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Not leaving ethics to chance

Dartmouth College Office of Public Affairs • Press Release
Posted 10/08/09 • Media Contact: Susan Knapp (603) 646-3661

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“Ethics is the foundation of higher education,” says Aine Donovan, the executive director of Dartmouth’s Ethics Institute, “and we’ve had to become more explicit in recent years about integrating it into teaching and learning.” Donovan’s remark reflects a growing trend in higher education to be increasingly deliberate in helping students chart an ethical course in their studies and in their careers. This fall, Dartmouth begins its sixth year of methodically teaching its master’s and doctoral students about ethics.

Ethics group
Some of the ethics facilitators, l-r: Casey Murray; Carey Heckman '76; Aine Donovan, Executive Director, Ethics Institute; Idan Ginsberg; Dan Milisavljevic (Photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

Dartmouth’s foray into this kind of training started in the fall of 2003 when then-Dean of Graduate Studies Carol Folt began thinking about how to integrate ethics into the graduate experience.

“Faculty at Dartmouth and at other colleges and universities, as well as several federal funding agencies such as the NIH [National Institutes of Health] were all beginning to talk about the need for ethical training in graduate education,” says Folt, who is now Dean of the Faculty and also a professor of biological sciences. “I began to look for an interesting and innovative way to integrate it into our curriculum, and I immediately thought to turn to Ron Green and Aine Donovan at the Ethics Institute. I had participated in their creative case study workshops on ethics and knew they had experience and knowledge that was unique. Fortunately they both immediately agreed to take on the challenge of building a program to meet the need of our students.” Ron Green is the faculty director of the Ethics Institute, a professor of religion, and the Eunice and Julian Cohen Professorship for the Study of Ethics and Human Values.

Complex workplace relationships, changing demographics of the workforce, and growing competition and pressure to publish and garner research dollars all contribute to a professional environment filled with ethical challenges.

Donovan and Green worked with Kerry Landers, the assistant dean of graduate student affairs, to create the inventive program that is now required for all incoming graduate students at Dartmouth. The goal is to help graduate students establish good practices and high ethical standards early in their training.

CASE STUDY: Ideas, ownership and friendship
Dartmouth Graduate Ethics Seminar, Aine Donovan, case author

“From the start, we tell the students they are now a part of a community of scholars, and we take ethics seriously as it will be a large part of their whole professional life,” says Donovan, who believes that Dartmouth is one of the leaders in integrating ethics into the curriculum.

Donovan, Green, and Landers launched the course in 2004. It begins with an opening panel for all incoming graduate students based on reading that the students completed the previous summer. “This send an important message, says Green. “It tells these new members of our community that Dartmouth is a place that cares about your ethics and integrity.” Following the panel, each student participates in four seminar sessions taught by fellow graduate students and faculty members who have been trained as ethics facilitators. Approximately 15-20 facilitators receive training each year, and the seminars use case studies written by Donovan and Green to discuss such issues as authorship, mentoring, and collegiality.

“The program Aine, Ron, and Kerry developed can be a model for other schools across the country,” says Folt.

Brian Pogue, the current Dean of Graduate Studies explains that Dartmouth is way ahead of the curve with its ethics training. He said that starting in January 2010, National Science Foundation grants that fund students and trainees will need to have an ethics training program in place. “Many universities are scrambling right now to get something in place for this, but Dartmouth has an established program. Dartmouth was very proactive on this front, and now the rest of the nation is playing catch up.” A key strength of Dartmouth’s program, Pogue says, “is the use of senior graduate students as facilitators, which brings the group sessions to a level where everyone feels comfortable discussing ethical issues about advisors and relationships in the lab.”

The seminars use basic ethical theory to examine how humans make moral decisions, considering principles or consequence. They cover topics like workplace conflict and accountability, questions about contributions to published studies, how to credit authors appropriately, plagiarism, and cheating.

“The rules, rights, and responsibilities associated with academia are rarely discussed explicitly, and minor errors of judgment can give way to major ethical disasters,” says facilitator Dan Milisavljevic, a PhD candidate in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. “I chose to become a facilitator to help students recognize ethical situations that may come up during their studies and how to confront them with confidence.”

Donovan and her colleagues are also working to systematically integrate ethics into undergraduate teaching at Dartmouth – in every single discipline. Each year since 2003, about 15 faculty members participate in an in-depth seminar called Ethics Across the Curriculum to help them bring ethics into their classrooms.

“Without the course, it never would have occurred to me to use the case-study method to teach ethics,” said Professor of Comparative Literature John Kopper, who participated in the course and has also been a facilitator with the graduate students. “It works far better than interpretive readings of each book, chapter, and verse of an honor code or statement on professional ethics. Most of us have the same instinctive understanding of moral conduct. In the subtleties of case studies, though, and through the tug and pull of role-playing, students are surprised to discover that their peers may handle ethical dilemmas differently. The course showed that professionalism lies partly in tolerating a diversity of solutions to ethical problems. Teaching ethics subsequently has taught me the same lesson.”

Undergraduates can certainly take up ethics directly through the many programs offered by the Ethics Institute. Students can pursue an ethics minor, or students can join the Ethics Society. Members of this group participate annually in the Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl, an annual competition among college students that has regional meets culminating in a national contest. “This kind of competition is very different from debate in that it pushes people to find viable positions of compromise as well as tease out the underlying values and ethical principles that underlie both the law and our gut reactions,” said team co-captain Tatyana Liskovich in 2007. Liskovich is a member of the Class of 2008.

Dartmouth’s team won the regional Ethics Bowl competition in 2007, and this year’s team is now preparing for the regional meet at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, NY, on Nov. 14.

“Our strength is our size,” says Donovan when talking about the success of Dartmouth’s ethical curriculum. “We’ve been able to tailor different programs to different parts of our campus, and I know our students are gaining solid experience in ethics.”

To learn the breadth of ethics activities at Dartmouth, see:

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Last Updated: 1/5/10