PHIL 162 - The University of Michigan: A Moral Institution?
Fall 2017, Section 001
Instruction Mode: Section 001 is (see other Sections below)
Subject: Philosophy (PHIL)
Department: LSA Philosophy
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Requirements & Distribution:
May not be repeated for credit.
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Is the University of Michigan — our University — a moral institution? That is the overarching question we will ask in this course. Packed into that question are at least two questions: (1) Is a university the sort of thing that can be called “moral”? Can it be held to moral account, and if so in what ways? (2) To the extent that the first question can be answered affirmatively, is the University of Michigan in fact morally worthy? What are moral questions that the University faces, how has it responded to such questions in the past, and how should it respond now?

As you likely know, the University of Michigan will celebrate its bicentennial in 2017. There is no better time for us to reflect on the morality of the institution that is ours. In this course, we will try to gain a better understanding of contemporary moral issues facing U-M and higher education by examining morally problematic situations from the University’s past and by applying insights from philosophical theory.

Now we might say, “Of course the University of Michigan is a moral institution. Just like any institution, it engages in transactions with individuals and other entities, and it is bound to engage in those transactions in ways that are legally and morally right.” For instance, the University is an employer, and like any employer it should treat its employees equitably and honestly.

But for our purposes in the class, the more interesting questions about the University and morality concern not those ways in which a university is like other institutions, but rather those ways in which it is unique and has a function that is its own.

Some of the questions we will ask are:
  • What is the purpose of the University? More precisely, what is the purpose of your University education? To prepare for a lucrative career? To be an effective citizen? To participate more fully in human culture? To better understand the world, in order to help improve it? To better understand yourself and free yourself from prejudices and preconceptions?
  • What does the University owe to society? What does society owe to the University? Over the past fifty years, there has been a massive shift in financial support for the educational function of U-M, from state appropriation (i.e., taxpayer dollars) to tuition and philanthropy. What are the social and moral implications of this shift?
  • Should the University be an engine of upward social mobility? Has it been in the past? Is it now? Or does it instead reinforce social inequality? Would that be a problem, and if so, what should be done?
  • Who should have access to a U-M education? What factors should count in admissions? U-M went all the way to the US Supreme Court to defend affirmative action in admissions and was partly successful, only to have a state referendum make affirmative action illegal. What were arguments for and against affirmative action, were they sound, and what can they teach us about admissions today?
  • What values stand at the heart of the University’s mission and functioning? And how should we deal with conflicts among those values?
  • Academic freedom and freedom of speech are held to be core values. What are they exactly and how are they related? Why are they important? Do they have limits — e.g., with respect to potentially offensive or harmful statements? What is the University’s track record with respect to these values?
  • Diversity, equity and inclusion are also held to be core values. What does diversity mean? How do we form a diverse, effective intellectual community? What should we do when we encounter apparent tensions between civil discourse in a diverse community and the requirements of academic freedom? We will explore the moral dimensions of topics such as: the University’s sexual misconduct policy; microaggressions, trigger warnings, and safe spaces; debates on difficult and sensitive issues; student movements such as SDS, Teach-Ins, BAM, BBUM, USAS and their impact on the University.
  • What is the value of non-educational functions of the University, such as intercollegiate athletics? How should we weigh this value relative to educational values? What are moral dimensions of intercollegiate athletics? For instance, are student athletes exploited for institutional gain, or conversely, do they benefit disproportionately?
  • What would it be to celebrate the University’s 200th birthday morally? How do we strike a balance between fostering pride in our achievements and recognizing where we have fallen short of our ideals?

In addressing such questions, we will draw upon philosophical theories of morality, some of which are oriented around production of good effects, others around the recognition of right, and others focused on the nature of justice.

Course Requirements:

40% — A paper on a relevant topic of interest to you, which you will develop and improve over the course of the semester.

20% — A group project and presentation on a contemporary issue of moral importance at the University of Michigan.

15% — Case studies that will be examined in class.

15% — Bicentennial Activities: you are required to participate in at least three bicentennial academic events outside of class. We will make special arrangements for participation as a class in at least two events.

10% — Two quizzes covering philosophical theory and its application.

Intended Audience:

All undergraduate students are welcome

Class Format:

The lecture sessions will involve lecture, small-group and full-class discussion of theory and case studies. The discussion sessions will involve review of theory and small group work on case studies and team projects.


PHIL 162 - The University of Michigan: A Moral Institution?
Schedule Listing
001 (LEC)
 In Person
TuTh 12:00PM - 1:00PM
002 (DIS)
 In Person
TuTh 1:00PM - 2:00PM
003 (DIS)
 In Person
TuTh 4:00PM - 5:00PM
004 (DIS)
 In Person
TuTh 1:00PM - 2:00PM
005 (DIS)
 In Person
TuTh 5:00PM - 6:00PM

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