The Parr Center for Ethics serves as the public face of the University’s commitment to research in, teaching about, and conversation concerning ethics. Housed within the Department of Philosophy, it aims to provide the resources—academic, administrative, and financial—necessary to advance our understanding of moral questions. The Parr Center is committed to integrating abstract work in ethical theory with the informed discussion of practical ethical issues.
Caldwell Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
The Parr Center for Ethics was established in 2004-2005, thanks to a generous gift from the Gary W. Parr Family Foundation. Plans for the Center grew naturally in the fertile soil of the Ethics Fellows Program in the College’s Institute for Arts and Humanities which was begun in 1997. That program helped to consolidate a community of scholars from across the University, all of whose research and teaching interests are squarely in ethics. Capitalizing on this community, the Parr Center for Ethics seeks to encourage and foster the palpable need for fruitful discussion and exploration of ethical issues. The Center is a three-time recipient of the American Philosophical Association/Philosophy Documentation Center Prize For Excellence and Innovation in Philosophy Programs: 2008, 2014 (for the Outreach Program), 2021 (for the National High School Ethics Bowl).
The Genesis of the Parr Center
Our experience with one large donor and some nascent thoughts about reaching donors making smaller contributions suggests an approach to the new giving paradigm. Gary Parr is a graduate of the University of North Carolina from the small town of Burlington, North Carolina. His grandfather, Lawrence “Lefty” Wilson, pitched for the UNC baseball team from 1918 to 1922. After graduating from UNC in 1979 and immediately obtaining an MBA, Gary went to work in finance, soon becoming an expert in structuring financial institutions of all kinds. Currently the vice chair of Lazard, the New York investment banking firm, he has been deeply involved in the restructuring of the world’s financial institutions over the last several years.
Typical of the new donors, Parr had something he wanted to accomplish at UNC. After several long conversations with Professor Ruel Tyson, the religion professor and founder of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities whom we introduced in Chapter 5, Parr became committed to establishing ethics as an important component of the undergraduate experience. Initially, he worked with the Business School to establish an ethics course for undergraduates with the thought the course might evolve into a more elaborate curriculum and eventually spread to the campus as a whole. For a variety of reasons, this first attempt didn’t meet Parr’s expectations and he decided to try a different approach.
After multiyear discussions with Professor Tyson, Parr met Geoffrey Sayre-McCord, the chair of the Philosophy Department, and one of those magical partnerships between an academic and an entrepreneur was born. In Parr’s view, the Philosophy Department was not perceived as a threat or a competitor by any other department or school, and therefore it could serve as a facilitator, bringing together interdepartmental resources to focus upon ethical questions in the arts, sciences, and professions. In 2004, after ten years of experimentation, he established the Parr Center for Ethics with both endowment and expendable funds. But that was only the beginning, Parr has stayed deeply involved in the center and has constantly pushed for it to scale its efforts and increase its impact inside the university and within the state.
Unwilling to limit its activities solely to teaching, the center is now focusing on the ethical issues raised by biotechnology and other advances in medicine, collaborating with traditional scientists, doctors, and the School of Public Health. Justifiably proud of the Parr Center’s achievements to date, Parr wants more definitive plans for growth and has assembled an impressive advisory board to suggest future directions. As those directions evolve, there is reason to be optimistic about Parr’s continuing involvement and support.
We take away four important lessons from the university’s experience with Gary Parr. First, it is necessary to understand the goals and motivations of the donor from the beginning and stay engaged as they change over time. Large donors like Parr will likely be focused on a problem, and the more measurable progress that can be achieved the more involved and committed the donor. Second, start small and take some risks with expendable funds and maximum donor involvement until a sustainable model emerges. Third, match the donor with an entrepreneurially oriented academic who can meet the donor halfway and form a partnership that provides both academic credibility and a sense of urgency and purpose consistent with the donor’s mindset. Fourth, understand that the process will probably take ten years and there will be some failures along the way. If everyone involved understands these lessons from the outset and embraces and even celebrates the ups and the downs of the endeavor, it has a higher likelihood of success.
This excerpt from the Engines of Innovation: The Entrepreneurial University in the Twenty-First Century, UNC-CH Chancellor Holden Thorp and Buck Goldstein detail the beginnings of the Parr Center for Ethics.