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Reading and Righting 

A summer ethics seminar sends UVM profs back to school

Published August 25, 2004 at 6:13 p.m. | Updated September 16, 2016 at 3:30 p.m.

On a breezy August afternoon, while other people are windsurfing or soaking up the rare ray of sun, 37 University of Vermont professors are holed up in the basement of Kalkin Hall talking about sex and drugs. "When should a person's 'yes' not be taken as valid?" asks Alan Wertheimer, a gray-templed professor of political science who's written a book on consent to sex. His (real-life) example: A freshman at Brown University drinks 10 shots of vodka and hooks up with a guy at a frat party. Later, she accuses the man of taking advantage of her impaired state -- an offense under the university's code, even though the woman said yes.

Human Development professor Jackie Weinstock agrees with the Brown policy. Philosophy prof Don Loeb objects; if the woman couldn't legally consent to sex while inebriated, could the man? Remove alcohol from the equation and "two-thirds of the sex on campus wouldn't happen," he suggests. (Overprotective parents, take note!) Weinstock counters that undergrads need to take off the beer goggles and own up to their sexual choices sober.

Another professor ventures that, in order to enforce such a policy, the administration would have to "put a breath-o-meter in every frat house. No sex over .08!" "That would tell us a lot about the priorities of the students," someone else calls out as the group dissolves into laughter.

Policy planning meeting? Mass bull session? Neither. This is the Honors College Faculty Seminar: For three days, faculty from all over the university, under the leadership of Wertheimer and Loeb, are discussing topics ranging from seemingly abstract issues such as "Obeying the Rules" and "Liberty and Paternalism" to op-ed-page standbys such as multiculturalism, war and abortion.

On the surface, the ethics seminar isn't about making the profs better teachers, nor is it about nagging them to cleave to university codes of good behavior. The professors are actually test-driving a course that some of their students will take this fall. The reading list is extracted from "Making Ethical Choices: Personal, Public, Professional," a freshman seminar designed for UVM's new university-wide Honors College.

When he came to the school in 2002, President Daniel Mark Fogel made it his priority to unify the various honors programs into a single, cross-disciplinary track for bright, motivated students. Committees had batted the idea around since 1999, but the Honors College -- which will offer its own seminars and even have its own residence -- will see its first 95 students this fall. The ethics seminar is expected to set its tone. Honors College Dean Bob Pepperman Taylor describes it as a "big bells and whistles course" with five instructors and eight plenary sessions, where students will absorb wisdom from such motley sources as a business professor, a free-speech advocate and the chief of the campus police force.

But none of that explains why the professors are here, given that they generally divide their summers between that crucial-for-tenure research and plain old vacation. Yet here they are, hailing from fields as diverse as romance languages and computer science, accounting and medicine, all reading Plato and Peter Singer. There aren't any papers due, but the course comes with quite a few pages of nightly reading, some of it thick with philosopher's jargon.

And what are the profs getting in return? There's a mild financial incentive: Faculty earn $150 per day -- union rate -- for their participation. But Taylor, who had to turn away applicants for lack of space, says he received no "perfunctory responses" from professors looking for vacation cash. "I was impressed with how seriously the faculty took it," he says. "We had obviously tapped a vein."

Taylor says that, if the student ethics seminar has an inspiration in the larger culture, it's the "general feeling of moral malaise" evoked by the Enron and other business scandals. But the course, designed by Wertheimer and Loeb, doesn't simply present a blueprint for the model student -- or faculty -- citizen. "It's not about telling people how to be good people," says Taylor. Rather, he explains, the seminar is meant to illustrate the Socratic precept that "thinking about serious things is good for us."

That's part of the rationale behind the faculty seminar, too. But a more pressing motive, says Taylor, is to "give faculty a chance to get to know one another socially and intellectually. This faculty is very decentralized; people can go for a whole career and not know people in other colleges." What better way to bond than by debating issues such as whether it's morally permissible to bring outside food into a movie theater?

I'll admit that I came to the seminar expecting to hear more pontification than conversation. The seating arrangement is formal -- the professors sit in tiers, each behind his or her name-card, like delegates at the U.N. And, yes, they have to raise their hands.

But debate is fairly lively, and the seminar has its zany moments. One professor ribs another mercilessly for telling his wife well-intentioned lies -- an example of paternalism. Asked for an example of "offensive speech," a professor who teaches entrepreneurship cites a chat she had in the hallway with a colleague in a hard technical field -- also present -- who told her his students considered themselves "too smart" to take courses in her department. It's news to some students, maybe, but these folks have foibles... and egos.

Teaching duties are split between the course designers, each of whom has a distinctive style. Wertheimer, 62, is the more senior faculty member. An author of three books and a former visiting professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, he's the staid instructor, with a dry wit and a knack for eliciting reactions to moral dilemmas by refusing to divulge his own. Loeb, 48, a self-described "Grateful Dead guy" with a neat gray ponytail and a stentorian voice, is the grandstander and the clown. His best one-liner comes in a discussion of the biblical Onan, who was actually struck down by God not for masturbation -- "onanism" -- but for failing to impregnate his brother's widow. "Talk about a substantial penalty for early withdrawal!" deadpans Loeb.

The seminar is a crash course in wacky philosophical analogies, which somehow turn the most gravely serious subjects into Monty Python skits. Is having an abortion when birth control fails like pulling the plug on a famous violinist to whose life-support system you have been connected by a group of rogue music lovers? Or is it like attending a Grateful Dead concert with a virus and then refusing to provide antibodies to a fellow Deadhead who comes down with your bug, on the grounds that there was only a 3 percent chance of transmission? Absurd as these scenarios may be, they help us test the consequences of our beliefs.

The seminar has its share of heavy moments, too. In the Abortion session, faculty members, some of them physicians, discuss the difficulty of counseling women who are trying to decide whether to terminate a pregnancy. In the War session, Loeb asks whether it's possible, or moral, to be an absolute pacifist: "What if you could save 10,000 lives by torturing a terrorist's child? Or 50,000 lives?" His question illustrates a dry distinction between deontology -- pure duty-based morality -- and utilitarianism -- an ethics based on calculation of the greater good. But its resonance is powerful. While many of the participants express opposition to the Iraq War, they don't rule out the use of violence in all situations.

A session called "Issues in Higher Education" addresses a topic that hits home for the participants -- academic free speech. Recent critics of academe maintain that, when it comes to political issues like the war, professors tend to walk in lockstep. During the past year, a survey in which the vast majority of university faculty members identified themselves as Democrats inspired right-wing activist David Horowitz to draft an "Academic Bill of Rights," whose aim is to quell liberal bias and guarantee equal time for conservative opinions in the classroom.

Though Horowitz isn't mentioned in the seminar, libertarian Jonathan Rauch's attack on "politically correct" campus speech codes is a reading for this session. It provokes strong, personally tinged responses. Several participants suggest that professors who conceal their own opinions in the classroom are no better than "robots." But most agree that squelching student dissent does more harm than good.

Sociology professor Valerie Moore, who teaches a course on race and gender that fulfills the school's cultural diversity requirement, says that students often come to her class hostile, expecting "brainwashing." She recalls how the atmosphere relaxed when she told a student who worried about making a potentially offensive remark, "You can't offend me."

Asked how he might respond to a student who cited facts "proving" that blacks had a smaller intellectual capacity than whites, Center for Cultural Pluralism director Sherwood Smith, who's African-American, says, "We shouldn't ban that speech, we should interrogate it. I can ask, 'Where did that information come from?'"

Other professors maintain that the free-speech debate has been unduly dominated by conservatives, who simply overlook areas of the university where their beliefs do hold sway. "Are they teaching socialism in the business department?" asks English professor John Gennari. Loeb points out that both sides can be charged with selective blindness. Professor-baiters on the right who see only the "brainwashing" occurring on the other side, he says, are analogous to "liberals like me" who attack Israel for its human-rights violations but turn a blind eye to those taking place in Saudi Arabia. It's a good example of how an ethics discussion can twist and turn, refusing to let the participants be complacent about their moral or political choices.

Very few concrete answers result from the professors' discussions, but what does emerge is a method for approaching problems that are notoriously hard to solve. Part of the philosopher's job, says Loeb, is achieving logical consistency and "reflective equilibrium." Part of it is to recognize the importance of "nonmoral facts," like the statistics showing that seatbelt laws save lives. Part of it is avoiding bias and "informal fallacies," such as, "You're just making that argument because you're a male chauvinist pig." And part of it is trusting your gut.

One professor, who took the seminar to help with his teaching, points out, "It's easy to raise these issues in class, but hard to guide [students] through them." Loeb agrees. Philosophers "get stuck with the stuff it's hard to be sure about," he says. "The acquisition of knowledge is painful in some ways. But it beats the hell out of the alternative."

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About The Author

Margot Harrison

Margot Harrison

Margot Harrison is the Associate Editor at Seven Days; she coordinates literary and film coverage. In 2005, she won the John D. Donoghue award for arts criticism from the Vermont Press Association.


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