Toronto Closing its Center for Ethics

This isn’t, however, the usual sort of closure decision made by bureaucrats with no knowledge of or respect for philosophy. The provost is eminent philosopher Cheryl Misak. She writes:

I am responding to you as the Provost of the University of Toronto, but also as an occasional participant in the Centre’s activities; as someone who works in the field of ethics; and, indeed, as the person who initially came up with the idea of a Centre for Ethics over a decade ago when I was Chair of the Department of Philosophy. At that point the proposal was set aside because we could not raise funds to endow the Centre, as we must if we are to offer visitorships in the economic climate in which publicly-funded universities find themselves. When the Centre was successfully launched through the exemplary initiative and commitment of its first director, that launch was made possible by seed funding provided by something called the Academic Initiatives Fund. There was a clear understanding that the University could not maintain this financial commitment in the long term, and thus that funds had to be raised from the private sector if it was going to be sustainable.

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.”

But Joe Carens, also Toronto, responds:

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.

If you any of have further knowledge of the situation, we’d be grateful. (My impression is that they are not actually cutting any jobs in doing this. Is that right?) If you want to join the facebook campaign to save the Center, go here.