Ethics Center expands mission

Sep 18th, 2008 | By | Category: Campus News, September 18, 2008

An ethics program with roots in the College of Law is branching out across campus.

Formed in 1985, the Robert J. Kutak Center for the Teaching and Study of Applied Ethics aims to serve the needs of faculty who want to incorporate ethics into their teaching and research. To increase visibility among faculty, students and staff, the center recently moved from the College of Law to Avery Hall. It also opened the fall semester with a new assistant director, Charlie Gilkey, a UNL graduate student of philosophy.


The transition to serve the entire campus started in 2005, after Susan Poser, law professor and now associate to the chancellor, was named director of the Kutak Center. A board of advisors was formed, consisting of 15 distinguished faculty from across campus. Disciplines represented include philosophy, agronomy, plant pathology, sociology, geosciences, English, engineering, journalism, accountancy, biolological sciences, computer science, psychology, public policy, research compliance and graduate studies.

The board crafted the center’s mission, which is to highlight the importance of critical thinking and moral reasoning in resolving ethical dilemmas and to encourage its exploration in different disciplines.

The center aims to accomplish its mission through support and sponsorship of programs for faculty, staff and students; collaborating with faculty on research; and serving as a clearinghouse of resources for researching and teaching about ethics and ethical decision-making.

The notion of ethical decision-making was chosen as the mission because how individuals reach decisions is often what determines their validity, and the term is elastic enough to be useful to those in the sciences and humanities, Poser said.

The most critical move was Gilkey’s hire. As assistant director, he oversees day-to-day operations of the center, something Poser was never able to do because of a full teaching load and her new position in the chancellor’s office.


“In terms of programming, it was going to be very difficult to get the ethics center off the ground without a full-time presence,” Poser said. “So, this year we asked for some money to hire an assistant director.”

Three sources split the funding request – the Office of Research, the Office of Academic Affairs, and funds from the Kutak Center. Steve Goddard, chair of computer science, offered to house the assistant director in Avery Hall, room 355.

Since starting Aug. 1, Gilkey has hit the ground running. He is revamping the center’s Web site (, creating an online catalogue of resources for the Web site, and is working on an upcoming workshop.

“What we do here is help faculty, staff and students integrate applied ethics into curriculum and research,” said Gilkey. “Consider me to be the resident ethicist here.”

Gilkey started as a graduate student at UNL in 2003 after earning his bachelor’s degree in philosophy at the University of Central Arkansas. His studies were put on hold in 2004 when he as an Army National Guardsman was deployed to Kuwait with the 1075th Transportation Company.

Prior to the deployment, a career in ethics wasn’t on Gilkey’s radar.

“I didn’t start thinking about ethics until I came back from being deployed,” Gilkey said. “I was more into analytical philosophy. But, while I was in Kuwait, I started thinking more about ethics and social political philosophy.”

He said the shift in thinking ethics was personal.

“I think it was the fact that every day was a personal ethical struggle,” Gilkey said. It was not so much thinking about if we should be there. It was more thinking about how a year of your life centers on orchestrating, mitigating, and seeing the personal effects of violence. It becomes very clear how our decisions affect others – whether those choices benefit or harm them.

“I guess you could call it a change in priorities. And, my desire to study ethics and political philosophy is a manifestation of that.”

Gilkey returned to study at UNL in spring 2007. He is working on finishing the requirements for his doctorate.

Both Gilkey and Poser said the campus response to the Kutak Center has been positive.

“The willingness of Prem Paul and Barbara Couture to invest in the assistant director position shows their dedication and seriousness about these issues, both from the research and the teaching perspectives.” Poser said. “The center is here to help faculty, from one-on-one consultations about how to incorporate ethical concepts into their curriculum, to finding the right book or Web site about teaching ethics, to collaborations on grant applications, to presenting workshops and conferences on ethical issues of interest to faculty – this is what we are here to do.”

Ethics is growing in importance in research – particularly in grant applications.

“We are producing information faster than we can analyze and evaluate it,” said Gilkey. “There is a big push, particularly from the National Institutes of Health, NSF, and other grant agencies, to put an ethics component into research projects.”

The center has already seen some success on this front. For example, Poser was asked to collaborate with faculty from Engineering Mechanics and the Public Policy Center last year, which resulted in a $1 million grant from NSF.

The center’s first event this year will be a workshop on research ethics, sponsored in part by the center. The workshop, “Promoting Ethics in Research, Teaching and Collaboration,” is Oct. 18 in the Nebraska Union (room posted).

The workshop is designed for faculty and graduate students and aims to: introduce the rationale, goals and content for a research ethics curriculum; provide tools and resources to incorporate the teaching of ethics in curriculum for research trainees; and to introduce teaching research ethics in the mentoring of research trainees. Presenters include Michael Kalichman, director of the Research Ethics Program at the University of California at San Diego, and Francis Macrina, vice president for research at Virginia Commonwealth University.

For more information on the Kutak Center or the workshop, go to or contact Gilkey at or 472-2104.

— Story by Troy Fedderson, University Communications

Tags: , , ,

Leave Comment