Center for Ethics: Update

by Henry Farrell on July 7, 2010

I’ve received the below from my former colleague, Joe Carens, responding to the “boilerplate letter”: that has been sent to anyone who has written to University of Toronto officials deploring the proposed closure of the Center for Ethics.


I want to respond briefly to the “standard letter”: that the Provost, Cheryl Misak, is sending to those who write in support of the Centre for Ethics at the University of Toronto. Her letter was posted previously on this blog. Cheryl is an eminent philosopher and a friend, but I think that her communication on this issue is misleading. One gets the impression from Cheryl’s letter that the Centre for Ethics had been expected to raise funds to sustain its activities and failed to do so, and also that the closure of the Centre is a regrettable necessity due to the financial crisis within the university. Neither is accurate.

The Centre was created five years ago under a university initiative to spark innovation. It was one of a few projects to which the university committed base funding, not “seed” money. It was always the plan that the Centre should raise major endowment over the long term, but the previous Dean who approved the Centre agreed that it would not be expected to do this in the first five years. The Centre has been very successful in raising funds for particular projects.

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.

Joe Carens
University of Toronto



Barry Rosh 07.07.10 at 7:28 pm

As somebody said in the previous thread, they did the standard thing – when budget get tight, drop ethics first.


LS 07.07.10 at 9:28 pm

Sounds more like “when budgets get tight, use the crisis as cover to reallocate resources.”


ECW 07.07.10 at 10:13 pm

But won’t everyone whose budget is cut under these circumstances claim it is “more reasonable” to cut somewhere else or keep the unit going with reduced support? This is the problem with budget crises at universities. Almost everything being done is worth doing and administrators have to make difficult decisions about which meritorious initiatives to support, which meritorious initiatives to cut, and which meritorious initiatives to reallocate resources towards. Just like interest politics anywhere else, those who lose will find their loss unreasonable. Usually there is no good solution to this problem that avoids harming someone.

A philosopher should make an argument that takes into account these other circumstances, not just the single impact on their own interest. A “reasonable” argument to keep funding the centre would require that level of analysis, including a justification for what else should be cut or trimmed, and why the centre is more valuable. I don’t see that sort of argument in this post or the previous one.

I’m not trying to be a jerk. But I just watched my colleagues go through this process at my university, where we had to find significant savings to balance the budget. The spectacle of PhD’s acting like tea party protesters was distasteful, at best. the arguments largely came down to “cut wasteful spending” and fire administrators, neither of which was either a real analysis nor sufficient to get us anything like the savings we needed. We should do better in our discussions of the Centre for Ethics.


tomslee, child of geographers 07.07.10 at 11:39 pm

Following ECW, I did see this in the comments at the Leiter Report:

However, the Dean responsible for closure doesn’t seem to think that he needs to consult widely on an important issue such as this. (He’s a geographer or something of that sort – maybe he doesn’t think it’s an important issue.)

“geographer or something of that sort” is not going to win friends or influence people.


ziggy 07.08.10 at 12:42 am

Unfortunately, there seems to be a degree of “he said, she said” creeping in here (as regards what sort of performance was expected of the Centre). To that extent, ECW’s comments on how these sorts of issues should be debated carry some weight. The Centre seems to be doing good work: but the discussion over its’ status has not been terribly illuminating, either as concerns the issues facing this particular Centre, or similar Centres which may face similar situations at other institutions.


Joe Carens 07.08.10 at 3:42 am

I used the phrase “more reasonable” not about the budget tradeoffs per se but about giving the Ethics Centre a few years to raise an endowment rather than closing it immediately, given that there had been no warning about this change in funding expectations. The term ‘reasonable’ here was being used in the context of the question of what is fair, not what is the best use of expenditures. It seemed important to make that claim of reasonableness because Cheryl Misak’s letter implicitly suggests that it is fair or reasonable to close the Centre because it failed to meet expectations regarding fundraising.

I agree with ECW that one has to take the alternatives into account, but one cannot make the demand for comparisons so all-encompassing that it denies the possibility of deliberation about the merits of any actual alternatives. Framing the comparison among alternatives is often the most important part of debates over budgets. The point of the last two paragraphs of my post, however, was that we don’t have to consider all the possible uses to which the U of T’s money might be put — an impossible task — because the university has publicly committed itself to spending significant resources on new initiatives in research and teaching in ethics instead of spending that money on the Ethics Centre. So, the university’s own rationale for the closure of the Centre implicitly frames the alternatives and invites us to compare the anticipated benefits of this proposed new expenditure with the benefits of spending the same amount on preserving the Ethics Centre, at least for a few years to see if it can succeed in its fundraising. The Ethics Centre is a proven quantity, ranked by many leading scholars as among the 3 or 4 best ethics centres in the world. In theory, the new initiatives could be even more valuable — anything is possible — but it is very difficult to create success at the level that the Ethics Centre has achieved. So far, no one has even offered an idea of what these new alternatives might be except that they will emphasize undergraduate teaching more than the Ethics Centre has done, though at the same time university officials insist that this does not involve diminishing in any way the priority given to research in ethics.

To use ECW’s template, I have argued that what should be cut instead of the Ethics Centre is the proposed set of new initiatives (though these initiatives could just be deferred for a few years) and I have argued that the Ethics Centre is more valuable because it has a proven record of success and the new initiatives are not yet even promising ideas. I think that is an argument (whether one agrees with it or not), and I thought it was already an argument in its original, more compressed form.


Maurice Meilleur 07.08.10 at 3:46 am

I don’t know what budgets are like in Canadian higher ed, but $308K sounds like peanuts for a program at a major research institution. If I were looking to trim fat, I wouldn’t have picked this target. Especially since creating ‘centers’ for specific topics or areas of research interest is vastly more reasonable–more flexible and cost-effective–than creating entire units or departments or schools that become their own reason for existing.


Benjamin Wald 07.08.10 at 4:59 am

My main issue with the closure isn’t, pace ECW, that the funds would be better saved somewhere else, but that the decision was made in secret and without consultation. Yes, cutting budgets is always painful, but such decisions should be open and amenable to feedback. I obviously don’t know whether or not there would be better places to save the money (assuming, contrary to what has been suggested, that the money is being saved rather than reallocated), but no one has been given a chance to find out, because the idea wasn’t announced until the decision was already made. This seems to fit with a growing pattern of academic cost savings presented as fait accompli, with administrative fiat replacing dialogue and compromise.


magistra 07.08.10 at 5:59 am

ECW@3: a lot of the problem comes from how universities behaved in times of relative plenty. With reference to King’s College London, I’ve written about the poor strategy of chasing after short-term success by expanding favoured units, and then panicking and cutting when the funding situation changes. I think that a better strategy would be a very cautious one, in which you don’t start up a project in the first place if you don’t think you can afford to keep it going for the next 10 or even 50 years. What has been proved again and again is that academics (and even more university managers) are not good at predicting the future of the market, and that if they try and ‘pick winners’, rather than concentrate on a broad portfolio of courses, they tend to come a cropper.


Barry 07.08.10 at 12:56 pm

Test post (trying to fix my name – you post *once* under a false name, and jeeesh!)


Mary Liston 07.16.10 at 7:16 pm

To keep track of the various official responses to letters of support for the Centre for Ethics, I thought I would post this response to my letter from the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Meric Gertler:

Dear Mary:

Thanks for your note. 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 established. 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). I should emphasize that this alternative use is entirely in keeping with a liberal arts education, and is inspired by a desire to enhance the breadth of our undergraduate programs along these lines.

The full costs associated with the Centre actually exceed $360K, 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 extremely difficult 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

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