Employees, grad students explore university’s “ethos” through Ethics Table

Jeremy Bendik-Keymer considers ethics a key path to creating community.

As the university’s Beamer – Schneider Professor in Ethics, he is tasked with promoting ethics throughout Case Western Reserve’s undergraduate curriculum. But upon arriving on campus in 2010, he chose to embrace an even broader assignment: to encourage conversation and reflection about ethics among faculty, staff and graduate students.

Where to start? Inspiration came in the form of a classroom ethics program emeritus law professor Robert Lawry led in the 1990s. The Kent H. Smith Charitable Trust supported that program, and also had endowed the Beamer-Schneider professorship. At Bendik-Keymer’s request, the trust’s leaders supported a new universitywide initiative, the Ethics Table.

A cohort of 16 individuals drawn from across Case Western Reserve came together last summer to explore the idea of a “university ethos” and ways they could promote a learning environment replete with inclusion and integrity. They started with a week of daily sessions, then gathered regularly throughout the academic year both on and off campus.

Participants discussed readings such as Alice Munro’s Runaway and the 2011 common reading book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael Sandel. At each meeting, group members presented their perspective on ethics in the university.

“The table provided a unique opportunity to sit down with others from across campus, exchange ideas and grapple with tough issues,” said member Betsy Banks, director of the Center for Civic Engagement and Learning. “The result has been a meaningful and intellectually rich dialogue around topics that are important to us as members of the CWRU community.”

The group operated using an approach from early childhood education called an “emergent process,” in which members allowed goals to grow out of their own interests.

“This takes a lot of patience and dialogue, including comfort with some awkward moments,” Bendik-Keymer said.

Ultimately the group chose to focus on relationship development as the central element of its work.

“It’s something a community cultivates together through getting to know each other’s values,” Bendik-Keymer noted.

The ethics table’s final official meeting was a two-day retreat in May, where members of the group looked at how they could move forward together in furthering ethical actions across the university. Members of the ethics table plan to host regular dinners as a group, as well as sponsor an ethics film night and other activities for the university community.

Members of the group were: Banks; Bendik-Keymer; Nicole Deming, assistant professor of bioethics, director of medical education and co-director of the bioethics master’s program; Sarah Gridley, assistant professor of English and creative writing; Mary Holmes, SAGES instructor; Megan Jewell, director of the University Writing Center; Kenneth Johnson, graduate student and affiliate of the Inamori International Center for Ethics and Excellence; Kathryn Mercer, professor of legal writing; Mark Pedretti, English lecturer; Adam Perzynski, SAGES instructor; Rolfe Petschek, professor of physics; Drew Poppleton, assistant director for experiential learning in the Career Center; Suzanne Rivera, associate vice president for research; Rachel Sternberg, associate professor of classics; Tracy Wilson-Holden, director of research education; Jeffery Wolkowitz, dean of Undergraduate Studies; and Peter Yang, associate professor of German.

For Rivera, who joined the university in early 2011, getting to know people from all parts of the campus community was the driving force behind joining the ethics table—and it paid off.

“My favorite thing about it has been the friendships I have made with smart, talented and virtuous people across various disciplines and departments,” she said. “I probably would not have crossed paths with most of my ethics tablemates without having participated, so I feel especially grateful to be part of this group.”

The second group—or “pulse,” as it’s known—of the ethics table is slated for the 2013–14 academic year.  For more information, contact Bendik-Keymer, email the entire group at ethicstable@case.edu or visit their website.