Faculty of Arts and Science, University of Toronto

Since its inception in 2005, the Centre for Ethics has established itself, both domestically and internationally, as a unique and vibrant hub of interdisciplinary and collaborative research in the field of ethics. Widely acclaimed as one of the University’s leading research units, the Centre has been described as one of the top three institutes of its kind in the world, standing firmly alongside its counterparts at Harvard and Princeton.

In the last week of June 2010, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences revealed its startling decision to dismantle the Centre for Ethics at the University of Toronto. In its new academic plan, the Faculty has declared its intent to redeploy the $308,000 annual budget of the Centre to “ethics-based educational initiatives across the Faculty.” Provost Cheryl Misak would later attribute this decision to “financial pressures,” asserting that “the University of Toronto’s commitment to the finest research in and teaching of the subject of ethics is unwavering, despite this recent shift in how the Faculty of Arts and Sciences goes about it.” It is doubly unfortunate then to have this particular decision included in the broader financial pressures that face the University. Not only is this decision unrelated to the wider determination to rein in spending, it will potentially harm the very students it purports to serve.

It is important to note that the University has not chosen to eliminate the funds formerly allocated to the Centre for Ethics, but rather to divert them to ethics-related courses run out of existing departments. This seems to suggest that the decision is less about saving money than it is a reflection of shifting priorities and commitments. Without a doubt, expanding the Faculty’s existing course offerings in ethics is an important and laudable aim, but doing so at the expense of the Centre for Ethics is both wrongheaded and shortsighted. Teaching and research are dual pillars of the university; excellence in one reinforces excellence in the other. The teaching of ethics in diverse fields becomes wooden and forced when not connected to ethics research projects. Dismantling the Centre for Ethics would not further the University’s aims to provide cutting edge teaching in ethics, but would arguably reduce both its teaching capacities and its international profile.

One of the Centre’s greatest achievements has been in building bridges among scholars and students from a wide range of disciplines and departments across the Faculty of Arts and Science and beyond. Within the traditionally decentralized institutional framework of the University of Toronto, the Centre for Ethics has been an effective counteragent to departmental parochialism, creating a community of researchers with shared interests, despite their often very different backgrounds, methodologies, and approaches to problems in ethics. By offering an institutional home for these scholars, the Centre has helped build up inter-departmental relationships and has generated unique opportunities for collaboration and insight—learning that is then transported back into the researchers’ departments of origin and into the classroom.

Through its many seminars and conferences, the Centre has explored such pressing issues as climate change, cultural difference and “reasonable accommodation,” Aboriginal politics, business ethics, electoral reform, ethics and democracy, secularism, civil society, and the ethics of catastrophe, to name but a few. Moreover, the Centre acts as an important bridge between the university and the broader community by fostering a distinctive space for public engagement on questions of ethics. Through its Community Research Partnerships and Public Issues Forums, the Centre engages students, faculty, and the general public in discussion of topics of acute relevance to today’s world. This kind of socially relevant and engaged scholarship is an example to the world and as a world-class research institution that prides itself on its commitment to teaching and research, the University of Toronto should be proud to support it.

We, the undersigned, call on the Faculty of Arts and Science at the University of Toronto to reverse its decision to dismantle the Centre for Ethics.

While we are pleased that the Faculty of Arts and Science wishes to devote more resources to undergraduate teaching in ethics, we do not think it is necessary to sacrifice the Centre for Ethics in order to do this. Fostering teaching in ethics should not and need not involve dismantling the Centre for Ethics and all that it has achieved.

Active, socially engaged researchers make for better teachers. Disestablishing the Centre for Ethics means depriving faculty, students, and members of the broader public of an unparalleled source of learning, collaboration, and community engagement.

Therefore, we strongly urge the Faculty of Arts and Science to (1) reverse its decision to close the Centre for Ethics, (2) build on the research and teaching strengths of the Centre for Ethics in order to promote social and ethical responsibility as a core competency in undergraduate teaching throughout the Faculty, and (3) work with the staff of the Centre for Ethics to secure long-term financial support for its administration and programming.

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The Save the Centre for Ethics at the University of Toronto petition to Faculty of Arts and Science, University of Toronto was written by Team Ethics and is in the category Education at GoPetition.