Cutting the Center for Ethics a regrettable, responsible decision

Last Spring, we made a policy prescription for the Washington University administration, given a newly anemic endowment and the resulting diminished operating budget. In a staff editorial published on April 28, 2009, we wrote, “Any changes in the operating budget should prioritize internal well-being above public image.” We stand by this statement now as we did then, and we maintain that the most important part of the University’s internal well-being is the quality of our education, which hinges on the salaries paid to our professors. Because of these priorities, we see the University’s recent elimination of the Center for the Study of Ethics & Human Values as a regrettable but responsible decision.

We admit that closing down the center reflects poorly on the University’s external image. The economic crisis that led to the cuts in the University’s operating budget can be partially attributed to a lack of prudence in big business, and the Jeff Smith and Timothy Kuklo scandals demonstrate a lack of ethics in faculty members’ actions. Symbolically, it would seem that the center acted as a foil to these problems, demonstrating a University commitment to the pursuit of ethical actions across disciplines.

However, the truth is that perhaps tailored commitments to ethics can be individually pursued in each school. In the medical school, aspiring doctors can still be taught medical ethics. In the law school, aspiring lawyers can continue to argue about the nature of these ethics. In the business school, new rules for sharing information and bundling derivatives will continue to emerge as we rebuild our economic structure. And in the philosophy department, the study of ethics will continue to be vibrant—that is, provided that the student body continues to engage with issues surrounding the study of ethics and human values.

Our endorsement of the University’s decision does not come without careful consideration of the administration’s operating budget. Difficult changes have been made elsewhere—for example, the delay of construction on the South 40. It appears thus far that the University is avoiding sacrifices to the things most important to inner University well-being: professors’ salaries and student financial aid.

Our endorsement also does not come without another prescription: We ask that the administration take strides to ensure that the center’s programmatic benefits continue. We ask that the University continue to bring in speakers such as Peter Singer and Carl Bernstein for the Assembly Series—speakers who encourage us to consider and reconsider the ethical implications of the way we live. And we ask that administrations at the different schools at the University continue to emphasize the importance of an ethical education as well as an intellectual one, especially as we move into an era with fewer excesses.

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