The McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society might be best known on campus for its student programs and public talks that invite people of all ages and backgrounds to think critically about the ethical dimension of today's most pressing social problems.
Internationally, the Center has a reputation among postdoctoral scholars in philosophy, political theory and related fields as an ideal place to prepare for a career in academia. And inside the center, the students, staff, faculty and fellows who make up its core community appreciate the intellectual life that such a place fosters.
It's not just the juicy topic of ethics that imbues meaning on everyday conversations in the office. It's also the people — and Nannerl Keohane is one such member of the Center whose presence adds a unique depth.
Keohane, pronounced "KOH-hann," is a visiting scholar at the Center, a place that aligns well with her interests. She is a senior scholar at the University Center for Human Values at Princeton, helped set up an ethics center at Duke, and academically speaking, is a kindred spirit with the professors who've been at the helm of the Center over the years.
Like the current faculty director, Professor Rob Reich, and his predecessor Debra Satz, now dean of humanities and sciences at Stanford, Keohane's pedigree is in political science and philosophy. As such, she has made ethics in society a central focus of her teaching, writing and leadership. Her role as a leader has included serving as president of Wellesley College from 1981 to 1993, and then from 1993 to 2004, serving as the first woman president of Duke University.
At both institutions, she led efforts to increase minority-student enrollment, diversify faculty and raise funds for university-wide initiatives. For those achievements and others, Keohane was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1995. And over the course of her career, she has taught at Swarthmore College, Princeton, Wellesley, Duke and Stanford. So she and her husband, Robert — also a noted political scientist — are no strangers to the Farm.
"We were particularly fond of Stanford having taught here in the '70s and raised our kids here," said Keohane, who often goes by "Nan." "The prospect of coming back was very appealing."
As a visiting scholar, Keohane continues her research and participates broadly in the aforementioned "intellectual life" of the center. That is where denizens of the center say her presence provides the most value: While hectic workloads keep many conversations short and transactional, "Nan" will engage you with genuine curiosity, deep wisdom and pleasant wit.
"Having Nan as an Ethics in Society visiting scholar has been a tremendous asset to the Center. She’s been generous with her time on all fronts – meeting with grad students, postdocs and staff," said Joan Berry, the Ethics Center's executive director. "Nan is also incredibly friendly and is deeply interested in what each of the staff members are working on, asking probing questions to learn as much as possible."
The Center's postdocs are especially appreciative. Keohane has spent the last two winter quarters at the Center, regularly attending the weekly workshops where postdocs present their work and prepare to interview for fellowships and tenure-track faculty positions.
To receive feedback from someone with as much experience as Keohane has amassed as an accomplished political theorist and university president — especially one advocating for more women in positions of leadership in higher education — is priceless to an aspiring professor.
"What I've been most struck by is her openness to dialogue. She's been very keen to hear about our perspectives and engage with our work," said Hannah Carnegy-Arbuthnott, a postdoc completing her two-year fellowship. "You don't take that for granted in academia, because everyone's busy."
Carnegy-Arbuthnott described a lunch event Keohane organized last year where she encouraged graduate fellows and postdocs at the Center to think beyond landing that first faculty job — and to image themselves as future department chairs or deans.
"Most of us hadn't yet thought about that because we're still in the junior stage," said, Carnegy-Arbuthnott, who is currently on the job market and deeply appreciates interacting with Keohane. "It would be very easy, I imagine, to come here and just squirrel yourself away and focus on your own research — and enjoy California."
Keohane said she has enjoyed getting to know all the postdocs and provide feedback on their work. Her visiting-scholar appointment is renewed on a year-by-year basis, and the center looks forward to having her back next winter.
Not that she isn't gaining new knowledge herself at the Center. Once or twice a week, she sits in on the new undergraduate course "Computers, Ethics, and Public Policy," co-taught by Reich and several other top professors in computer science and political science. Her appreciation for the growing importance of the ethics of technology in the digital age is clear, as it is for us all.
"I've learned an enormous amount about an area that's so important to our society, and to our democracy," Keohane said.