New Vanderbilt Center for Ethics to ask the hard questions

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Things will start getting a little less comfortable around Vanderbilt University this fall – and that’s a good thing.

“Being comfortable is not necessarily of high value,” said Charles Scott, director of the new Center for Ethics at Vanderbilt. “Learning how to live with discomfort is – I think – of much higher value.”

The establishment of the Center for Ethics at Vanderbilt in January followed a two-year committee study headed by James Hudnut-Beumler, dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School. Scott, who served Vanderbilt in jobs including chair of the philosophy department, director of graduate studies and director of the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities before leaving for Penn State in 1993, returned to Vanderbilt to head the ethics effort.

“The chancellor (Gordon Gee) said he wanted the formation of an ethical sensibility in every connection at Vanderbilt – faculty and staff, curricula, everywhere,” Scott said. “Some of the issues that are most important to people’s lives hardly get discussed. We want to find ways to approach a variety of issues that keep people up at night.”

Already, the center is sponsoring research projects, developing courses, sponsoring speakers, organizing faculty discussions on dealing with sensitive issues in the classroom, embarking on a program to acquire works by African American artists for display across campus, developing a database on national and local resources for ethics and developing a certificate program in ethics in the Master of Liberal Arts and Science degree program. Down the road may
come annual executive retreats to consider ethical issues.

“A center for ethics could be used as a springboard to initiate conflict,” Scott said. “We’re not particularly interested in that. Instead, we are interested in what I call the ‘space of difference.’ How do we live together with moral and religious differences that are not theoretically reconcilable?

“We want to bring out the differences that are uncomfortable and address them intelligently.”

There is a demand on college campuses for guidance regarding ethics, Scott said. In business and other fields, employees are increasingly favoring job applicants well-versed in the ethics of their fields

“I have found that engineers and lawyers and people in business are increasingly dissatisfied with ethics being reduced to professional codes of behavior – lists of what not to do to stay out of trouble and out of jail,” Scott said.

A seminar on engineering ethics is planned for October.

“If the center succeeds, there will be an intensified ethical alertness on campus. We’ll work toward developing a genuine ethical sensibility that takes into account the ways people thrive and suffer, and the ways they recognize truth.”

Vanderbilt’s Center for Ethics is in Room 110 of Alumni Hall. Its website is

Media contact: Jim Patterson, (615) 322-NEWS

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