Jon Nixon, Towards a Virtuous University: The Moral Basis of Academic Practice (Routledge, 2008)

Canadian colleges and universities were founded with particular institutional missions and programming. More recently, however, these institutions have modified their scope, approaches, and offerings in order to address societal needs and shifts in government priorities. These strategic choices have created significant struggles for institutions as they change their very purpose and identity. This tension is the entry point for Jon Nixon’s newest book, Toward a Virtuous University: The Moral Basis of Academic Practice, which argues that certain philosophical tenets can be the guiding framework for re-working a university’s purpose, relationship with society, and fundamental institutional identity.

While the purposes of the university are his focal point, Nixon makes a compelling argument that puts academic practice and professionalism at the centre of this institutional redefinition. The work of faculty members is integral to the purpose of universities; and Nixon articulates an Aristotelian notion of leadership — and goodness — within which to posit a new professional practice and identity. In particular, Nixon argues for a moral basis for academic professionalism by claiming that teaching, research, scholarship, and collegial relations constitute a moral unity that can significantly shapes faculty and institutions.

The impact of Nixon’s  concentrated (the book has fewer than 150 pages) argument is a strong, clear, and thoughtful critique of current, market-driven higher education policies and practices and a simultaneous call for action that is grounded in moral purposefulness. Nixon, in his first three chapters, suggests re-positioning the university in accordance to particular moral ends and purposes, including re-conceptualizing academic professionalism. He describes changes in academic practice that shape and are shaped by similar changes facing institutions.

Nixon considers the university a civic space and asks what role academic practitioners might have in contributing to this civic space.  He  comments that the university has become a place of intense stratification and sharp inequities, citing evidence from both the U.S. and the U.K. that reveal inequities in faculty salaries, reward structures, and research productivity. He argues with fervor against  the increased presence of commercial drivers within the university that span research activity, knowledge production, and faculty appointments — and are accompanied by the language of cost-efficiency and managerial competence. Nixon calls for a re-examination of institutional practice and purpose that would put renewed focus on universities as places of learning. Thus, he suggests, academic professionalism should be considered a learning profession.

However, in recognizing that neither faculty members nor institutions exist and operate in a vacuum, Nixon argues for a moral purposefulness on the part of both that moves toward recognizing and celebrating differences in an extremely pluralist society. Nixon posits the values of recognition, respect, and critical engagement as the pillars of a new academic professionalism: a profession based on values. To adopt and uphold these values is to insist on the need for deliberative spaces within which people from different histories, experiences, and locations can learn to dialogue with each other beyond their differences. This deliberative space, according to Nixon, is the university.

In developing this argument, Nixon draws from ideas of Hannah Arendt to further explain his reason for this re-conceptualization of academic practice and institutional mandate. Nixon asks that, given the diversity of our society, how are we to live together with so much difference around us? His answer is that as we go through our lives, an important step toward recognizing and celebrating this notion of difference is to think of the experiences of others: to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. This sort of inclusive thinking is absolutely necessary if we, as a society, are to live and prosper together.

This emphasis on thinking about the perspectives of others, or thoughtfulness, is, according to Arendt and by extension Nixon, imperative for moral agency. By so reflecting, Nixon says, we examine our own lives from the perspective of others. This commitment to “stop and think” (to use Arendt’s term) is the cornerstone of creating a citizenry that can live amongst and beyond initial differences. Nixon considers the university to be the space within which people from different backgrounds can utilize this notion of thoughtfulness by communicating with each other and thus creating the conditions for moral agency.

Nixon turns this reflective gaze on his own profession as he considers the role of academic freedom in the lives and practices of faculty members. Traditionally, academic freedom has meant that academics have the freedom to research and teach in accordance to their own interests. Nixon, however, broadens this conception, arguing that academic freedom is “freedom grounded in our common experience as human beings who have to learn to live together in difference.”

Nixon also draws from other scholars who ask whether academic freedom is something that is owed, or something that is owned. Nixon refers to the virtues of truthfulness, respect, authenticity, and magnanimity to defend the notion that academic freedom is an indebtedness, or rather, something that is owed. “The virtues implicit in academic practice require us to reach out and, in reaching out, share our ownership of academic freedom through the realization of our own indebtedness to a society that makes this freedom possible…academic freedom is something other than just freedom for academics, ” he writes.

Nixon examines the implications of these ideas for academic professionalism and academic practice. The interconnections between practice and values cannot be ignored or dismissed, he says, as they represent a sense of purpose, albeit one not always explicitly seen or known. This sense of purpose, according to Nixon, is contingent on the process of understanding the complexities between the values we profess and the values underpinning our actions. As we struggle to understand and articulate our own sense of purposefulness, we must be wary of failing to recognize the purposefulness of others, especially in pluralist societies. Hence, Nixon urges, that we must develop, in ourselves and in those around us, the ability and desire to recognize everyone’s equal worth.  This challenge, argues Nixon, can be the purview of the university. In making the case for  broader academic freedom and an awareness of purposefulness, Nixon calls for reform to the traditional conception of academic professionalism. In particular, Nixon urges for the academic profession to be a profession of values.

Nixon describes particular “goods” (as opposed to “evils”) of academic practice that can provide novel ways of thinking about universities and academia. Truthfulness, respect, authenticity, and magnanimity, Nixon believes, are virtues. They constitute a framework of Aristotelian “virtuous dispositions” that enable action in new, exciting, and unpredictable ways because “virtuous dispositions” comprise a crucial step in the link between goodness and practice. That is, becoming good is a matter of doing good.

Nixon uses these dispositions as well as the relationship between goodness and practice to re-cast academic practice and professionalism. Each of the virtues has orientations or attitudinal stances that can operationalize the virtue.  For instance, the orientations of accuracy and sincerity imply that truthfulness involves being true to oneself and being true to others. Most important, these notions need to be understood, experienced, and contextualized in practice. Hence, they require institutional and professional conditions that foster their development and realization. As a result, they can provide a moral grounding for universities and for academic practice.

Nixon ends by discussing the need for relational and institutional conditions that promote the moral purposefulness he espouses. The first step is to foster the valuing of virtuous dispositions. To develop virtuous interpersonal relations is to recognize differences and inequities in the institutional contexts within which faculty members work. In addition, Nixon calls for the awareness of differences in circumstance that shape an individual’s ability to meet deadlines, attend meetings, and so on. Being aware of positional power and being respectful of boundaries should also be considered when developing virtuous inter-personal relationships.

In prescribing the conditions for institutional change, Nixon calls for universities to contribute to the good society, writing that a good society “would aspire to be civilized, decent and just: civilized in its relationships between citizens; decent in its relations between institutions and their members; and just in its commitment to combat social and economic inequality.” Nixon attributes to universities a specific role within this good society, arguing that “universities are the means whereby society understands itself, questions its values, defines and squabbles over its ends and purposes, and accrues the knowledge, understandings and insights necessary to inform the debate.”  Finally, Nixon concludes, “The task becomes not just a matter of creating more decent institutions, but the unashamedly utopian one of ensuring that such institutions reflect, in their strategic ends and purposes, the impulse toward social justice.”

Nixon does provide a few specific conditions necessary for the development of virtuous institutions. He calls for additional resources, especially if universities and governments are committed to broadening  student enrollment in higher education. He also calls for universities to develop stronger civic ties, such as reciprocal partnerships with community organizations and initiatives. Finally, he emphasizes the value of  influential and charismatic institutional leaders who possess the desire and commitment to forge the needed relationships and virtues despite initial resistance. These leaders would need to recognize the possibility of cross-sector institutional arrangements and collaborations.

The plentiful purposes of higher education have received increasing attention from interested stakeholders. Nixon’s book is an addition to this exploration. Many conversations about the purposes and benefits of higher education have crossed economic/social, individual/society and private/public dimensions. Few would argue against the economic advantage of attaining higher degrees, at both individual and societal levels. Better possibilities for well-paid employment are consistent with advanced degrees, often in the professions. A highly educated citizenry produces additional tax revenues for government to spend on health care and social assistance programs to foster a productive and healthy society.

Emerging conversations in Canada and the U.S. concern the social and/or public aspects of higher education. In particular, the scholarship of engagement (or engaged scholarship) recognizes the importance of university/community partnerships that are reciprocal and mutually beneficial.  Similarly, at both research and curricular levels, institutions are exploring service/learning relationships and mechanisms to forge more substantive partnerships in the community. These endeavours seek to highlight and bolster some of the themes espoused throughout Towards a Virtuous University, namely, the recognition of difference, collaboration and collegiality, and social justice. The implementation of service/learning projects enables students to develop solutions for  problems in the communities within a city, often challenging social and economic inequities. Finally, a very prominent discourse about the social aspects of higher education is the notion of higher education for the public good. Numerous symposia and colloquia have asked stakeholders to re-envision institutional arrangements and academic practice from the standpoint of the public good. Most certainly, Toward the Virtuous University constitutes a significant contribution to these affiliated movements and perspectives.

Jon Nixon’s Toward the Virtuous University is indispensable reading for anyone concerned about the future of higher education. The philosophical underpinnings that shape Nixon’s arguments are a refreshing articulation of how important and connected universities, academic practice, and our evolving society are.  Although Nixon’s work could act as a contribution to a larger discussion about the purposes of universities and academic practice,  its main appeal is its engagement with readers in an on-going discussion of how the values we hold enable, limit, reflect, and inform how we choose to live and what kind of society we help to construct.

Bryan Gopaul i s a PhD candidate in the Higher Education Group at OISE/UT and a researcher at the Centre for the Study of Students in Post-Secondary Education.