Marches to demand "rights" are a common feature of our political life. Marches to demand "responsibilities" are not nearly so common. There is some parallel to this in academic life. Thus, despite the important and complex consequences of our work, our rights as faculty are much better and more explicitly developed than are our responsibilities.
Is it appropriate for a professor to date a student? Should we have a speech code? What are a faculty member's responsibilities to (a) administrative and support staff, (b) the curriculum beyond his/her own speciality, and (c) his/her students in terms of either availability and/or the timeliness of feedback? When am I in either a moral and/or a financial conflict of interest?
There are many such questions, but, unfortunately, in many, although not all, cases, there is no shared understanding--indeed, there is much disagreement--about the answers, about the professional (in this case, professorial) ethics that are involved. Why?
I cannot pretend to know the definitive answer. There is, of course, the sheer difficulty of ethical dilemmas. In addition, however, there are the special problems presented by (1) the assumption--not, perhaps, entirely appropriate in an increasingly mass and increasingly bureaucratic university system--that codes of conduct would be learned through the mentoring model on which many of our doctoral programmes are built; (2) the increasing value--usually as consultants--of faculty members to the outside world, thus potentially weakening somewhat the ties to a particular institution and its students; (3) the professionalization of virtually all academic disciplines; and (4) poor management within the university so that institutional values--however these are established--are not reinforced.
I do not wish to suggest that McGill's faculty or that of any other university either lack a capacity for moral behaviour and/or do not generally behave in an appropriate way.
I do, however, want to suggest that it would be useful for our community to explicitly consider the matter. Neither in the academic nor in any other professional community would we want those outside that community to think of professional ethics as an oxymoron.