U to offer bioethics master’s degree

The University will be among a select few institutions in the country to offer the degree.

Beginning in 2009 , the University’s Center for Bioethics will join only a handful of institutions in the country to offer a master’s degree in bioethics.

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Bioethics is a philosophical approach to studying ethical issues in health care, focusing on the implications of treatments and integrating issues from other disciplines, such as law and philosophy.

Administrators said the degree program had been on the table for a while before it was officially submitted to the Board of Regents for consideration in December .

“It’s something we’ve wanted to do for a while, but we wanted to make sure we got it right,” Jeffrey Kahn , the center’s director, said.

The Board of Regents approved the degree in July ; the University has offered a bioethics minor degree since the 1980s .

“We had a significant number of students that expressed real disappointment that their only option was a grad minor,” center education director Deb DeBruin said. “They wanted more than that. We know of students who left the ‘U’ to go study somewhere else.”

The degree will be a new offering for graduate students; Kahn said students can use it as a complement to other student programs, such as a medical degree or a juris doctorate, with the new master’s.

“What we’re looking for are students who have gotten a degree in another area and they want to add bioethics to the expertise they already have,” he said.

Bioethics is an overview of ethical issues in medicine – while the Medical School has experienced some issues recently regarding conflicts of interests, the study of bioethics is more theoretical and less focused on specific codes of conduct.

While administrators hope to make the bioethics master’s a cross-disciplinary degree, the University’s bioethics minor has attracted a limited number of students.

According to the graduate school, there were seven students with officially declared bioethics minors in fall 2007. Total enrollment in bioethics classes numbered only 27 last fall.

DeBruin said their total goal for enrollment in the master’s program is also limited – only 10 people per year will enroll, and even fewer early on.

“Our plan is to keep enrollment relatively low and very selective,” she said.

Bart Moffett , a 2008 University graduate with a doctorate in philosophy, enrolled in a number of bioethics classes and said he regrets not adding the graduate minor.

Moffett, who will be a professor at Mississippi State University in the fall, said the master’s degree appealed to him.

“My experience at the center was instrumental to getting that job,” he said. “I’m a philosopher and there’s a huge need for people who do bioethics and can teach it.”

While few other schools offer a bioethics master’s outright, several other schools have bioethics centers, such as Johns Hopkins University’s Berman Institute of Bioethics .

Berman Institute Director Ruth Haden said the University’s master’s program doesn’t equate to increased competition in the bioethics field.

“We’re not a saturated field by any means,” she said.

Haden said the Berman Institute, which offers a variety of degree options including an undergraduate minor and a doctoral program, has considered offering a graduate master’s degree.

“Some people getting master’s in bioethics are younger people who are not certain what path they want to pursue in bioethics,” Haden said. “But they are pretty sure that whatever they do, they want bioethics to be part of their career.”