Ethics in Public Life leaders call for proposals, expand initiative
After a successful first year for a program to enhance deliberation on issues of ethics in public life on campus, one presidential initiative will move forward with new opportunities for education and discourse on the topic.
The Ethics in Public Life Initiative was launched by President Mary Sue Coleman at the beginning of the 2005-06 academic year following recommendations by a task force selected in 2004. In September 2005 she appointed co-directors John Chamberlin, professor of public policy and of political science, and Marvin Krislov, vice president and general counsel, and a steering committee for the initiative, and made an initial commitment of $500,000 to develop programs that would integrate ethics with education, with an initial focus on undergraduates and public outreach.
As a result of work by the co-directors, steering committee and others, several new projects are underway or are close to being launched. These include:
• A highly successful forum series on ethical issues;
• A projected new course in applied ethics to be offered by the Philosophy Department;
• A new Web site, www.umich.edu/pres/ethics, designed to serve as a clearing house for information and opportunities related to ethics in public life;
• A project with the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT) to develop programs and resources for faculty to encourage inclusion of ethical discussions in courses across the University;
• Discussions with student governments and organizations on providing new resources to students for issues of academic integrity.
In addition, the steering committee has issued a request for proposals (RFP) to encourage more courses to be developed, particularly those that cross disciplines, as well as extracurricular events that will advance the goals of the initiative. The RFP can be found by going to www.umich.edu/pres/ethics/funding. An RFP for research projects on the topic of ethics in public life will be issued in the near future.
"Sitting in on the forums, I was struck by the tremendous interest of our students in these varied issues," Coleman says. "Expanding our work is an important progression of an initiative that clearly has struck a chord with both students and faculty. I am excited about the momentum of this initiative and look forward to the coursework and research that will be generated."
During the first year of the initiative, four forums were held focusing on issues of academic integrity, religious beliefs and public office, intelligence gathering in an age of terrorism, and global health as it relates to the prevention of such diseases as AIDS and malaria. Chamberlin says the forums were such a success they will be continued in the coming year.
"The discussions were lively and informative and generated a lot of interchange between the audience and the panelists," Chamberlin says. "I think we got some important traction for the initiative."
One goal articulated in the task force report was integration of ethics more fully into the classroom. New ethics courses already are being developed, including one entitled Moral Principles and Problems, which has been proposed by the Philosophy Department. It is intended to expose freshmen and sophomores to the principles of moral philosophy, and help them to apply what they learn to specific ethical issues.
The course will feature a lecture for some 100-150 students focusing on theoretical ethics, accompanied by smaller discussion sessions taught by specially trained graduate student instructors. Each discussion section will deal with a specific area of applied ethicsincluding such topics as economics and international justice; health care; biotechnology; environment; human relations with animals and nature; ethics and religion; citizenship and government; ethics and law; professional and corporate ethics; and race, ethnicity and gender.
"The envisioned format makes intellectual sense," says Jim Joyce, Philosophy Department chair. "Applied ethics courses often ask students to tackle difficult problems, like abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment or affirmative action, without providing them with the philosophical tools they need to think clearly about the issues they face. This course, in contrast, will be organized around a theoretical core, supplied by the lecture, and discussion sections will help students understand the content of the lecture by having them apply what they have learned to moral problems that arise in a specific area of interest to them."
The course, tentatively numbered Phil 160, is expected to be offered for the first time in winter 2007. It will be taught by Peter Railton, the Arthur F Thurnau Professor and John Stephenson Perin Professor of Philosophy.
The steering committee hopes to encourage the development of other courses and special projects focused on ethics by providing grants to seed new and innovative proposals. CRLT will dedicate an upcoming Provost's Seminar on Teaching to the topic and begin monthly roundtables on teaching techniques.
Incoming steering committee Co-chair Derek Collins, associate professor of Greek and Latin in the Department of Classical Studies, says the group does not have any preconceived ideas about the kinds of courses that could benefit the community.
"We're looking for any course that thoughtfully develops students' ethical thinking," Collins says. "The main thing we learned this year is that our students genuinely hunger for increased dialogue with faculty about ethical issues of all kinds. For some students it is a matter of personal guidancethey're seeking answers to how to behave as citizens or as professionals in the workplacewhile for others it is more a matter of intellectual interest sparked by a course they've taken or something they've seen in the news. Both groups, however, are actively interested in learning how to approach ethical issues in a more sophisticated way."
The steering committee continues to work with student organizations and administrative groups that directly work with students, such as the LSA Honors Council, Michigan Student Assembly, Engineering Honors Group and the Division of Student Affairs, to further increase student awareness about the forums and engage them in the ethics debate. At an April dinner meeting with Coleman a number of students volunteered to help plan and promote additional programs.
During the next year, the steering committee also will look at broadening the effort to include professional schools.
"We hope to engage a broad representation of people in the professional schools in a dialogue about ethics and values, not only about the ways in which those ethics and values are part of their daily lives but also about how the various professional schools may share some common themes about what it means to be a member of a profession," says steering committee Co-chair Joel Howell, the Victor Vaughan Professor of the History of Medicine and director of the Clinical Scholars Program and the Program in Society and Medicine. "We hope to stimulate discussions that go beyond specific events and that resonate in informal conversations in hallways and in cafeterias, to encourage ethical behavior to become a part of the implicit as well as the explicit curriculum."
In September the steering committee expects to launch a search for a permanent director to lead the initiative. The Office of the Provost has provided funding for the position, which will be a faculty appointment associated with the Department of Philosophy or another appropriate campus unit.
For more information on the Ethics in Public Life Initiative contact Lisa Jeffreys, project specialist in the Office of the President, at firstname.lastname@example.org or (734) 615-6275.