Mar 222017
 March 22, 2017

Students can now apply for the Kenan Moral Purpose Award, an annual contest to highlight the role a liberal arts education plays in students’ exploration of their personal and social purposes.

The contest, held in partnership between the Kenan Institute for Ethics and Parr Center for Ethics at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is open to all currently enrolled undergraduate students at Duke and UNC. One winner is selected from each school to receive $1,000 based on entries that consider the intellectual, emotional, and moral commitments that make for a full life.

To enter, students should write an essay between 500 and 800 words to address either or both of these questions:

  • In what ways have your core beliefs and larger aims been tested, transformed, or confirmed during your time in college?
  • How have you had to defend or challenge prevailing ideas, social norms or institutions and what lessons have you learned from doing so?

Students must submit their essay by April 15 by emailing a Word or PDF document to

For additional information and past winners, visit the award website.

Mar 222017
 March 22, 2017

The latest batch of posts from the Kenan Institute for Ethics’ Global Human Rights Scholars Rights Writers is posted for the month of March. The monthly series of articles written by Duke students focuses on six different human rights topics, each chosen by the author.

This month, the Rights Writers posts include:

For more information about the Rights Writers, visit the program website. Bios of the authors and details about the Global Human Rights Scholars Program can be found here.

Mar 212017
 March 21, 2017

What practices make it possible for human beings to flourish? How do we sustain those practices in a contemporary context?

These questions have stirred and motivated Dr. Farr Curlin in his research and work as a hospice and palliative care physician.

“I knew for years that I wanted to be a physician, and it frustrated me that in medical training we never talked about what medicine is for, nor about how to become the physicians we knew we were called to be,” said Curlin, the Josiah C. Trent Professor of Medical Humanities and a Senior Fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics. “I started encouraging students and colleagues to reason together about how to make use of medicine wisely in order to fulfill our obligations to care for one another and to live well within the limits and frailties of the human body.”

For nearly 15 years, the motivations for entering his profession have led Curlin to work with colleagues to foster scholarship, study, and training regarding the intersections of medicine, ethics, and religion. These motivations also led Curlin to the Kenan Institute for Ethics, where he hopes a new collection of research projects, interdisciplinary seminars, conferences, and courses of study will encourage faculty and students to investigate the characteristics of a life well lived and to reflect on the nature and purpose of being human.

This summer, Curlin will begin a new project called the Arete Initiative, named after the Greek word for human excellence. The initiative will be launched with philanthropic support and seeks to form a network of faculty across Duke. Taking inspiration from “classical, Aristotelian, virtue ethics,” the project will focus on “recovering and sustaining the virtues in contemporary life, especially in the workplace, the university, and the public square.”

“We’ll focus on business, law, teaching, medicine, and other domains of work for which Duke students are preparing,” Curlin said. “Instead of first asking, ‘what is allowed or not allowed?’ Rather, we will take a step back and ask, ‘What characterizes a good business leader? A good lawyer? A good teacher?’ What are the virtues and characteristics of those we take to be exemplars of these practices, and of human life more broadly?”

Curlin joined Duke University in 2014 and holds joint appointments in the School of Medicine, including its Trent Center for Bioethics, Humanities & History of Medicine, and in Duke Divinity School, including its Initiative on Theology, Medicine and Culture. After graduating from medical school, he completed internal medicine residency training and fellowships in both health services research and clinical ethics at the University of Chicago before joining its faculty in 2003.

Mar 202017
 March 20, 2017

In a new paper published with the Centre for European Policy Studies, Kenan Institute for Ethics Senior Fellow Andrea Renda reflects on needed changes in governance and regulation methods as the European Commission works toward Sustainable Development Goals in its policy process as part of its approach to implement its 2030 Agenda.

Through his analysis, Renda takes the Commission’s new commitment to better regulation and Sustainable Development Goals at face value, exploring the changes that might be needed to ensure better regulation can be deployed in the most effective way to support the 2030 Agenda.

“At 15, the EU better regulation agenda is currently in its deepest adolescent phase: reaching maturity requires a deeper embedding of its principles and tools in the overall multi-level governance of the Union,” Renda writes. “In order to allow for a fully fledged policy cycle, the future better regulation agenda should, however, be able to rely on a number of additional actions, aimed at delivering on the stated commitment to mainstream SDGs in the EU policy process.”

To read the full paper, visit the Centre for European Policy Studies website.


Mar 092017
 March 9, 2017

Bryce Cracknell, a junior who has participated in the Kenan Institute for Ethics’ DukeImmerse program, Pathways to Change and serves as a Kenan research assistant, recently traveled with several Duke classmates to Atlanta to take part in the Feb. 16 “Climate & Health Meeting” national conference to address climate change.

Cracknell, who is majoring in public policy with a concentration in race and poverty and a minor in environmental science and policy, has spent his three years at Duke researching aspects of sustainability and human rights. In addition to participating in Kenan programming, he has performed research with Catherine Coleman Flowers, director of the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise and a practitioner-in-residents with the Duke Human Rights Center @ the Franklin Humanities Institute. Flowers acted as a panelist at the Climate and Health Meeting, and extended an invitation to Cracknell t attend.

At the conference, Cracknell spent the day meeting with policy makers and thought leaders in public service and higher education. “We heard a lot about how it’s important to make health a larger component of climate change,” he said. “Making humans the face of climate change instead of only polar bears and penguins.”

During his time at the conference, Cracknell had the chance to meet former vice president Al Gore, former president Jimmy Carter and hear from European Union leaders who presented on best practices of monitoring climate change and data collection.

The topics were of particular interest to Cracknell. In August 2015, he spent time as part of a team with Flowers in Lowndes County, Alabama, where he worked to conduct surveys with local community members about their access to wastewater infrastructure.

“We can look for ways to create policy solutions for rural communities around us with infrastructure, clean water, wastewater and even coal ash here in North Carolina,” he said.

Mar 082017
 March 8, 2017

For nearly a century, the cartoons in The New Yorker have been the standard for urbane wit. Now a Duke professor of computer science has shown he meets that standard.

Vincent Conitzer, part of the Kenan Institute for Ethics’ MADLAB, was the recent winner of a weekly contest to caption drawings seen in the magazine. Conitzer, the Kimberly J. Jenkins University Professor of New Technologies and professor of Computer Science and economics, provided the winning entry for a one-sentence exchange between two sharks: “The doctor said it might help me quit.”

Learn about Conitzer’s entry in this Duke Today story.

Mar 072017
 March 7, 2017

Sherry Feng, center, goes over a presentation for Sawiana Enterprises with team members Jason Wang, left, and Saheel Chodavadia, right. The trio was one of two Duke teams to compete at the Hult Prize competition in Boston March 2 to 5.

For Duke students Saheel Chodavadia and Julie Williams, a recent competition has further spurred interest to help refugees around the world after Kenan Institute for Ethics’ programs first got them thinking globally.

The pair were part of two Duke teams at the Hult Prize competition, a collegiate social entrepreneurship contest held March 2 to 5 in Boston. During their time at the event, Chodavadia and Williams networked with peers from a variety of different countries, heard from leaders of non-profit organizations and shared their own ideas for how technology has the potential to positively impact vulnerable populations.

The Hult Prize Foundation, which provides start-up funding for its contest, had teams present ideas to help “restore the rights and dignity of 10 million refugees by 2022.”

“Being surrounded by so much knowledge and so many creative solutions, it shows you that there are incredible people ready to do great things in the world,” said Williams, whose team, REconomy, built an app to better integrate resettled refugees into new economies.

REconomy’s idea came after Williams and teammate Sanjeev Dasgupta traveled to Jordan in 2016 with the Kenan Institute’s DukeImmerse program to work with refugees. Chodavadia, who has participated in Kenan’s Refugee Project and Focus and MASTERY programs, was part of Sawiana Enterprises, a team working to create an app to connect refugees to share skills, like cooking, and interests, like starting a business

While a team from Rutgers University won top prize at the competition, Williams and Chodavadia said the lasting impact from the trip will be the way they think about how they can help those in need elsewhere in the world. A big part of that, they said, is having more face-to-face time with refugee populations to understand what daily needs are like to better tailor solutions to help them.

“Based on what they say and what you learn, you can find a solution to empower them, not just help them,” Chodavadia said. “Whenever I do something at Duke, I want to do it because I see a problem. With refugees, I want to help them because they tell me what their problem is.”

Williams echoed the sentiment, noting that interactions she had with refugees through DukeImmerse taught her about the need for sustainable solutions, not just quick fixes.

“What can we provide,” she said, “so that people can provide for themselves.”

Despite not winning the Hult Prize competition, both the REconomy and Sawiana Enterpreises teams will continue to seek funding for their projects.

Mar 062017
 March 6, 2017

In 2011, Geoffrey Harpham presented at Washington University in St. Louis about the history of humanities in America and was approached afterward by a man who wanted to share his life story.

What followed was a tale rooted in the American Dream: in the early 1960s, the man said he fled Cuba and arrived on the shores of Florida with no money, no family and no knowledge of English. He was eventually able earn a GED, enrolled in community college and found himself in a literature course studying Shakespeare.

“He had no understanding of Shakespeare at all. He sat at the back of the room and tried to stay out of trouble,” Harpham recalls the man telling him. “One day, the teacher came over, pointed at him, and said, ‘Mr. Ramirez, what do you think?’”

The man in question – “Mr. Ramirez” – told Harpham he never forgot that moment because as he paused to consider the weight of discussing Shakespeare in his second language, it struck him that this was the first time anyone had asked him such a question. The man handed Harpham his business card, labeled “emeritus professor of comparative literature.”

Harpham lost the card, but never forgot the story.

“The more I thought about it, every part of his story reflected a distinctive feature of the American educational system,” Harpham said. “I began to wonder how, when, and why we created a system that made such miracles possible.”

In his next book, “What Do You Think, Mr. Ramirez? The American Revolution in Education,” Harpham, Visiting Scholar and Senior Fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, uses the interaction with “Mr. Ramirez” as a jumping off point to explore the history and philosophy of U.S. education, its founding principles, and how those themes may be changing today.

What are the key principles of our educational system?

The system that was created after World War II had three principles. It was, first, universal in that everybody had to go to high school and everyone could have access to a post-secondary education. Second, it was liberal in that students would study a range of subjects for their own sakes, not for job preparation or professional training. And third, it was “general,” in that it was oriented toward the production of citizens who could run their own affairs, make informed decisions about public affairs, and lead rich and fulfilling lives. All this sounds commonplace to us, but it was remarkably progressive, even radical, at the time. Even today, no other nation has been able to replicate it.

Why is this process of education important from a civic perspective?

The American system was quite deliberately created as a kind of compact between the nation and its citizens. It is intended to create a society of people who can function in a democracy. The founders of the country fully understood that democracy ran a great risk through uninformed gusts of popular opinion leading to tyranny of the majority, and that the country could only succeed by waging what Thomas Jefferson called a “crusade against ignorance.” The post-war system was an attempt to translate that crusade into a national policy.

What are the ethical challenges that face the system today?

Every part of Mr. Ramirez’ story is now under stress. The entire concept of public education is being questioned by many, including our new Secretary of Education. Many community colleges have become job training centers while their academic programs have atrophied. The cost of higher education is restricting access to many, and burdening many others with debt. And the value of liberal education is constantly challenged–this is especially true of the humanities, of course. The challenge is to maintain the commitment to universal, liberal, and general education in a changing world. Those commitments grew out of a national self-understanding, and if we abandon them, we will have a different kind of country.  The irony is that so many other countries in Europe and Asia–countries we are competing with–regard the American system as the model for their own reforms.

As an English teacher, I am especially impressed by the empowering effect of the act of literary interpretation on undergraduates. Interpretation has fallen out of favor as a professional practice, but at the undergraduate level, it can be exciting and productive.

Learn more about how social and cultural knowledge has impacted the American educational system in “What Do You Think, Mr. Ramirez? The American Revolution in Education.” The book is set for release this fall.

Mar 032017
 March 3, 2017

Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger addresses a crowd at Kenan’s monthly Ethics Film Series. Ensminger was one of the main subjects of the 2011 documentary, Semper Fi: Always Faithful, which highlighted water contamination at Camp Lejeune.

Almost 60 years ago, Joe Kirstein says he was discharged from the Marine Corps due to abnormally high blood pressure. Only 22 years old, he didn’t understand what could have happened to a young man who, just four years prior, joined with good health.

At an event hosted by the Kenan Institute for Ethics March 2, some of that story came into focus.

Kirstein, who said he was stationed at Jacksonville, North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune in 1957 and 1958, would have been among the first people to be exposed to contaminated water used at the Marine Corps base, beginning in 1953. Laced with industrial solvents and other chemicals, the water has been found as a cause of diseases like leukemia, cancer and Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that were diagnosed in those who worked and were stationed at the base since the 1950s. Kirstein, 81, now suffers from polycythemia vera, a blood cancer that creates problems with red blood cells that can cause clots and heart attacks.

As Kirstein watched a screening of Semper Fi: Always Faithful, showing as part of Kenan’s Ethics Film Series, he saw similar stories in the 2011 documentary. He also heard in-person from the film’s main subject, Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger, who worked to expose what became one of the worst water contamination disasters in the country’s history.

“I have lived with frustration through all this,” said Kirstein, who believes his time at Camp Lejeune is the source of his disease. “I have never been contacted by the Marine Corps or anyone else.”

During the event, visitors chatted with Ensminger to share their stories, ranging from finishing treatment for leukemia caused by the water at Camp Lejeune to worries about family members currently stationed there. Ensminger, whose 9-year old daughter, Janey, died of cancer in 1985, has spent the last 20 years researching the contamination and advocating for those who have been impacted. In 2008, an online health registry totaled more than 135,000 names of people from the base.

According to records discovered by Ensminger and others, Marine officials knew about the contamination as early as 1981.

“Don’t get me wrong, I love being a Marine,” Ensminger told a crowd of about 50. “Our motto and slogan are still very much alive and well down at the unit and operating level. The problem here was the misconduct at the highest echelon of leadership – the same people who held all of us in the lower ranks accountable.”

In 2012, after years of effort by Ensminger and others impacted by the contamination, the U.S. Senate passed the Janey Ensminger Act, providing medical care to those who stayed at Camp Lejeune between Jan. 1, 1957 and Dec. 31, 1987.

For Kirstein, seeing the film and hearing from Ensminger provided much needed information.

“What I wanted to know was if we identified who was responsible and if there was anything that came from it,” he said.

“He wants to take names and kick some butt,” his wife, Jo Ann, added.

For more information about contamination at Camp Lejeune, visit:

The Kenan Institute for Ethics’ Ethics Film Series is a monthly program that provides unique ways to discuss ethical issues for audiences from the Duke and Durham communities. The next screening takes place April 6. This year’s film series is co-sponsored by DukeArts and the Environmental Alliance.

Mar 012017
 March 1, 2017

Julie Williams shared this image of children as part of a research journal from her 2016 DukeImmerse experience in Jordan.

Through a variety of unique opportunities and programming, the Kenan Institute for Ethics has inspired several undergraduate students participating in a national competition focused on helping refugees around the world.

From March 2 to 5, two teams in the Hult Prize competition, a leading collegiate social entrepreneurship contest, will have a distinct Kenan feel after experiences through DukeImmerse, MASTERY and others encouraged students to think globally. The Hult Prize Foundation, which provides start-up funding for its contest winners, has asked students to present on solutions to build “sustainable, scalable social enterprises that restore the rights and dignity of 10 million refugees by 2022.”

Kenan is funding the trip to Boston for REconomy, a team of four Duke students who have built an app that can help integrate resettled refugees into new economies. Inspiration for the app came from experiences through the Institute’s DukeImmerse program, which provided team members Julie Williams and Sanjeev Dasgupta the chance to work with refugees in Jordan in 2016. The goal of REconomy is to allow sellers to post goods and services with a price, location and contact information to formalize interactions among refugee settlements.

Kenan’s 2017 DukeImmerse team of students is currently testing the app to provide feedback.

Another Duke team in the Hult competition  has a Kenan connection through Saheel Chodavadia, who is part of Sawiana Enterprises, which is working to create an app to connect refugees to share skills, like cooking, and interests, like starting a business. Chodavadia has taken part in the Institute’s Focus program, Refugee Project, and has tutored local refugees through Kenan’s MASTERY program. This summer, he’ll participate in Kenan’s DukeEngage Dublin trip.

For more information about the teams and their projects, see this Duke Today story.