Friday, December 16, 2016

Celebrating the Legacy of Vivian Weil

Dr. Robert Ladenson, an emeritus professor at Illinois Tech and long-time fellow of the Ethics Center wrote a beautiful piece on the legacy of our former director, Vivian Weil, that appeared in abbreviated from  yesterday in the American Philosophical Association newsletter. Below is the complete piece.

Vivian Weil: October 29, 1929 – May 07, 2016
    Vivian Weil taught philosophy at the Illinois Institute of Technology (Illinois Tech) for forty two years (1972-2014).  From its inception in 1976, Vivian was involved actively in Illinois Tech’s Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions (CSEP), and she was Director of CSEP for twenty seven years (1987-2014).  The decision to create CSEP forty years ago responded to a growing sense, at the time, among engineers and scientists of being presented increasingly in research, teaching, and work with ethical issues their education and prior experiences did not equip them to address.  For this reason, during the early years of CSEP those who shaped its agenda of activities and projects agreed on two basic objectives: (1) to create useful tools for deliberation about ethical issues in different professions, with special emphasis upon engineering, technology, and science; and (2) to develop educational venues in which students (both undergraduate and graduate), teachers, and practicing members of various professions (especially in technological and scientific areas) could use these tools to explore ethical issues in ways that are well informed, thoughtful, open minded, and open ended.  CSEP’s success in accomplishing these objectives is now acknowledged throughout the world.  CSEP has pioneered and developed educational innovations which became adopted widely, conducted many sponsored research projects that resulted in high quality publications on important topics in practical and professional ethics, and organized numerous conferences, workshops, and public lectures.  It has, in addition collected, curated, and is now digitizing, the world’s largest archive of professional conduct codes and guidelines, the CSEP/Illinois Tech Ethics Code Collection.

Vivian Weil’s leadership was by far the most important factor contributing to CSEP’s record of achievement.  Most, if not all, CSEP projects are collaborations of CSEP staff with, in many cases, Illinois Tech faculty and students, and, in many other cases, researchers, scholars and practicing professionals from outside of Illinois Tech.  Vivian organized, encouraged, and took part in such projects unfailingly with a combination of keen intelligence, enthusiasm, and a truly exceptional affinity for productive collaboration.  Her most influential contribution was to develop and to model such collaboration across disciplinary boundaries many had considered impassable, for which Vivian received warm appreciation and strong recognition from her fellow educators.  In this regard, for example, Julio R. Tema, Associate Director of the Benjamin Franklin Scholars Integrated Studies program at the University of Pennsylvania, who, as a graduate student, took part in a collaborative project of Vivian’s with nanotechnology researchers, credits the experience as having “changed his career trajectory and his intellectual life.” He writes:  “Though I felt philosophy was somewhat empty without real world involvement, I had not been exposed to much hands-on philosophy.  Vivian changed all that and for this I will be forever grateful.”  During her career Vivian was Chair of the Executive Committee of the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, a governing member of the National Institute of Engineering Ethics, a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a recipient of the Sterling Olmstead Award of the American Society of Engineering Education.

     An outstanding student from her early years, Vivian graduated as class valedictorian from the academically distinguished Walnut Hills High School in Cincinnati.  She then entered the University of Chicago, which her former Walnut Hills fellow student, and future life-long partner in marriage, Irwin Weil was attending.  Vivian received both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in philosophy from the University of Chicago, and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.  Like many academically talented women of her generation, throughout the 1950’s and early 1960’s Vivian subordinated her strong interest in continued study of philosophy in graduate school to caring for and raising her children (Martin, Alice, and Daniel).  In the mid 1960’s, however, Vivian resumed graduate study as a student in the newly created philosophy Ph.D. program of the University of Illinois, Chicago (UIC), and received her Ph.D. from UIC in 1972, writing a doctoral thesis on diverse aspects of action theory.

     During her early years on the Illinois Tech faculty Vivian wrote papers and published articles in action theory.  With the founding of CSEP in 1976, however, her academic focus shifted entirely in a new direction upon which it remained for the rest of her career.  Practical and professional ethics, especially related to engineering, technology, and science, aligned closely with Illinois Tech’s fundamental mission.  It provided also an opportunity for Vivian to draw upon philosophy as an important conceptual resource to address issues of major social importance, thereby connecting with her abidingly strong sense of moral and social idealism.  (Vivian one told me this sense took hold initially through participating as a teenager in the youth group to which she belonged of the Isaac Mayer Wise Reform Jewish Temple in Cincinnati.)  Furthermore, as exemplified time and time again during her years as Director of CSEP, it also gave full scope to her instinctive pleasure and joy in facilitating and taking part in productive collegial academic collaboration.

     Summarizing concisely Vivian Weil’s accomplishments and contributions, though not easy, can be done.  No words, however, at least none I’m capable of expressing, can convey with adequate fullness and depth of feeling how much those of us who knew and worked with Vivian admired, respected, learned from, liked, and loved her.  We were blessed to have had Vivian as our colleague.

Robert Ladenson (December 07, 2016)

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