but a set of correct answers. And, oddly enough, many of those answers read as if they were written by the policy branch of the New Democratic Party. Not to worry, the ethics bureaucracy will tell you what’s right and what’s wrong.
As their ethics tutorial makes clear, the Tri-Council Panel is quite sure that coercing people to cooperate in research is unethical and must be forbidden, as is any threatened punishment for non-cooperation. Funnily enough, though, researchers are both coerced into taking the tutorial on research ethics and threatened if they don’t take it. At McGill and elsewhere, the tutorial was made mandatory, and if you didn’t take it, no research permission and no access to research grants would be allowed.
So, what’s unethical in research appears to be marvelously ethical for research bureaucrats. What a shock!
The American Anthropological Association (AAA) went down the garden path to institute a research ethics committee to oversee anthropological ethics. How did that work out? Leftist anthropologists instituted a jihad against the prominent anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon because they didn’t like his account of the Yanomamö, which appeared to refute the idea of the primitive utopia that anthropologists so love.
As summed up in a Quillette review, “In 2002, the AAA accepted the taskforce’s report. Although the task force was not an ‘investigation’ concerned with any particular person, for all intents and purposes, it blamed Chagnon for portraying the Yanomamö in a way that was harmful and held him responsible for prioritizing his research over their interests.”
In fact, the AAA ethics rule forbids judgments on individual researchers, but, as we have seen, ethics bureaucrats are not themselves limited by any ethics. As the situation played out, the AAA membership was highly displeased with the task force report, and a referendum to rescind the report was passed overwhelmingly, upon which the AAA officers and board were obliged to withdraw the report. Whether any such good sense would prevail in our woke moment is doubtful.
One moral that can be drawn from the antics of “ethics” officers and committees is that ethics can easily, and is likely to, become politics by other means. And as universities and all academic organizations have become increasingly ideological and politicized, “ethics” becomes little more than politically correct norms.
With the widespread institutionalization of woke “social justice” ideology policies of “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” the one diversity that’s not allowed is diversity of opinion, for which professors and students can be and are frequently canceled. Even beyond those highly prejudicial policies, any offense, no matter how minor or micro, to any racial, gender, sexuality, or ethnic sensitivity is deemed a breach of political correctness requiring correction, punishment, and even expulsion. But wait, universities now have task forces and tutorials for politically correct understandings of race, gender, sex, sexuality, and ethnicity. That’s “progress”!
Philip Carl Salzman is professor emeritus of anthropology at McGill University, senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, fellow at the Middle East Forum, and president of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.