Biomedical ethics on the way out despite student interest

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Students wishing to concentrate in biomedical ethics are running out of options this semester, though opportunities for those interested in the field have not altogether disappeared.

The biomedical ethics concentration has drawn attention since Dan Brock, the last full-time professor in the discipline, left the University four years ago. The administration officially suspended the concentration last year after a decline in faculty and departmental support.

The administration reviewed the concentration and decided to phase it out over the 2005-2006 school year, closing it to new concentrators.

Spring 2006 will be the last opportunity for students to take BE 150.1: “Topics in Biomedical Ethics: Controversial Issues in Mental Health Practice,” one of two required seminars for the concentration. The course is currently being taught by Jeffrey Poland, an adjunct professor hired to fill in for Brock. The other required seminar, BE 150.1: “Topics in Biomedical Ethics: Objectivity and Its Loss,” was offered by Poland last fall.

Poland is the acting adviser for the concentration and one of several part-time professors who has worked over the last four years to teach the required classes.

The suspension of the biomedical ethics concentration was “not due to a lack of student interest,” Poland said, “but was a departmental issue.”

The department’s current arrangement works for many students, said Associate Dean of the College Carolyn Denard, who oversees independent concentrations. Denard empha-sized that students in the class of 2006, 2007 and even 2008 will still be able to graduate with a degree in biomedical ethics as long as they have successfully completed the required seminars.

According to Denard, the students most negatively affected by the change are those who are still undecided on their concentration, studying abroad or unable to enroll in either of the two seminars.

Denard added that several students decided to apply for an independent concentration in biomedical ethics as a way to complete the former concentration.

Choosing an independent concentration based in biomedical ethics “is not just a substitute biomedical ethics degree,” Denard said. “It allows you to tailor to the particular interests of the student.”

The path also “requires more of the student,” Denard explained. The independent concentration program as a whole only graduates about five to eight students a year, she estimated.

Poland, however, does not know of anyone who successfully acquired an independent concentration based on biomedical ethics. “The independent concentration path does not seem to be a good antidote to the suspension,” Poland said. He suggested students consider concentrating in science and society as a possible alternative.

Angela Sherwin ’07 came to Brown intending to concentrate in biomedical ethics and was well on her way until she decided to go abroad last semester and missed her opportunity to take “Objectivity and Its Loss.” Sherwin, anticipating her absence from campus in early 2005, decided to apply for an independent concentration related to biomedical ethics, but that effort was not successful.

Though Sherwin recently received credit for the seminar she missed with another class, her path was a rough and unpredictable one.

“The whole process was very frustrating,” she said, explaining how she did not have an official concentration for about a year while working toward approval for her independent concentration.

Sherwin also noted that several of her classmates changed concentrations as a result of the suspension.

Matt Kelly ’06, a current biomedical ethics concentrator, described the suspended concen-tration as “one of the most fulfilling programs at Brown.” The problem, Kelly commented, was that “it got to the point where one professor was holding it all together.”

“The University did not properly gauge student interest,” Kelly said, adding this “administrative neglect” may be to blame for the lack of progress.

Despite the demise of the biomedical ethics concentration, the field is still represented on campus by other means.

The Brown Bioethics Society, founded after the suspension of the undergraduate biomedical ethics major, is a student organization determined to keep students involved in the field “after the removal of (their) academic feeding tube,” as stated on its Web site. The group, which is similar to a Departmental Undergraduate Group, aims to unite students still dedicated to the field of biomedical ethics and to get the concentration reinstated.

Also, the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Brown, which is affiliated with the Medical School, aims to provide resources to the Brown campus and greater Providence community and serve as a public discussion forum.

Despite this support for the study of biomedical ethics on campus, the future of the concentration is unclear.

“The University has thought of closing the concentration on several occasions, and each time students and faculty protested to keep it instated,” Sherwin said.

Since it is not officially cancelled, there is a possibility that it could be reinstated, commented Denard, who added that faculty may decide to hire someone to teach the necessary courses. A vote to cancel the concentration is not likely to happen until 2011, Denard said, in keeping with the University policy of reviewing concentrations after three years of no graduates.

Acknowledging the spectrum of the biomedical ethics debate, Poland recommended that a “taskforce” of faculty and administrators be formed to study the issue and devise a clear plan for the concentration.