Scholars Look at What It Takes To Tell the Truth and Do the Right Thing

April 3, 2012 — During students' college years, more than just intellectual knowledge is fostered and tested. Young adults tackle important challenges to moral, emotional and academic development through their classes and experiences.

At the University of Virginia, for example, students make a commitment not to lie, cheat or steal – a pledge that many alumni report as being formative in their lives. When students' ideals and reality come into conflict, do they find the support they need in a university environment to work it out, individually and in their community? Are the scales of accountability and forgiveness appropriate?

A conference set for April 13 and 14 at U.Va., "Telling the Truth and Doing the Right Thing: Accountability, Guilt and Forgiveness in the Ethical University," will examine how these issues play out across young adulthood while also focusing upon what can be done within the realm of higher education to support ethical development.

Guest speakers and U.Va. faculty members from a variety of disciplines, including psychology, sociology, philosophy, business, anthropology and psychiatry, will give presentations. The talks include: "The Modern University and the Good Society," "Unaccountable Predicaments: Normative Expectations and Self-Medication Among College Students," "Why Elephants Weep: The Evolutionary Biology of Morality and Ethics" and "Building a More Ethical World: The Role of the University."

"This is a model of interdisciplinary exchange," said U.Va. English professor Michael Levenson, who directs the College of Arts & Sciences' Institute of the Humanities and Global Cultures, a co-sponsor of the conference. The topic has particular resonance at U.Va., given President Teresa A. Sullivan's initiative for a caring University community, he said, in addition to the University's venerable Honor System. Established in 1842, it is the nation's oldest student-run honor system and one of U.Va.'s most cherished institutions.

Levenson and Pam Sorensen, a child and adolescent psychoanalytic psychotherapist who established the Sorensen Trust, will give welcoming remarks April 13 at 9 a.m., followed by an address from Sullivan .

The session topics range from psychotherapists Kay Long and Margaret Rustin discussing ethical and moral development in childhood and adolescence to Alexander "Sandy" Gilliam, U.Va. historian, and Ann Marie McKenzie, chair of the Honor Committee, reviewing U.Va.'s Honor System and Michael Rustin examining the practice of honor codes in universities on a broader scale.

James F. Childress, University Professor and director of the Institute for Practical Ethics and Public Life, who will respond to Michael Rustin's comments, said, "This is an exciting conference. It brings together outstanding presenters and respondents from various disciplines to reflect creatively on how universities can facilitate students' moral development and ethically address such problems as cheating." 

Free and open to the public, the conference will be held at the Darden School of Business' Abbot Center Auditorium. It is co-sponsored the Institute for Practical Ethics and Public Life, Counseling and Psychological Services and the Sorensen Trust for the Study of British Object Relations in the Department of Student Health. The organization promotes studies on infant observation and early relationships, clinical and theoretical issues and the application of psychoanalytic ideas to other areas of applied study.  

The complete conference schedule is online, with information about speakers and registration.