MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XIX No. 6
May / June 2007
Stating Our Core Values: Does MIT Need a Statement of Ethical Principles?
Bish Sanyal New Faculty Chair
Your Newsletter
MIT Communications:
Diversity, Vitality, and Openness
MIT Responds to the Tragedy
at Virginia Tech
Student Responses to Virginia Tech
and How Faculty Can Help
MIT Community Confronts Issues
of Safety and Grieving
An Interview with MIT Chief of Police
John DiFava
MIT and the World Economic Forum
MIT Administration Support
for the Faculty Newsletter
Two Statements from the Biological Engineering Faculty Regarding the
Tenure Case of Prof. James L. Sherley
Units, Schmunits: What Do You Care?
Looking Forward to Changes in the Undergraduate Commons:
Perspectives from a "Large" Program
Bordereline Jesus; The Diviners
Solving the Energy Problem
The Task Force on Medical Care for the MIT Community: An Update from MIT Medical
A New Cooperative Residence
for the MIT Community
Error Results in Some Faculty Being Overcharged for Supplemental Life Insurance
Newsletter Adopts New Policies and Procedures: Includes Direct Election of Editorial Board Members
From the Senior Survey
Women Faculty (as of October 2006)
Percent of Faculty Who are Women (as of October 2006)
Printable Version

From The Faculty Chair

Stating Our Core Values:
Does MIT Need a Statement of Ethical Principles?

Steven Lerman

Because this is my final column for the Faculty Newsletter as Chair of the Faculty, I spent a great deal time thinking about an appropriate theme that would reflect what I have learned as chair and what departing message might be of lasting value. My decision was ultimately based largely on a series of conversations over the past year with Mary Rowe, one of MIT’s Ombudspersons.

The Ombuds Office provides all members of the MIT community with a confidential, informal and neutral option to discuss concerns of all sorts, including various forms of harassment, discrimination, academic honesty and research integrity. Everyone at MIT can go there seeking options and support, with the guarantee of confidentiality. The Ombuds office has no formal role at MIT. Ombuds do not investigate or make management decisions or keep case records, but this office often helps resolve concerns before they escalate to formal grievances. It is an important part of the web of mechanisms MIT has in place to help all of us work together more effectively. Mary and her colleague Toni Robinson often hear serious concerns about misconduct that go to the heart of the values of integrity, honesty and fairness that are central to the MIT community.

My discussions with Mary and others have led me to believe that MIT would be well served by articulating what I would call a “Statement of Ethical Principles” that would clearly articulate our core values. To be clear, I do not envision this document as a detailed set of policies, processes or quasi-judicial rulings. Rather, this statement would be brief and general and, for the most part, what most of us already implicitly understand. It would state the ethical principles that apply to our teaching, research, business practices and professional interactions.

Over my 38 years here at MIT (first as a student and then as a faculty member), I have come to deeply respect the core values of our university.

The vast majority of our community strives to be ethical in their research, teaching and interactions with others who work here. We as faculty overwhelmingly strive to communicate these values to our students, and we take our ethical responsibilities seriously. In our role as supervisors, we try to treat everyone who works for us fairly and with respect.

However, as in any community our size, there will inevitably be those who ignore these responsibilities. These transgressions range from theft of property and research misconduct to misrepresentation on résumés and plagiarism. They may include actions that harass or discriminate against students, co-workers, fellow faculty or others in ways that cause deep and lasting harm. Or, they may involve conflicts between our own goals and our educational obligations to our students. Almost all such actions are already violations of one or more policies at MIT (not to mention various state and federal laws), and we clearly cannot and do not tolerate them. Why then do I think we need a statement of ethical principles?

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My first reason for believing a statement of ethical principles would be useful is that many of the rules that we rely on are scattered across many documents that most of us have never read. MIT’s Policies and Procedures, for example, embodies many of these core values. The prose in this document is of necessity legalistic in tone and style, and it isn’t organized around core ethical principles. We have other documents that describe grievance processes, academic honesty, environmental safety standards and other aspects of our expectations for behavior within the community that have similar features. Each of these is important and each draws implicitly on shared values, but none of them entirely abstracts out those shared values.

A second feature of a statement of ethical principles is that it would apply universally to everyone in the community – students, staff, and faculty alike. It would reaffirm that we hold all members of the community to ethical standards, regardless of their reputation or status. For example, the Office of the Dean for Undergraduate Education published a superb document that clarifies the definition of plagiarism and appropriate attribution of the work of others. This document reflects some of our most sacred principles, but by design is mostly targeted to our students. These same principles of course apply to everyone.

Our collective belief in the universality of our ethical principles was very much part of the recent tragedy involving the dismissal of our Dean of Admissions. As President Hockfield made clear in her public statements, how could we possibly hold our students to the highest standards of ethical behavior unless we demonstrated that those same standards govern our leadership? The application of this standard of conduct was necessary even though everyone recognized the extraordinary accomplishments of the person dismissed, and wished that the outcome could have been different.

The third feature of a statement of ethical principles is that it would create a standard for behavior that goes beyond what is mandated either by law or through MIT policy.

The notion that we, as members of the MIT community, can do whatever isn’t explicitly prohibited is corrosive and should be rejected. Ethics go beyond legal requirements and policy statements, and we should expect ethical behavior even when we don’t have the ability to compel it. Those of us who see unethical behavior should condemn it, and those who undertake such behavior should expect the community’s opprobrium.

The development of the statement I have in mind should involve representatives of all parts of the MIT community. Rather than try to create an initial draft here, I instead propose a list of areas our principles should cover. To be useful and complete, the statement needs to include our ethical principles regarding:

  • mutual respect for members of the community, including promoting diversity and inclusion, and preventing harassment and unreasonable interference with the lives and work of others.
  • research conduct, including promoting the highest standards of objectivity, openness and honesty.          
  • academic integrity, including attribution of the work of others and condemning plagiarism and cheating.
  • commitment to excellence  in all aspects of our work.
  • personal integrity, including accepting responsibility for our actions, preserving confidentiality and privacy when appropriate and promoting honesty in working with each other and those outside the community.
  • ethical financial conduct, including use of MIT funds, as well as those of donors and research sponsors.
  • commitment to the health and safety of the community, including environmental safety, workplace safety, and respect for rules governing use of human and animal experimental subjects.    
  • respect for property, including that belonging to MIT and to other community members, as well as intellectual property.
  • responsibility for mentoring, advising and appropriate supervision of students, staff and faculty    
  • respect for the ideas of others, including the rights of free speech and the boundaries of appropriate communications with others.
  • fairness and equity in how we treat others in the communit
  • participation in civil society, including respect for rules with which we may disagree  and commitment to public service that contributes to society at large.

    As my last words in this column, I want to thank my fellow faculty officers of this year who have served the entire faculty well above and beyond the call of duty. Bruce Tidor and Diana Henderson, who have served as Associate Chair and Secretary respectively, have been wonderful to work with and have done far more for the entire community than most people will ever know. My special thanks also goes to Lily Burns. She has served as staff to the Faculty Officers and has provided continuity and advice to all of us. Finally, I want to wish the incoming officers – Bish Sanyal (Chair), Melissa Nobles (Associate Chair) and Bevin Engelward (Secretary) – all the best in their coming terms. I know MIT will be well-served by them.           
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