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June 14, 2019 Back to All News

Ethics education is under review in nationwide study

The Prindle Institute for Ethics is the new institutional home for the National Ethics Project

The Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University is partnering with Harvard, Stanford and the University of South Florida on an effort to examine how ethics is taught in colleges and universities across the U.S.

The National Ethics Project is designed to improve ethics education and create ethics resources for higher education institutions. It marks the first major review of undergraduate ethics education since 1980, when a study known as the Hastings Center Report was issued.

“Obviously, a lot has changed in higher education since the 1980s,” said Prindle Institute Director Andrew Cullison. “Whole areas of study have emerged, student demographics have shifted considerably, and countless other factors have combined to create a vastly different environment for ethics education. It’s time to examine what’s being done, and how.”

Joining the Prindle Institute in the project are Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Stanford University’s McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, the University of South Florida’s Department of Journalism and Digital Communication, and the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE).

Each institute is playing a defined role in the project. The Prindle Institute, in conjunction with APPE, is serving as the project’s institutional and technical home.

Harvard’s team is focusing on ethics instruction, while Stanford’s researchers are examining ethics education from the student perspective. Meanwhile, the University of South Florida team is creating a tool that can review the websites of campuses across the U.S. and create a survey of the various ways universities are teaching and discussing ethics.

In addition to creating an assessment of ethics education, the National Ethics Project will develop tools to help higher education institutions improve their ethics instruction. For example, the Harvard team is developing an algorithm that will allow universities to search their course descriptions and identify courses where ethics principles are being discussed, regardless of a course’s stated focus.

“It’s not uncommon for ethics to be discussed in virtually every department, from English literature to human biology, and from business classes to psychology, but those discussions are not always considered ‘ethics discussions,’” said Jess Miner, research director for Harvard’s Safra Center for Ethics. “We want to help universities identity those places where ethics discussions are taking place without being recognized as such.”

A pilot study at Harvard suggests that this tool might be particularly helpful to universities. “More than half of the courses that we identified as including ethics instruction came from alternate search terms, not from ‘ethics’ or ‘moral reasoning,’” Miner said.

The National Ethics Project was launched two years ago, in part with funding from the Spencer Foundation and the Mellon Foundation. In addition to conducting research and developing and making available tools, the National Ethics Projects plans to host first-of-their-kind conferences to address undergraduate education about technology and ethics.

“We are hearing more and more conversations about ethics in the public arena, and yet we are broadly unaware of how ethics is being taught to our up-and-coming leaders,” Cullison said. “The National Ethics Project will help us recognize where and how ethics education is taking place, perhaps identify gaps in that education, and then work collaboratively to address those gaps and help out students enter the world prepared to address challenging conversations.”

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