Recently, the College of William and Mary announced that alumnus and former Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey ‘82 will be co-teaching a course on ethical leadership in the next academic year. Some William and Mary students have taken to social media to voice their disapproval. Their view seems to be that the appointment suggests Comey is not an ethical figure, and so it must be condemned because certain actions he took as FBI director are considered by many to have been unethical.
I believe their concern is misplaced. I am not here to argue that James Comey always made ethical choices as FBI director. Rather, I hold that it is not required that Comey have done so to be an appropriate co-teacher of the course. Regardless of how well he personally applied ethical concepts as FBI director, Comey will bring a unique perspective and directly relevant experience to coursework on ethical leadership.
I believe this controversy is happening because some students have failed to reflect enough on what it means to “teach” an ethics course. Having Comey co-teach a course on ethical leadership does not suggest that he comes from a point of ethical clarity, only that he is well-versed in ethical concepts relevant to organizational leadership. Comey’s work experience qualifies him to co-teach the course, regardless of the choices he made as FBI director.
Those still concerned about William and Mary giving Comey a podium might also consider who is likely to be taking the course. They will be students who have an interest in political leadership, and who have been educated to critically evaluate what they are told — even by a professor. Simply hearing another’s thoughts will not weaken the integrity of an educated mind. I believe many students will be interested in the perspective of a former senior government leader who often had to make decisions that raised difficult ethical questions.
In short, my support for Comey’s co-teaching the course on ethical leadership comes from my view of what qualifies a person to teach ethics, and my faith in the critical mindset of his future students. If ethical perfection were required for a person to be deemed eligible to teach the course, it seems likely there would be no one to teach the course at all.
Email Julia Wicks at firstname.lastname@example.org.