Letter to the Editor: Ethics Center
Dear President Liebowitz and Provost Fierke,
As members of the International Advisory Board of the Brandeis Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life (the Ethics Center), we are sending this open letter to reiterate our strong opposition to your decision to terminate the Ethics Center and redirect its endowment to establish a new initiative, the Center for Community Partnerships and Civic Transformation (COMPACT).
In our meetings and communications with you over the past year we have endorsed your commitment to connect the Brandeis academic community to extensive networks for positive social change through civic engagement. As we have pointed out, however, this is exactly what the Ethics Center does -- and has done for the past quarter-century. We therefore strongly oppose your decision to close the Center at the end of this academic year.
The Ethics Center was founded in 1998 with a major gift from Abraham Feinberg. The first chair of the Ethics Center’s International Advisory Board was Ted Sorenson, a brilliant international lawyer, public servant and statesman. Since its founding the mission of the Ethics Center has been “to develop effective responses to conflict and injustice by offering innovative approaches to coexistence, strengthening the work of international courts, and encouraging ethical practice in civic and professional life.”
The Ethics Center is a major Brandeis platform for infusing real-life social justice concerns into the University’s academic offerings. The Center has gained an on-campus and a national and international reputation for preparing undergraduate students to foster and implement informed, ethical, and bipartisan policy work at the state legislative level; enriching the international justice system through engagements and publications that speak to the importance and complexity of justice institutions and the work they perform; and envisioning and employing the power of arts and culture to transform and resolve conflicts through its program on peacebuilding and the arts. The Ethics Center is an incubator for important campus initiatives, including the MA Program in Conflict Resolution and Coexistence, now at the Heller School; ‘DEIS Impact Festival of Social Justice, now in the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion; undergraduate student fellowships, initiated at the Ethics Center as Sorensen Fellows, now informing fellowships offered through the Hiatt Career Center; CAST, the Interdisciplinary Minor in Creativity, the Arts and Social Transformation, now to be located in the office of the Dean of Arts and Sciences; the Richman Fellowship and Gittler Prize, hosted by the Ethics Center on behalf of the President; and A New Public Education, a three-year grant-funded project to imagine reinventing public education.
Over the past year, in order to perform its official advisory role for the Ethics Center and the University, the International Advisory Board has sought, with limited effect, information from the President and Provost about the rationale, planning and funding for COMPACT, and the impact of the new initiative on the legacy, programs, and staff of the Ethics Center. We have repeatedly expressed our opposition to abandoning or endangering well-established Ethics Center programs without a clear and compelling understanding of how those actions will impact the University and its stakeholders. As the June 2023 date set by the administration for the Ethics Center’s termination draws closer, it has become clear that the administration is determined to move forward with COMPACT, repurposing the Ethics Center’s funding to support the new initiative, regardless of the risks and likely consequences for Brandeis.
In light of the Ethics Center’s imminent closure, its staff is retiring or being reassigned. Aside from its program involved with state legislatures, it is uncertain whether or how the Ethics Center’s work will continue. The program on peacebuilding and the arts is insufficiently funded, and the Center’s previous focus on international justice will cease completely. At a time when democratic institutions and practices are in jeopardy, international human rights are under severe assault, and episodes of deadly conflict are proliferating, it is unwise and untimely to dismantle the mechanisms by which Brandeis has worked for a quarter-century to prepare its faculty and students to address these issues.
In a December 2022 meeting with the Provost, the Advisory Board inquired about how the history, intellectual capital, and voluminous publications and work products of the Ethics Center will be preserved and made accessible to Brandeis students and faculty and to our local and global community partners. The administration has yet to develop a comprehensive plan for preserving this invaluable legacy for students, researchers, professional partners, and policy makers who have come to see the Ethics Center as an important model of and contributor to university engagement in public life. Center staff have been directed to box up records for storage in the library, apparently with no plan or sufficient resources for cataloging and, as necessary, digitizing this important university resource.
If the administration is intent on sunsetting the Ethics Center, it should make concrete commitments to ensure that the Center’s work and legacy will continue within COMPACT. These commitments should include at least:
- sustainable funding for peacebuilding and the arts;
- an annual event, commissioned research, and/or publications focused on international justice; and
- sufficient funding to make all aspects of the Ethics Center legacy, including videos, documents and publications, readily available and accessible online.
We now believe that our only recourse as members of the International Advisory Board is to make public this letter to inform others who value and have benefitted from the work of the Ethics Center about the Center’s impending closure.
We hope that the Brandeis community will be moved to ask and demand answers to questions about how the imminent dismantling of the Ethics Center and its work will serve the interest that we all share---that Brandeis contribute meaningfully to the support of peace, justice, and democracy in its local, national, and global communities.
John Shattuck, Chair, International Advisory Board, Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life, Brandeis University
Jules Bernstein, ’57, Member, International Advisory Board
Germaine Ingram, Member, International Advisory Board
Jay R. Kaufman, ’68, Member, International Advisory Board
Jamie Metzl, Member, International Advisory Board
Angela Maria Perez Mejia, Member, International Advisory Board
Elaine Reuben, ’63, Member, International Advisory Board