Jeffrey Sachs

Jeffrey Sachs

Yesterday, Internal Editor and scientific savant Britt Fossum headed to Hamilton to listen to Columbia’s resident boss Jeffrey Sachs talk ethics and universities.

Yesterday evening was the first talk in a new series hosted by the Masters Program in Bioethics at Columbia titled “What is a Moral University in the 21st Century?” The speaker was none other than Jeffrey Sachs: economist, professor, and opponent of the university-as-business model that is all too prevalent. According to him, moral discourse is just not as normal as it should be. Many problems brought up during the daily functioning of Columbia should be regarded as moral issues as well as economic or social issues: fossil fuel divestment, sexual misconduct, plagiarism and academic property rights, admissions, and issues of free speech.

Sachs is the director of the Earth Institute at Columbia and was an economics professor at Harvard and so focused his argument on moral issues in these two fields—the need for fossil fuel divestment and the legitimacy of professors taking on private consulting jobs with Wall Street. He spoke against the dominant position of the day which he defines as a libertarian one with the University governed only by the board of trustees and state and market law. Morality needs to be pushed past this “web of contractual obligations.”

There are four types of moral problem facing a modern university according to Sachs: those of daily life and interpersonal relationships, of academic research, how teachers should impart moral knowledge to students, and the role of the University in a global context. Sachs elaborated further on this last (most complicated) issue by giving examples: this is the realm of morality that should govern Columbia’s decisions on use of the endowment, development in Manhattanville, accepting donations, and allowing outside employers for professors and departments.

He spoke strongly against the statements made by Harvard president Drew Faust and her choice to reject divestment from fossil fuels. The argument that the endowment is not a political actor or an instrument for social change is inherently flawed–Sachs questions that there even is a difference between an economic tool and a social tool today. There are still social and political restraints and responsibilities that should be taken into consideration. Sachs paints a picture of a corrupt university system infiltrated by market forces and pharmaceutical companies, one where “economic instrumentality” is too deeply entwined with private life and trust is literally declining in society. The university can counter this by being more of a moral actor and encouraging the Aristotelian definition of humanity instead of the selfish Libertarian regime.

Despite claiming that he needed to write out his talk in order to achieve the clarity the topic deserved, Sach’s responses to questions were just as thoughtful and self-consistent. He spoke more on the issues of fossil fuel divestment and corporate involvement in Universities, this time more from his personal experience as an economist and less as an agent of morality. He thinks even the economic arguments against divestment are wrong, saying that because fossil fuels are inherently a bad investment, “I don’t think costs of divestment are large. We should have divested a year ago.” Corporate donations are the more insidious ones and it would take a lot of change in the self-identity of the university to stop relying on Corporations–essentially Columbia would have to stop functioning as a business and accept its position as a beggar.

The University is a global center, not an ivory tower, but it should fight against the moral degradation inherent in 21st century life. Sachs admits that this is mostly possible for tenured professors who don’t risk losing their job for speaking out. He joked that after he made the realization that his position as a tenured professor enabled him to say things other professors were scared to say he has ” used (tenure) to be obnoxious ever since.” The University needs encouragement for re-moralization and to work on its own self-reflection when issues do happen. President Bollinger in particular has a the space, calling, and need to speak out on issues and should when there are events troubling our community. Columbia can’t just “leave philosophical debate to the philosophy department” but should instead invite it into even the deepest levels of the administration–even though as Sachs warns, the process will never be painless.

Image via The Earth Institute of Columbia