Layers of irony threaten to overwhelm me as I attend the annual meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics in—of all places—the nation’s capital, Washington, DC.
The ridiculousness began with a pre-conference panel of the Presbyterian Social Ethics Network featuring an ‘off-the-record’ conversation with James Comey, the former FBI Director, ostensibly organized to allow Comey, an avowed fan of Reinhold Niebuhr, an opportunity to talk with scholars about his favorite theological ethicist. In truth, it was an absurdly surrealistic promotional event for his book about the Trump-Russia investigation, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership (MacMillan Publishers, 2018).
I wish I could say I am making this up…
When it comes to discussing US politics I usually embrace my cynicism, but my current mood is melancholy, perhaps due to the fact that as I engage in discourse with leading Christian, Jewish, and Muslim ethicists, my own university is contemplating eliminating the ethics course required of all undergraduate students. This on the same day the Washington Post published internal documents from troubled aviation giant Boeing about the now grounded 737 MAX in which one employee states, “This airplane is designed by clowns who in turn are supervised by monkeys.”
Another employee, who was pushing for more intensive pilot training, opined: “Would you put your family on a Max simulator-trained aircraft? I wouldn’t.”
For a theological ethicist like myself, the recent crisis at Boeing proves instructional. It has become evident that the two fatal crashes stem from a failure of ethical leadership. The Boeing company website claims, “our stance on ethical business conduct is simple: do the right thing, every time, no exceptions” and cites former President and CEO Dennis Muilenburg as saying, “A company’s fundamental values directly affect its ability to achieve and sustain high performance. Integrity, quality, safety, diversity, and trust are integral to our work at Boeing because there is no trade-off between what we do and how we do it.”
Because commercial airlines did not want to invest in timely and expensive pilot re-training, Boeing sold the new jet as an easy transition from earlier 737 models requiring no new pilot training. As investigators sort through the evidence from the two fatal 737 MAX crashes—and verified by the just-published internal documents—more thorough pilot training would have allowed the doomed pilots to correct for the glitch in the new automated stabilizer system on the 737 MAX. In other words, by abandoning their own ethical principles in order to maximize profits during a period of heated competition with their chief rival, Airbus, Boeing compromised their professional integrity and put incalculable human lives at risk of death.
While a classical liberal arts education is no guarantee of ethical behavior, a strong foundation in philosophy, theology, and ethics goes a long way to prevent the kind of systemic failure of moral leadership currently plaguing Boeing. This is why my university’s decision to reduce theology and philosophy requirements while eliminating the ethics requirement is so troubling. Sadly, this erosion of the university curriculum for the sake of increasing student enrollments and generating more tuition income has been part of a concerted attack against the Humanities in higher education.
The debate at my university—and at every institution of higher learning—is over how to “wisely” allocate limited resources in order to carry out the university’s mission. For the better part of the last decade—since the financial crisis of 2008—a certain kind of thinking has pervaded higher education. Namely, given the high cost of university education, the mark of a successful university is securing employment for its graduates. To that end, universities have redistributed resources in support of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) by arguing that in today’s technology-driven economy a STEM education is more “valuable” than a traditional liberal arts education grounded in philosophy, history, ethics, and—in the case of a religiously affiliated universities—theology.
Universities have allowed short-term employment trends to drive strategic planning at the expense of longstanding, proven, and successful programs and majors. No one is questioning the need to adapt to changing times, and most faculty support expanding STEM facilities and programs—just not at the expense of the Humanities and Social Sciences. I fear that the only recognized criterion for adding value to the university and its mission is generating revenue. That kind of thinking has brought Boeing to the brink of bankruptcy, caused the deaths of 346 passengers and crew, and led to the elimination of 2,800 jobs at a plant in Kansas with expected layoffs at some of Boeing’s other factories.
Maybe I sold James Comey short. Maybe he has hit upon the solution in his book, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership. But who reads books these days? No worries, rumor has it his book will soon become a made-for-TV movie. We can only hope the next generation of ethical leaders will be watching since they’ll no longer be studying ethics in college…