Undergraduates may soon have the opportunity to take new courses with a focus on ethics in public life as part of efforts to rev up the University’s study of ethics.
The classes would be a product of a recently completed University taskforce report that has laid out a rough blueprint for increased study of ethics. Now the University is concentrating on implementing the taskforce’s findings and taking concrete steps, taskforce co-chair Marvin Krislov said.
Along with the classes, plans to increase the study of ethics include a steering committee designed to bring the taskforce’s suggestions to life, public forums, and the support of competitive research grant programs. To fund these programs, the University has committed $500,000.
In the wake of ethical crises in American life such as sexual abuse by priests and abuse of military prisoners in Iraq, University President Mary Sue Coleman created the taskforce last September to determine how the University could best explore ethics.
In its report, the taskforce stressed that the University will not take a stance on specific ethical issues.
“Rather, as with any intellectual question, it lets its members come to their own conclusions, as experts, as students, and as citizens and inquirers at large,” the report says.
The taskforce found two major areas to address, said Krislov, who is also the University’s general counsel. One of those was coordinating the various people across campus already studying ethics.
“There were actually a number of ethics-related activities on campus, but they weren’t necessarily coordinated,” Krislov said, adding that the University has a tendency to be decentralized.
Interdisciplinary teaching and research, which Coleman identified as one of her campus initiatives in a speech last spring, has become a major priority for the University.
Coleman said the University already has many of the necessary resources in place for the advanced study, including strong programs in philosophy and social sciences, among others.
The second area that the taskforce found necessary to address is providing undergraduate students a way to get more involved in the study of ethics. The taskforce found many undergraduate students interested in studying ethics, the report says.
The courses would be aimed at undergraduates, Krislov said. No determinations have been made concerning exactly what the courses will be about, but as an example, Krislov cited a course from the 1940s about political morality. He said such a course might include readings of ancient as well as contemporary political philosophers and discussions centered on such topics as the ethics of economic systems, wars and nations.
Coleman said some current courses will also be revised to include more of an ethics-related angle, but she did not elaborate.
Forums to facilitate discussion about ethics are undefined right now, but their basic function is clear – providing a discussion setting on topics such as military action in Iraq and Harvard President Lawrence Summers’s controversial comments on women in science.
“There’s no knowing today what the forums will cover, but we do know by reading the headlines that there will rarely be a shortage of material,” Coleman said during her State of the University address to the Faculty Senate Assembly on Monday.
The forums will be aimed at undergraduates, Krislov said, but others will be welcome. They will most likely begin this semester, he said, but he doubts there will be many, and said they will probably take place about once a month.
Although plans for a shared physical space for the study of ethics have been discussed, it does not appear that such a center will be built in the near future, Krislov said.
“It wasn’t clear that this would be the most effective way to increase collaboration,” Krislov said, adding that he has studied other universities with similar programs already in place and found that it was not effective.
But Krislov did not rule out the possibility of an ethics center in the long run.
Long-term plans also include organizing symposiums or conferences on subjects such as the role of religion in public health, Krislov said.
“Right now, we have lots of great ideas, but we’re not trying go do them all in the first year,” he said.
The report included information on other high-profile schools that have already established this level of ethics research organization, among them academic powerhouses such as Harvard University, Dartmouth College and Yale University. Taskforce members drew on their programs when making their recommendations.