The Closing of the Centre for Ethics at the University of Toronto (A Student’s Perspective)

On the morning of June 30th I received, along with other members of its mailing list, a message from Professor Melissa Williams, director of the Centre for Ethics at the University of Toronto, which read, in its entirety,

To the Friends of the Centre for Ethics,

Yesterday I received the Faculty of Arts and Science planning result with respect to the Centre for Ethics. It is with a heavy heart that I report the Faculty’s decision to disestablish the Centre for Ethics as a unit within the University of Toronto.

The formal disestablishment of a unit within the University of Toronto requires multi-layered governance approval, and the Faculty will move forward with that process beginning in Fall 2010.

Further details will follow.

Melissa S. Williams

Director, Centre for Ethics

As details began to slowly reveal themselves over the next few days, it appeared that the decision to disband the Centre for Ethics was a financial one, the university’s Faculty of Arts & Science being faced with a $50 million dollar deficit. Such a deficit would indeed be a pressing matter for any university, and one which was acknowledged University of Toronto Provost Cheryl Misak, herself a well respected scholar in the field of ethics, in her response to those expressing their disappointment over the decision. Misak’s letter has been posted in the comments section of this entry at Brian Leiter’s blog. The gist of the letter, contained in the following passage, states,

The Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science is working within a very difficult budget situation. He is on the way to pulling the Faculty out of it so as to preserve and enhance the excellent scholarship, research, and teaching that is at the heart of the University of Toronto. He and his Academic Planning Committee have come to the hard decision to close the Centre, while committing significant resources to support the research and teaching of ethics for a broader range of our community members, including our undergraduates. A committee to work out how to best use those resources is to be chaired by the Chair of the Department of Philosophy and will be entirely driven by faculty members working in ethics. While this decision is deeply disappointing for all those involved with the Centre for Ethics, I hope that you understand that very difficult decisions are constantly being made in a university under financial pressures. I assure you 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.”

In response to Misak’s statement, Professor Joe Carens, which is also available in the comments section of the item on Leiter’s blog, questions the nature of the financial reasons for disbanding the Centre. Carens states,

In the current climate, it may be necessary (if regrettable) for the University to close research centres that cannot pay for themselves, but it seems unreasonable to do so out of the blue, especially with one that has been as successful as the Ethics Centre at doing what it was previously asked to do. It would be far more reasonable to continue to support the Centre with university funding for a few years, perhaps at a reduced level, while expecting it to raise endowment or face closure.

Reading Cheryl’s letter you might think that the University of Toronto cannot afford even this temporary reprieve. I agree that the budget crisis is serious. There is a $50 million deficit in the Faculty of Arts and Science that has to be eliminated. However, the Dean is not proposing to save the Centre’s $308,000 budget. Rather he is proposing to redeploy much or all of it.

The University of Toronto faces a choice about how to use the “significant resources” that it plans to devote “to support the research and teaching of ethics” to use Cheryl’s words. We could, on the one hand, spend those resources to preserve an already existing and thriving research centre, recognized as one of the three or four best in the world in the area of ethics, or we could, on the other hand, spend those resources on whatever “ethics-based educational initiatives” are eventually proposed by the committee that the Dean plans to construct. The Dean does face some hard decisions in balancing his budget but this should not be one of them.

This is essentially the background to the decision as far as I can tell given the ultra-limited access I have to these issues as a mere student – no longer a student actually, having recently graduated – and indeed the financial aspects of this controversy can be debated to no end. As a former student, however, who has benefitted greatly from the opportunities and generousity of the Centre for Ethics, I can’t help but feel this is a disastrous decision and a great loss for the University of Toronto as a whole.

The Centre for Ethics has continually enriched the learning process for students by doing something that is so often lost at larger universities, namely by allowing students to engage with one another and with faculty in vital discussions of morality and ethics as they pertained to contemporary life. Furthermore, these discussions took place outside of the constraints of the classroom and the lecture hall, making them all the more fruitful and rewarding. This type of dialogue is absolutely vital as we come to think of ourselves more and more as global citizens, a fact which the Centre acknowledges in its mission statement, which reads,

The Centre for Ethics at the University of Toronto fosters research, teaching and public discussion of the moral dimensions of contemporary individual, social and political life. We are committed to the proposition that universities have a distinctive capacity and responsibility to shed light on questions of the moral life, as well as to educate students for reflective citizenship. Fulfilling this responsibility, we believe, requires that we build dialogue about the theory and practice of ethics across disciplinary, cultural, religious and social divides.

In my personal experience with the Centre for Ethics, those involved truly carried out this mission with great success, staging a myriad of discussions and presentations driven by the ideas of leaders in their respective fields. In addition, when students sought to replicate the mission the Centre espoused, the support of people like Melissa Williams could always be counted on. For the opportunities and support I was afforded as a student by Professor Williams and her colleagues at the Centre, I feel, as I’ve said, that this is a great loss for the academic community.

In the last academic year, I had been involved in running a student organization whose mandate was to facilitate political and philosophical discussions outside of the classroom with the aim of discerning what this knowledge meant in relation to the real world. In essence, we hoped to narrow that gap between theory and practice, taking our knowledge and skills acquired in the classroom and implementing them into various initiatives throughout the community.

This past year, we had two major goals we hoped to accomplish. The first was a multidisciplinary panel on the topic of social inequality in Canada and why it was a topic so worthy of attention. Secondly, we sought to put a Canadian spin on International Women’s Day, an event more prominent in Europe, by staging a public lecture on the disappearance of over 500 Aboriginal women in Canada over the past several years in addition to the violence these women continued to encounter. In the latter event, we also hoped to raise money for various organizations devoted to justice for Aboriginal women.

This was only our second year running this organization, which we had not taken over but rather initiated entirely on our own, and we were still obsolete on campus compared with other more well established student groups. Having such a limited budget, and still trying to establish a membership base, the idea of staging a panel of well known professors and filling a public lecture seemed overly ambitious, but we were nonetheless determined.

For our first step, we approached Melissa Williams with hopes of securing funding for both events. Subsequently, we requested that Professors John Duncan and Frank Cunningham, both fellows at the Centre for Ethics, to participate in the first panel event. They were all immediately generous and supportive of both initiatives and we were on our way to realizing  what would be our little organization’s greatest successes. Professor Duncan would work directly with our executive director and myself, the assistant director, to plan the panel on social inequality step by step and would himself act as a moderator for the event, which included Professor Cunningham as a participant alongside philosopher Lynda Lange and economist Gordon Anderson.

Each of these individuals, along with the Centre as a whole, made this event come together seamlessly. The house was packed on the night of the panel – we even had an overflow of attendants hoping to grab a seat should someone not show up – and the audience was as diverse as we had hoped it would be. In addition to students, attendees included other faculty and individuals from outside of the university community, including some from Humanities for Humanity, a program run by Professor Duncan which brings a liberal arts style education to those who cannot gain access to higher education. From the vibrant audience question and answer period that followed the panel, I felt a real sense of accomplishment for what we had initiated. Though my heart rate was uncontrollable in the days leading up to the event, it was an unabashed success. Somehow we managed to stage an interdisciplinary panel which included audience participation, introducing all those who attended to a great number of perspectives on the issue and no shots were fired.

Our second event, a public lecture on the injustices faced by Aboriginal Women in Canada, was also partially funded by the Centre for Ethics and was also a smashing success. Through another student, we were brought into contact with the brilliant Professor Robyn Bourgeois, who was at the time completing her doctoral dissertation at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Having been so deeply involved in the cause of Aboriginal women throughout her life, and being Aboriginal herself, Professor Bourgeois brought an incredible level of knowledge and passion to this project and delivered an inspiring lecture on an issue which is too often ignored in mainstream discussion.

That evening, there were three other Aboriginal women in the audience, and during the question and answer period that followed Robyn’s presentation, they shared their stories of the violence they encountered throughout their lives. To me, this was the most significant thing that such an event could accomplish. Those sitting in the audience, coming from backgrounds so markedly different from these women, were now exposed to the human side of a tragedy that has permeated this country’s history since day one. Stories that too often remain untold were told that evening, and that alone made me incredibly proud, for any meaningful progress or must begin with an understanding of the lives of others.

The idea of seeing the world through the eyes of others as a vital component to a liberal arts education is echoed by Martha Nussbaum in her new work “Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities” (I’ve written about some of Nussbaum’s other work here). In his review of Nussbaum’s book, Troy Jollimore reiterates the need for vigorous discussion and understanding in the age of global citizenship, stating,

True global citizenship encourages intelligent and responsible decision-making, both on the personal and the political levels. It also encourages toleration, not in the minimal “live and let live” sense that is all too often taken as adequate when dealing with those unlike ourselves, but in the fuller sense of striving for a genuine understanding of others, of seeing the world from their perspective. The ability to employ one’s “narrative imagination”—the third of the abilities crucial to citizenship that Nussbaum identifies—is, she writes, best developed through literature and the arts, which help students build powers of imagination and creativity…

The faculties of critical thinking, in addition to an understanding of facts, are the crux of meaningful engagement as a global citizen, and the Centre for Ethics was a shining example bringing this to fruition. My own experiences with the Centre are but one example of how authentic citizen engagement was fostered by the centre – you can also ask any of the the graduate fellows of the Centre how vital it was to their training as philosophers and academics. Furthermore, it was also home to some of Canada’s, and the world’s, leaders in the fields of philosophy and ethics. While their academic positions are not threatened by the Centre’s closing, I lament the fact that they are no longer together in one place fostering all the discussion that came as a result of the Centre For Ethics’ existence.

The financial issue is an important one, as I’ve acknowledged, but the University of Toronto would do well to ask itself what type of institution it hopes to be and what it is losing with the loss of the Centre for Ethics. The two events they helped my little student organization bring together were perhaps the greatest accomplishments of my undergraduate career, so I can’t help but feel a personal sense of loss, and in that I am surely not alone.

Additional information:

There is currently a Facebook Group dedicated to saving the Centre. A great place for keeping up with the situation as it develops. You can find the group here.

The University’s Centre for Comparative Literature is also in danger of being disbanded. A similar Facebook group has been set up here.

Leave a comment


  1. Michel X.

     /  July 13, 2010

    “The full costs associated with the Centre exceed $360K annually, the approximate equivalent of three entry-level academic positions. ”

    WHOA! If I secure a TT job at U of T’s philosophy department, I can look forward to a starting salary of $120 000?!

    I have a hard time believing that, much as I might want to. It’s far more common to enter at $40-60k, from what I can see.

    Anyhow, thanks for posting Gertler’s letter. It’s good to have an extra perspective. Unfortunately, I’m left with nothing to add, really, except that I’m not convinced that the department needs three new profs + three new courses more than it needs a Centre. It’s already the largest department in North America, after all.

    • That’s interesting Michel, I never thought about that when I first saw that figure. And it is indeed strange to think that a new faculty member at UofT will be paid that much. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Igor

     /  July 10, 2010

    A timely reflection, Ravi about the Centre for Ethics, BID’s achievements, and the significance of critical thinking and engagement.
    I wrote an e-mail to David Naylor, Cheryl Misak, and Meric Gertler, asking them to reconsider their decision to disestablish the Centre for Ethics at the University of Toronto.

    I received the following reply from Meric Gertler and thought it would be worthwhile to share with your blog readers, as well as students who are interested in saving the Centre for Ethics.

    Dear Igor:

    Many thanks for your taking the time to write. I fully understand your concern regarding this decision. The Faculty’s Strategic Planning Committee recognizes the many important achievements of the Centre since it was established five years ago. But circumstances have changed since the Centre was first set up. We have recently adopted new degree objectives for Arts & Science undergraduate programs, and these enshrine the goal that our students develop competence in understanding principles of social and ethical responsibility. At the same time, our financial circumstances have worsened dramatically, to the point where our annual expenditures exceed our annual revenues by $22M, and our accumulated debt exceeds $55M.

    Given this, the SPC made a tough decision to propose the closure of the Centre – not because it was not undertaking very worthy activities, but because the resources devoted to it are required to meet a more pressing and immediate need in the classroom (the mounting of new courses in social and ethical responsibility). Although students such as you were able to benefit from the activities taking place at the Centre, we are now looking for ways to create benefits for a wider group of undergraduates across the Faculty.

    The full costs associated with the Centre exceed $360K annually, the approximate equivalent of three entry-level academic positions. Given how tight our finances are these days, and given our very pressing needs across the Faculty, the SPC worked overtime to identify every possible way to enhance our teaching capacity. In light of these considerations, it was not possible for the SPC to justify continued funding for the Centre.

    We realize that the closing of the Centre will be a loss to the Faculty. At the same time, we are heartened by the knowledge that the same brilliant faculty and students will continue to find ways to engage in academic research, debate and deliberation around the many important political, social and moral issues of our time.


    Meric S. Gertler
    Faculty of Arts & Science

  1. Interior Designs » The Centre, Vancouver Convention Centre
  2. Follow up on the closing of the Ethics Centre « We are Living in a Society
  3. The poverty of for-profit education « Philosophical Life
  4. The Message is the Message « We are Living in a Society

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