New Center for Ethics, Economics, and Public Policy

College campuses are often known for being forums for ideas and spaces for personal and intellectual growth. Matt Zwolinski is a University of San Diego philosophy professor who prioritizes open-mindedness and free-flowing dialogue in his classes and on campus.

For the past 13 years, Zwolinski has encouraged such an environment on USD’s campus. However, he believes that this is lacking at USD and at universities across the country, which is why he helped start the new Center for Ethics, Economics and Public Policy at USD.

“I envision universities as a place where people engage in robust debate about important issues and students listen to all sides of political discourse, and then they are encouraged to make up their own minds,” Zwolinski said.

Like many students on campus, Zwolinski has found that “changemaking” is difficult. He explained that many subjects that are vital to that process, including political science, economics, and philosophy, are talked about independently from one another, instead of discussing them together.

“Changemaking, as I understand it, involves trying to do your part in making the world a better place, and, as a philosopher, that’s something that is really attractive to me,” Zwolinski said. “But I don’t think you can really engage in effective changemaking if all you’ve got is philosophy because philosophy tells you where you wanna go, but it doesn’t tell you how to get there. How to get there comes from other disciplines like economics and political science, which tell us what kind of institutions actually work to achieve the goals we want.”

His dream of this interdisciplinary discourse is becoming a reality, as he is the head of the new Center for Ethics, Economics and Public Policy at USD. The center differs from others on campus because it actually doesn’t have a geographic location yet. This is somewhat odd given that seven donors have given $1.8 million dollars to the program.

“[The Center for Ethics, Economics, and Public Policy] is actually right here in my office,” Zwolinski said. “Essentially, right now, the center is me, some money, and some ideas, and we are using that to put on some events and design some curriculum stuff.”

Although the center has received quite a lot of media attention, such as articles in the San Diego Union-Tribune and Fox5 San Diego, there has been a lack of advertising to the USD community. The Center technically opened early this year, but it hosted a preview debate last fall about minimum wage. Besides that event, there was another debate about immigration during University of Diversity Week.

This might explain why, despite the center being open, some students have not heard of it.

Paola Coronado, a senior at USD, although active on campus, had not heard of the center before.

“I am glad that I now know a bit about it,” Coronado said. “I wish I had known about the immigration event, as that is something I am passionate about, yet I do not think it was advertised well to students. Hopefully, there will be better advertising of events and what the center is doing in the future.”

The debate’s theme was “Is Immigration a Basic Human Right?” and was held on Thursday, March 16 in the  Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice.

The debate was between Bryan Caplan, professor of economics at George Mason University Economics, and Christopher Wellman, professor of philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis. Caplan believes that immigration is a basic human right and that humans should be able to migrate wherever they would like. Wellman, on the other hand, believes that legal movement is a basic right, and individual countries should be able to create and enforce immigration laws that make sense for their culture, beliefs and the citizens of their countries.

Although the debate was centered around the moral groundings of immigration, many of the points made by both debaters had to do with economics and politics.

Professor Zwolinski thought the debate went well.

“I was extremely happy with the debate,” Zwolinski said. “I think students really need to see models of how two people can strongly disagree with each other, and yet do so in a way that is civil, respectful, and focused on improving the quality of our ideas – not simply on ‘winning’ the argument.”

However, senior Clarissa Wolatz, felt that the event was not relevant to the USD community and nearby border issues. She noted that the discussion felt primarily theoretical, and did not include the voices of USD students or faculty.

“I don’t think the debate really addressed the most pressing and controversial questions about immigration that seem to dominate the political climate at the moment, specifically regarding Trump’s new policies,”  Wolatz  said. “[The event seemed to focus on] the theoretical discussion of rights of people and governments, which I think should underlie any more concrete discussion, was valuable in its own right.”

Zwolinski emphasized that the main goal is to approach “changemaking” through interdisciplinary thinking here at USD.

“The Changemaker Hub has things that they are already specializing in, such as activism, mobilizing students, and community engagement, whereas [this] center is somewhat more in the world of ideas and research,” Zwolinski said.

He explained that, besides putting on events, they are succeeding in this ideas- and research-based goal through the development of a new academic minor combining the disciplines of politics, philosophy, and economics.

Although the Center for Ethics, Economics and Public Policy is new to USD’s campus, its goal is to get students to engage with one another about difficult issues. Future events will show whether or not the center accomplishes this goal.


Alexis Fahey, Contributor