Already in the mid-19th century, in his books and lecture series The Idea of a University, the theologian and scholar John Henry Newman reflected on what a university can and should be. One of these lectures places the emphasis on the “real teaching” that takes place within the community of students. To Newman, this “at least recognizes that knowledge is something more than a sort of passive reception of scraps and details; it is a something, and it does a something, which never will issue from the most strenuous efforts of a set of teachers, with no mutual sympathies and no inter-communion, of a set of examiners with no opinions which they dare profess, and with no common principles, who are teaching or questioning a set of youths who do not know them, and do not know each other, on a large number of subjects, different in kind, and connected by no wide philosophy three times a week, or three times a year, or once in three years, in chill lecturerooms or on a pompous anniversary” (Newman, 2014 [re-issue], 116).
We can take this description as the terrifying photo-negative of what a university should be, and a warning of what it can become if it is interested solely in being “an industry churning out diplomas”, as the Tilburg Educational Profile (TEP) describes it. This negative also gives us the key to the positive. It gives us insights into what a good university should have in terms of teaching: it needs teachers who feel connected with each other, with their students, and with the university, and who are free to have and express opinions, based on shared common principles. It also needs a student body that knows each other and feels connected with each other, their teachers, and the university. The role of the university in this respect would be to provide both teachers and students with a set of common principles – values that they can strive to reach and use as a basis to create a community and connect with each other. These values should not only be formulated in the university’s vision and mission statement, but they should also become evident in everything that the university does. Values should provide a foundation for the content and practice of our teaching, but they should also be recognizable in the way the university treats its staff and students.
As we can read in the new strategic plan and the TEP, Tilburg University is firmly committed to such a positive vision. Values are at the heart of its strategy. The four keywords in the new strategic plan – curious, caring, connected, courageous – are presented as “values [that] will enable us to tackle the rapidly changing and challenging world”, and that “guide our actions, our choices, our individual and collective responsibilities, and our future”. In the same vein, the TEP is built on three pillars: Knowledge, Skills, and Character. This means that our teaching should not only be about transferring knowledge to students and developing their skills but “character building” is also seen as essential in equipping our students to contribute to society.
Against the backdrop of Newman’s warning, this is indeed the type of approach one would hope for. If we want to contribute to developing such values and building students’ character, however, we need to be aware of the underlying assumptions and questions. Two major assumptions are that (1) formation of a person’s character is possible, and that (2) the university should contribute to this. Some would argue against the latter, saying that university should be all about acquiring skills and knowledge (only). That Tilburg University, with its new strategy and with the TEP, explicitly chooses instead to set out to develop thinkers of character is, to us, an expression of the fact that our institution understands its role in society and takes responsibility for it. Now, we just need to make sure that as an academic community we practice what we preach.
‘Practicing what we preach’ seems obvious and easy enough, but in practice, it is not as simple as it appears. Take the example of teaching in the field of management. For some time now, several of the main theories guiding management research and education have been under fire, for instance by the late Sumantra Ghoshal in his celebrated essay Bad Management Theories are Destroying Good Management Practices (2005). In particular, the views of the Chicago School have received their fair share of criticism (see also Gersel & Johnsen, 2020). The Chicago School essentially reduces an organization to a bundle of purely market-based processes, and a manager to a rational decision-maker (homo economicus), driven by selfinterest. Its most renowned alumnus is probably Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman, who famously argued that the only social responsibility of managers should be to maximize profits for shareholders (Friedman, 1962). All of this is clearly not in line with, for instance, Tilburg University’s desire to educate “responsible people of character”.
Still, despite these critiques, many of the most prominent management theories we teach to our students even today – such as agency theory, transaction cost theory, resource-based view of the firm, and competitive strategy – are, in essence, based on the assumption that (shareholder) profit is the highest good and managers (should) act as rational homines economici. As such, these ideas become selffulfilling (Ferraro et al., 2005) and destroy “good management practices” (Ghoshal, 2005). Stepping away from these theories is, however, not that straightforward. Though several scholars have tried to address these issues in the last two decades, currently we still do not have viable alternatives readily available. Going from a “theory of the firm” with relatively simple foundational assumptions to a new set of theories based on ‘thick ethical concepts’ and difficult-to-quantify principles is no easy feat (Gersel & Johnsen, 2020) – it implies re-thinking theories and basic assumptions we have been counting on for decades. However, if we are serious about teaching values to tomorrow’s leaders, we will need to take action.
A number of responses are possible to this need to “do ethics” – not just for management education, but more broadly for all university educational programs. As indicated above, some will feel that ethics may be relevant, but they are also the responsibility of individuals, who are, e.g., bound by their organization’s code of conduct. They may argue that a university is a place to acquire knowledge and skills, but not to form character. As we stated above, we are pleased that Tilburg University has already opted for the opposite direction and put “character building” of our students central in the TEP and its strategy. The question remains, though, how to precisely do this. How can we ensure that we, with our educational programs, shape our students into socially responsible human beings, who value courage, curiousness, care, and connectedness?
University leadership bears an important responsibility in this. One way they could attempt tackling this issue would be by adding ethics courses to the curriculum. However, bringing down the important question of character building and developing students’ “ethical compass” to such an “add-on” to the curriculum (Van Stekelenburg et al., 2021, 100) would be a form of “tokenism”, which will not suffice in reaching our goals (Ghoshal, 2005, 88). To form thinkers of character is a much more formidable challenge.
What we do need, is a university that walks the talk – a university with clear core values and shared ethical principles, which are visibly reflected in tangible actions. In other words, if a university is to form students so that they become responsible citizens, it is necessary that it is itself a responsible organization, as a whole, and its members. In terms of teaching, as mentioned above, an ethics course may be a good start, but is not nearly enough. Frankly, if we want to send students, who will be tomorrow’s leaders, into the world with a clear conscience, we can’t not prepare them for all the challenges and dilemmas that await them. Because the world continually changes, this cannot be done with a single course, but it requires a true human formation.
Developing new or carefully rethinking old theories, based on values, may be a long-haul work. However, there are already things we, as teachers, can do in the short term to instill students’ critical mindset and prepare them to tackle challenges and dilemmas which they may encounter in their professional life after graduating. We can clearly visualize the assumptions that are the foundations of the theories we teach – be open and transparent about them – and provide alternative lines of thinking based on values of sustainability and societal responsibility – “thick ethical concepts” whenever possible. Making students aware of the – sometimes flawed – foundations of their knowledge is already an important first step.
What we teach matters, as does how we teach. Drawing from Newman’s Idea of a University, teaching at a university should happen among people (students as well as teachers) that know each other, that interact and connect with each other. This is especially true for teaching (based on) values. To be effective, such values need to become shared common principles among all the university’s members. This implies that the university needs to give teachers, and students alike, a platform to discuss these values freely and openly. Teaching should be active and interactive, in dialogue. With “connected” as one of Tilburg University’s core values, such dialogue and interaction should be at the heart of how we teach.
Apart from the content and practice of our teaching, the university’s organization itself also needs to reflect its values. For a long time, the master – or professor – was indeed seen as the main example in the student’s formation (Prairat, 2012, 20). Hence, a university cannot effectively educate students on sustainability if it does not act in a sustainable manner itself. A university cannot convincingly teach the value of human labor if it systematically overburdens its own staff. A university cannot possibly foster a culture of respect if it rewards only research output and shows little interest in what relations “successful” researchers have with their students and colleagues.
And that is where it becomes more troublesome. All of this, in theory, nicely fits into Tilburg University’s new strategic plan, especially in its commitment to the new Recognition and Rewards approach to evaluate staff. However, in practice, many still hesitate to follow up on this new approach, because it calls for appreciating non-quantifiable factors and the use of apparently unclear and difficult-to-define criteria to evaluate staff members’ contribution to the education process. They remind us of the management scholars who have a hard time stepping away from simple and clear criteria based on the idea of the homo economicus and shareholder profit maximization. Thus, the university’s leaders will need to get serious about the actual implementation of this new approach. They need to practice what they preach, walk the talk, put their words into action.
Going back to “character building” of our students, the key to this formation is responsibility. It carries in it the notion of responding-to (cf. Prairat, 2012, 21). Students, especially in their professional life after graduating, will need to respond to unexpected situations, moral dilemmas, and existential questions. To prepare them for this is a much greater challenge than conveying knowledge or training skills. It requires an idea of what a person is and what that person’s place in the world is. Our university has a tradition from which it can draw, the Catholic intellectual tradition, that itself is enriched by many great schools of thought. Within this tradition, virtue ethics has offered one of the more promising accounts of how to overcome our inability to speak about values and character (MacIntyre, 2011).
Virtue ethics is a tradition that allows for the prudential judgment of professionals. It does not impose a priori norms of justice although it can certainly function within a framework of values. But it teaches one above all how to seek justice in today’s world, and to persist in the good. While we may not always agree on what constitutes the virtuous mean, we can be united across disciplines in our pursuit of it. In the management field, we might reflect on what makes corporate profits “fair” and organizations’ relations with and treatment of specific stakeholders “just”. A virtue ethics approach would understand freedom in a positive sense: it is the context in which one can flourish. This conception of freedom is radically different from notions of freedom that promote an “unencumbered self” that best functions if it is rid of structures that bind it (Snead, 2020, 76-77). In that sense, the approach we propose is a critique of some modern ideas of the human person.
University should challenge in words and actions the liberal paradigm that everyone can and should fence for themselves. We are social animals rather than homines economici. As the English poet John Donne famously said, “no man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main”. If the Covid lockdowns have made anything painfully clear is that we do not thrive as individuals existing alongside each other, we flourish when we can meet and interact with each other. This insight calls for the formation of different values (cf. Goshal, 2005). Against self-interest, we should place the charity that outlasts everything. Against technocratic pragmatism, we should foster the prudence of real people. Over ideology, we prefer reality. And we serve not the homo economicus but the animal sociale.
Ferraro, Fabrizio, Peffer, Jeffrey & Sutton, Robert I. 2005. “Economics language and assumptions: How theories can become self-fulfilling.” Academy of Management Review 30-1: 8-24
Friedman, Milton. 1962. Capitalism and Freedom. Chicago. University of Chicago Press.
Gersel, Johan, & Johnsen, Rasmus. 2020. “Toward a novel theory of rational managerial deliberation: Stakeholder, ethical values, and corporate governance.” Academy of Management Learning & Education 19-3: 269-288.
Goshal, Sumantra. 2005. “Bad Management Theories Are Destroying Good Management Practices.” Academy of Management Learning & Education 4-1: 75-91.
MacIntyre, Alasdair. 2011. After Virtue. London. Bloomsbury Publishing (third edition, with prologue).
Newman, John Henry. 2014. The Idea of a University. Assumption Press (re-issue).
Prairat, Eirick. 2012. “La Responsabilité.” Le Télémaque 42-2: 19-34.
Snead, O. Carter. 2020. What It Means to be Human. The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics. Cambridge MA. Harvard University Press.
Van Stekelenburg, Lieke H., De Ruyter, Doret & Sanderse. Wouter. 2021. “’Equipping students with an ethical compass.’ What does it mean, and what does it imply?” Ethics and Education 16-1: 91-107.