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Interest in ethics grows on campuses

Debra Erdley
| Saturday, May 21, 2011

If interest in ethics education "comes in waves," as one expert says, the tide is rising in Pittsburgh.

At least three recent university endowments have targeted ethics education: two at the University of Pittsburgh and one at Carlow University.

Duquesne University recently announced it will host two new international ethics organizations. One of them, the International Association for Education in Ethics, will hold its inaugural international conference next May in Pittsburgh.

"When you see some activity in this area, it's usually a response to some extent to events that have taken place," said Vivian Weil, director of the Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions at the Illinois Institute of Technology. The center, started in 1976, is among a handful of surviving academic institutes on ethics that sprang up in the mid-1970s in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam. It focuses on ethical issues in science and engineering.

Daniel Wueste, president of the Society for Ethics Across the Curriculum, directs the Robert J. Rutland Institute for Ethics at Clemson University in South Carolina.

Wueste said new focuses on ethics education typically follow events such as the insider trading scandals of the 1980s, the 2001 collapse of Enron and the 2008 Wall Street meltdown.

Such events did not influence Carlow University, which recently announced creation of an endowed chair in Ethics Across the Curriculum, according to university President Mary Hines. The move shows the continuing commitment to ethics education at the liberal arts school founded by the Sisters of Mercy, she said.

Hines, who has lectured and written on ethics, said the $1.5 million endowment for the Michele R. Atkins Chair will allow Carlow to broaden its programs in ethics and raise public awareness.

One purpose of the endowment is to "foster an understanding of the principles of ethics as they apply to all disciplines and professional programs at the university," Hines said.

At the University of Pittsburgh, where a $1 million endowment from Bank of New York Mellon Corp. will underwrite a new program in corporate social responsibility for the next decade, officials said recent events were a catalyst.

"World events have shown that business education needs to devote more attention to corporate social responsibility," university Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Patricia Beeson said in January in announcing the program that will be housed in the David Berg Center for Ethics and Leadership.

Wueste said there are competing concepts in ethics education. Some groups, such as the Society for Ethics Across the Curriculum, insist it should be integrated into every facet of university life. Others prefer to concentrate on specialized ethics education in areas such as science and business.

The late economist Milton Friedman took another stand, arguing that the only ethical obligation people in business have is to maximize profits.

Pittsburgh businessman James J. Browne, a principal of the Allegheny Financial Group and Allegheny Investments, could not disagree more. Browne, who endowed a $2 million chair in Pitt's school of social work last week, wants to offer yet another alternative for future CEOs through the Browne Leadership Program.

"The goal is for students from diverse academic backgrounds to think about how, as future CEOs and leaders, they will effect change," Browne said.

At Duquesne University, Dr. Henk ten Have, a physician, bioethicist, professor and director of the Center for Healthcare Ethics, is starting two international organizations: one focusing on international ethics education and another on international bioethics issues.

Ten Have, who previously directed the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's Division of Ethics of Science and Technology, will serve as inaugural secretary for both the International Association on Ethics Education and Bioethics Beyond Borders.

The mission of the Ethics Education association is to foster exchanges among ethics experts around the world and serve as a global center for experts in the field. The bioethics group will seek to bring together experts from developing and established nations to focus on issues in the developing world that require bioethics expertise.

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