The Institute

We are an interdisciplinary “think and do” tank committed to promoting moral reflection and commitment, conducting interdisciplinary research, and shaping policy and practice.

At Duke, we serve as a central node for analysis, debate, and engagement on ethical issues at and beyond the university. The Kenan Institute for Ethics currently features work in global migration, human rights, regulation, moral attitudes and decision-making, and religions and public life.

A small sampling of current projects includes an effort to connect pioneering research in forensic sciences to social science research in ethics for human identification, a Citizenship Lab uniting Duke undergraduates and local refugee youth to examine methods of civic participation, and a forthcoming research network on environmental ethics.

How we work

The Institute is one of six interdisciplinary institutes at Duke University. Rather than being housed in a specific school or department, we collaborate across the entire university, exemplifying Duke’s commitment to cutting-edge teaching and student programs, to faculty excellence, and to making a difference globally.

Our history

The Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University began as the Kenan Ethics Program in the fall of 1995 with a five-year grant from the William R. Kenan, Jr. Fund for Ethics. It was established in response to philanthropist Frank Hawkins Kenan’s concern about what he perceived to be an increasing lack of ethical standards in public affairs and in business life. Mr. Kenan, then a trustee of the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust and trustee of the Duke Endowment, and then-Duke President Nannerl Keohane sought to establish a university-based ethics program that would permeate the life of the university and extend into the life of the community and nation.

In July 1999, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust established a $10 million endowment managed by the William R. Kenan, Jr. Fund for Ethics, thus committing itself to long-term support. The Kenan Ethics Program then became the Kenan Institute for Ethics, and over time, the trustees of the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust built the endowment to $20 million. The Institute celebrated its new status in January 2001.

Elizabeth Kiss was Director from 1996 to 2006, leaving Duke to become President of Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, in August 2006. After a national search, Provost Peter Lange appointed Noah Pickus as the Institute’s new director in July 2007. Professor Pickus was reappointed to another five-year term in July 2012 and transitioned into a new role as dean of curriculum and faculty development with Duke Kunshan University. Suzanne Shanahan, who was appointed associate director in 2007, reappointed to another five-year term in 2012 and took over directorship in 2017.

Since our founding, the Institute has grown into one of the most active and respected ethics centers in the country. At Duke, we have played a leadership role in the university’s engagement with ethics. We have contributed to a renewed focus on academic integrity (including a new honor code and code signing ceremony); the establishment of a two-course Ethical Inquiry requirement for undergraduates; the implementation of a research ethics requirement for all Ph.D. students (a national first); the launch of a research service-learning initiative that is now institutionalized as DukeEngage; the creation of ethics training for all students in the DukeEngage program; and the launch of an undergraduate certificate program in ethics. We have also established a graduate fellows program; taken part in the pilot semester of DukeImmerse; ran the third Winter Forum; launched a FOCUS cluster; and hired three faculty jointly with Trinity College.