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Lessons Learned from FIPSE Projects II - September 1993

St. Cloud State University

Responsibility in Professional Life


The project aimed to increase the ethical sensitivity and social responsibility of students in professional programs, and to accomplish this purpose within the constraints of curricula that leave little room for work in the liberal arts. The project director, then assistant dean in the College of Social Sciences, worked with members of the Philosophy Department and instructors in 25 different courses in 23 departments representing each of the University's five colleges. Although the project was originally intended to focus on graduate programs only, awareness that many professional occupations require only an undergraduate degree led to the inclusion of those programs as well.

Project activities included: 1) conducting a ten-week faculty ethics seminar to familiarize faculty in professional programs with ethical theory and help them learn how to develop case studies; 2) introducing faculty-developed course modules on ethical dilemmas in the profession, prepared with the advice of practicing professionals, into existing courses; 3) developing a graduate seminar in professional ethics open to students in all programs. The project was supported by an ethicist from the Philosophy Department who worked as a consultant to all faculty and by development of a special resource collection and a comprehensive list of ethics centers and programs across the country.

Innovative Features

By introducing case-based modules into existing courses, rather than creating a new course devoted entirely to ethical issues in the field, the project found a more willing audience and had broader impact than would have been likely otherwise. The immediacy and credibility of the ethical problems examined was enhanced by the advice of practicing professionals in the development of course materials. These consultants often appeared in case studies presented in audio or video format.

The faculty ethics seminar proved key to the success of the project, especially when the original focus on acquainting faculty with ethical theory was shifted to an emphasis on the practical problems of preparing and presenting case studies in professional ethics in the classroom. Movement back and forth between theoretical and pedagogical issues over the ten weeks of the seminar also proved effective. Both this seminar and the omnidisciplinary graduate course conveyed a sense of the commonality of many ethical issues across professions, thus helping to break down some of the separateness that characterizes programs at the University.


The quality of the ethics courses and modules created was assessed through evaluations completed by participants at the end of each stage of the project. The director further gathered informal feedback from people who had close contact with the activities at various stages: the professional practitioners used to help develop realistic case study materials; the "floating" faculty member from the Philosophy Department who worked with all faculty; and the faculty members themselves, especially when assembled for an early summer retreat to discuss the past year's activities. The effect of the modules on students' ethical sensitivities was assessed by pre-post course administration of the nationally-normed Defining Issues Test.

Project Impact

Participation of faculty from many fields in a common project helped, as such projects frequently do, to break down barriers among disciplines. Not only is the social interaction important in reducing the sense of separateness, but the discovery of common issues lessens the parochial belief in the uniqueness of each field.

Faculty demonstrated an enhanced awareness of the importance of ethical issues in the day-to-day work of practitioners in their fields and thus a stronger sense of the importance of introducing ethical questions into their courses. This expansion of academic horizons resulted in at least half the faculty reporting related new departures in publishing and professional association work, and conducting workshops for disciplinary colleagues.

The Defining Issues Test revealed statistically significant positive changes in student sensitivity to ethical issues as a result of course participation, improvement varying directly with the amount of such exposure to ethics issues in their courses. However, post-course scores, even for the graduate seminar, were below the norm for undergraduate students nationally. All students showed increases in ethical sensitivity, although not always reaching the levels of liberal arts majors. This latter finding suggests a contextual reinforcement present in the liberal arts, but not necessarily present in professional disciplines.

This project has received a good deal of attention from other institutions and from ethics centers, with the result that the project director has frequently been called on as an informal consultant.

Unanticipated Problems

The Faculty Seminar and resulting case studies were less effective in the first year because of an overemphasis on ethical theory. Shifting to a better balance between theory and case study development resulted in greater faculty satisfaction and better case studies. The realization that no course could make ethicists out of faculty or students resulted in a shift in emphasis toward creating ethical awareness and sensitivity.

Major Insights and Lessons Learned

This project reaffirmed some important insights that apply generally to program development activities in colleges and universities. Faculty will respond with commitment and enthusiasm to experiences that offer the opportunity for solid professional growth. Mixing faculty (or students) from different disciplines in a common academic enterprise results in unusually high levels of intellectual stimulation and growth. Participants in such projects discover significant commonalities of interest and build useful networks. On the other hand, faculty are uncomfortable with situations in which they are expected to make expert use of knowledge which they have not mastered. Thus it is important to emphasize as a principal goal the development of informed awareness and sensitivity.

The involvement of practitioners results in more realistic and effective materials and, in this case, revealed a larger number of practitioners seriously interested in ethical issues and able to speak effectively about them than had been imagined.

Project Continuation

Courses and modules developed during the project continue to be offered, since those activities were designed to be integrated into the curriculum. A second member of the Philosophy Department has joined the project to teach the graduate seminar.

Available Information

A Participant's Handbook provides a detailed account of the way the project was conducted, and will be useful for anyone interested in establishing a related program. A Listing of Ethics Centers/Programs includes academic centers and independent agencies with an interest in ethics. These materials may be obtained by writing to:

David L. Carr, Dean
Stockton State College
Jim Leeds Road
Pomona, New Jersey 08240-9988

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Last Modified: 02/22/2006