University students who applied for fellowship programs and research grants sponsored by the University’s Center for Ethics in Public Life this year were expecting to be granted or denied their request.
Instead, they received an e-mail that said due to recent state government budget cuts, the University has decided to close the center entirely.
University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said due to budget constraints determined by state funding, certain University programs including the Center for Ethics in Public Life were eliminated. He said the center is not closing because it failed to promote its message, but because it had already met its goals.
“The evaluation was that its mission of ethics in public life was now sort of embedded in the community,” Fitzgerald said. “And the provost’s office believed that would be sustained without having a specific center focused on that.”
The center was founded on July 1, 2008 in response to perceived ethical lapses in public life nationwide. Three years before it became an official establishment, it was a presidential initiative by University President Mary Sue Coleman.
At the time, Coleman cited violations of public ethics, such as the mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq, sexual abuse by priests and government corruption, as impetus for the creation of the center. Coleman asked a University task force to work toward a solution that would promote ethics in academia and encourage a public discourse on ethics.
Once the center was founded, it created a forum for applied ethics by linking the specific schools and areas of study at the University that focus on ethics, according to John Chamberlin, the center’s director and a professor in the Ford School of Public Policy.
Though ethics-based programs existed on campus before the creation of the center, the study of ethics had not been directly connected to the notion of applied ethics, Chamberlin said. In addition to sponsoring courses on the topic, the center also served individual students, student groups and administrative bodies interested in sponsoring events or projects related to ethics through program grants.
According to Chamberlin, many other universities and academic institutions were motivated to establish centers as a result of current events.
“They probably were spurred by the headlines,” he said, citing centers that were founded after historical crises such as Watergate and debates about World War II.
Chamberlin said many ethics centers focus on specific topics like business, environmental or military ethics or cater solely to graduate students and faculty members. The University’s center was one of a few that extended its reach to undergraduate students and encompassed many disciplines, he said.
LSA Associate Dean Derek Collins, a member of the center’s executive board, said he believes the center has accomplished much since its inception. Collins added that he thinks the University’s budget constraints have no bearing on the success of the center and that the center’s closure does not reflect its effectiveness as a program.
“Chamberlin’s leadership has been exemplary,” Collins said. “We’ve done great things over the last five years, and no one should regret all the great work that we’ve all done.”
Though the center is closing, Chamberlin said he doesn’t think the services it offers will disappear. But without the center as a guide, students will have to do more personal work to discover the resources and connections to pursue projects and programs concerning applied ethics, he said.
Fitzgerald said many of the programs that were started by the Center for Ethics in Public Life, like the University’s Ethics Bowl Team — which debates topics pertaining to ethics and participated in a debate last week with the vice president of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — will continue.
However, some programs will not be sustained without the center. Research and fellowship programs that gave funding to professors, undergraduate students and pre- and post-dissertation graduate students will no longer be available.
Nancy Baum, an analytic consultant at the University’s Center for Healthcare Research and Transformation, received a fellowship grant from the center for her work in public health and ethics when she was as a Ph.D. candidate. Baum said it was important for her to have the funding and the opportunity to engage in a series of meetings with other fellows doing dissertation work related to applied ethics.
“We had an opportunity to share our work with each other,” she said. “And we were able to enrich our own work while understanding other people’s work in applied ethics.”
Baum added that while some philosophy classes include the discussion of theoretical ethics, courses about its application are absent in higher education.
“I think the Center for Ethics in Public Life filled a very important hole that’s missing for an awful lot of people around the University in various departments who are interested in applied ethics,” she said. “And I think that’s going to be quite a loss.”
Additionally, funding available to professors who wanted to supplement their curriculum with speakers or events related to ethics will no longer be available.
Henry Greenspan, a lecturer in clinical psychology, said the center helped him secure funding to get important lecturers in his classes, which included a Residential College class titled “Special Topics: Pills, Politics and the Public Good.”
“These are not just folks dropping in,” he said. “They are speakers who make an enormous difference in the course.”
Greenspan also said he was upset to hear about the loss of the center.
“It’s sad, above all, for the students who will have to work a little harder to find the relevant courses and create programs on their own,” he said.
But Collins said he believes the center’s closing is an invitation for all University members to seek new ways to promote the discussion of ethics.
“Not every interdisciplinary conversation is funneled through a center,” Collins said. “I think maybe this is a call to arms to find a new way to continue that interdisciplinary conversation.”
Despite Chamberlin’s unhappiness with the center’s closing, he said he still wants to help facilitate discussion about applied ethics on campus.
“I’m disappointed,” he said. “But this year and last year we’ve done a lot. The question is, does it have momentum, and how can we diffuse this throughout the University so it can continue?”