Getting to Know the UNL Ethics Center


The Robert J. Kutak Center for the Teaching Study of Applied Ethics, founded in 1985, promotes academic integrity and ethics across disciplines at UNL. The Ethics Center’s mission is "to highlight the importance of critical thinking and moral reasoning in resolving ethical dilemmas and to encourage its exploration in the context of different disciplines and methods of inquiry." To promote this mission, the Ethics Center provides regular programming throughout the academic year. Dr. Steven Swartzer, the Center’s assistant director and lecturer in the Department of Philosophy, shared more information on the Ethics Center and how graduate students can practice and promote good ethics in their daily lives.

Knowing that students, faculty, and staff lead busy lives, the Ethics Center’s primary programs are two sets of regular lunch discussions. The first is a monthly Brown Bag Lunches series where members of the University community come together to discuss a variety of ethical issues in academic life that affect all disciplines, such as academic integrity, authorship, ethical mentorship, diversity, and proper use of power. Dr. Swartzer says, "Even issues that seem like they’re isolated to specific disciplines can have parallels in other disciplines. For instance, when writing a subject’s biography, a biographer runs into some of the same ethical questions about consent, privacy, and the well-being of those impacted by the research as does someone engaged in other types of research involving human subjects."

The second set of lunches, co-sponsored by the Graduate Student Association and held the last Monday of every month, are specifically for graduate students, professional students, and post-docs. "These lunches are focused on ethical issues that grad students need to deal with as they navigate their various roles as students, teachers, researchers, trainees, and future professionals," says Dr. Swartzer. "They are meant to promote a culture of ethics at UNL by drawing attention to common ethical questions that arise in graduate school and by showing participants that their peers are equally concerned with helping to maintain an ethical culture."

The Ethics Center maintains several interdisciplinary ethics resources on their website. Graduate teaching assistants can find information on incorporating ethics in their classrooms, and the information is organized by discipline. Dr. Swartzer also offers consultations to instructors (including TAs) on adding an ethics component to their courses, and he partners with individuals and groups on grant proposals, campus programs, and other activities.

When asked how graduate students can practice and promote good ethics, Dr. Swartzer responded with four main considerations:

Always think ahead. "Many ethical dilemmas that arise in professional life are entirely (or at least mostly) avoidable. It is important to be mindful about the kinds of things that can lead to ethical conflicts, and to think about what can be done to prevent those conflicts from happening in the first place."

Be transparent.  "One way to keep ourselves in check is to ask ourselves: Would I be willing to explain (to my colleagues, to my instructor, to my committee members) what I am about to do? If you wouldn’t be willing to explain your behaviors ahead of time because you are afraid that your decision will be rejected, you probably already know that this isn’t the right course of action."

Culture matters. "Widespread cheating, bullying and harassment, wasteful uses of resources, and ineffective teaching are all the more likely when these behaviors are seen to be the norm. By showing that we really do care about ethics, and by actively encouraging those around us to show that they care too, we help to maintain a more widespread culture of ethics."

We all make mistakes, and that’s okay.  "Seriously – we ALL make mistakes. We should all strive to be more mindful of our own shortcomings, so that we can do better in the future."

As the Ethics Center strives to promote ethics across campus, graduate students are encouraged to become involved through a variety of channels. Consider attending the regular discussions and suggesting discussion topics or ideas for events. Graduate students may also volunteer to lead one of the Brown Bag lunches or to serve as a guest judge for the UNL Ethics Bowl practices—there are many ways you can promote ethics and contribute to an ethical culture at UNL.