In Illinois, state ethics legislation requires all public employees, including university faculty, to participate in ethics training and to be examined annually on the material. Last year, two Southern Illinois University professors were threatened with discipline for completing their exam too quickly and, by implication, “cheating” on an ethics exam. The charge of non-compliance with state legislation was eventually dropped by Illinois’ inspector-general’s office, but the issue of ethics testing remains intriguing.

Can a formal, multiple-question ethics exam encompass all the ethical challenges and dilemmas encountered in the modern university? And can the answers speak to the nuanced responses sometimes necessary when struggling with the academy’s ethical concerns?

In two key areas of academic activity—research and teaching— there are myriad ethical issues. Sergio Sismondo’s article in this issue highlights one such ethical consideration. He exposes the ghost writing and management of medical research and publishing by the pharmaceutical industry, noting that the academic researchers whose names appear as authors of these ghost-managed articles provide corporate research with an aura of independence and integrity. This research, therefore, serves to market pharmaceutical products and to extend the influence of pharmaceutical corporations on medical research. At issue is not only the ethics and validity of the research conducted but also patient safety.

Research supported by other industries has also raised concerns. Should a university accept funding from the tobacco industry, with its history of misleading research and carcinogenic products? The ethics of taking funding for research for the Department of National Defense or the Pentagon has also been questioned, particularly when such research leads to lethal innovations. For some, ethical considerations require a ban on these sponsorships. For others, such ethical considerations are deemed naïve. Moreover, does restricting research on the basis of the funding source violate academic freedom by curtailing the ability to do research?

The ethical issues involved in corporate-sponsored or managed research are but one area of concern for academic researchers—and the public. As scientific research extends its capability, questions about appropriate limits become more pressing. Bioethicists have voiced concerns about cloning and the creation of interspecies hybrids. The use of animals in medical research has become an ethical flashpoint between animal-rights advocates and researchers who reject claims of inhumane treatment and cite the necessity of such research for medical advancements.

University research is not conducted in a vacuum. As ethical concerns regarding research have become more pronounced, so too has regulation. Ethical guidelines and committees govern research involving human subjects and research sponsorships, although the efficacy of this regulation is open to debate. Critics who otherwise support guidelines question whether their application might be so narrow they inhibit research in controversial or sensitive areas, such as those involving the disabled or terminally-ill, or topics such as euthanasia.

Another area of ethical consideration for academia is explored in Margaret Somerville’s provocative consideration of intolerance on university campuses. She writes that “universities should be models for narrowing the divides that separate us, not for widening them, as presently seems to be happening” and looks to the creation of a “shared ethics” where “respectful conversation across those divides” can take place. Universities, ideally, are forums where controversial ideas can be examined dispassionately, without fear of censure. This is not always the case. Universities are not a world unto themselves, and they grapple with how to respond to political, ideological, and economic pressures.

Outside of teaching and research, there are other ethical considerations that confront the university. Should a university invest in companies or funds that directly or indirectly benefit a government under international sanction? What are the ethics of investing endowment money in high-risk equities that promise high returns but also jeopardize an institution’s ability to provide student assistance if the funds collapse? How does a university balance the student’s right to privacy with concerns about behaviour that could endanger the student or others?

In all these areas, universities need to be guided by an ethical compass that speaks to the ideals of higher education. In practice, this ethical compass is a work in progress.

Mark Rosenfeld is editor-in-chief of Academic Matters and associate executive director of OCUFA