We are Not Born for Ourselves Alone (Some Thoughts on Post-Grad Life)

1. The Big Questions 

I’ve never really written anything about myself on this blog. I’ve related some brief anecdotes, but usually in the context of a larger piece that didn’t have much to do with me. Certainly, my views and ideas find their way into much of what I write here. I don’t think any writer can avoid that. However, I’ve barely discussed my personal life, primarily because it’s just not very interesting or worth writing about. I’m literally the most boring person you’ll ever meet. If my writing ever suggests otherwise, then I suppose I’m doing something right.

Last week, however, something significant happened and it has set my mind reeling over certain life lessons and questions. I graduated, having completed my Master’s degree in the Department of Political Studies at Queen’s University. Now, as with every graduate, I am bombarded with certain questions, from others and from myself. The biggest, of course, is what will I do now? What do I want to be?

The question is an important one, of that I have no doubt. It is, however, somewhat narrow in scope, referring strictly to what one wants to do as a career. What job would you like to have? How will you make money? Will you continue on to a doctorate or law degree? Again, the questions are worth asking and one can’t avoid them, but as I’ve realized over the course of these reflections they are far from being the only questions that I need to ask myself.

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Follow up on the closing of the Ethics Centre

Just a quick follow up on my recent post regarding the closing of the Centre for Ethics at the University of Toronto. Below is a letter from Meric Gertler, the dean of the university’s Faculty of Arts & Sciences, which was sent to Igor Shoikhedbrod, who served as the executive director of BID, the student organization that I helped run and mentioned extensively in that recent post. The letter is posted in the comments section of my piece, but I thought I would also display it here for easier access.

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.

Sincerely,

Meric S. Gertler
Dean
Faculty of Arts & Science

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.

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