Questioning if CWRU is hypocritical about ethics

To the editor,

The short answer is, “No.”  But we should be careful.

Case Western Reserve University’s mission is committed to “ethical behavior.”  Ethics is a main area of CWRU’s Strategic Plan, and it has accepted the money of numerous donors—the Inamori Foundation and the Kent Smith Foundation, to name two—on the condition that it establish chairs to steward “ethical leadership” for the University and “universal moral education” among undergraduates.  

We have a department of Bioethics, a social justice institute, ethics and moral education courses in many schools and Seminar Approach to General Education and Scholarship (SAGES) courses with ethics, moral education and social justice themes. There is also the Flora Stone Mather Center for Women, the Center for Civic Engagement and Learning and the LGBTQ Center. Greek organizations have ethical and moral oaths.

However, no ethics or moral thought professor of any kind, from any school, was included in any of the many working groups of the initial revision of the general education for undergraduates produced by the Committee on Undergraduate Experience (CUE) last fall.

The ethics in the general education through SAGES were taken out almost entirely from the first CUE proposal. Only the first writing course still addressed minimal ethics goals, rather than the four courses along the SAGES’s continuum having them. This development was not good, since spiral learning seems to work, especially in the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing.

Having spoken with many people involved in CUE, this turn of events wasn’t intentional.  But it was concerning:

  1.      CWRU’s accreditation requires that it accounts for its values. For instance, Stevens Institute of Technology updates its strategic plan with implementation plans and assessments done yearly, published publicly and involving a wide constituency of the university, including students. To lose ethics and moral education as a core part of general education would strain our relationship with our values.
  2.     Graduates need good judgment. It’s pragmatic. But for good judgment, we need to be prudent and self-controlled and we need to know what it takes to live well with others. These things are what ethics and moral education study. If we took them out of general education, we would be abandoning good judgment as a general goal of our education.
  3.    The year before CUE came out, my professorship completed a Moral Development Study of undergraduates. Over many randomly sampled and diverse interviews, we found that soon-to-be-CWRU-graduates don’t have a strong sense of social justice and civic responsibility if it hasn’t come from prior upbringing. We also found that our students focus too much on what is instrumental for careers while losing sight of what is intrinsically good in life. Students don’t seem to be learning what is good for their whole lives.
  4.     In a different but related effort, my professorship also surveyed SAGES faculty and found that some faculty still worry that ethics and morals mean indoctrination. That worry might have been true in another time period. But ethical learning and moral education are forms of critical thinking today. In them, people learn to become more autonomous. So our faculty could probably benefit from more acquaintance with ethics and moral thought, and emphasizing these in general education would do that well.

CWRU isn’t hypocritical about ethics, but it could lose track of ethics. As this school year winds down and we are finally released from a hellacious winter, let’s hope we see the best interests of our students and institution protected in what CUE proposes as it completes its important work.