Campus & Community

Kissel $12M bequest supports ethics activities

4 min read

The University Center for Ethics and the Professions, one of Harvard’s first interfaculty initiatives, has received a bequest, estimated at $12 million, from the estate of the late Lester Kissel JD ’31. The bequest will be used to establish the Lester Kissel Presidential Fund for Ethics, the income from which will support part of the core activities of the center, including faculty and graduate student fellowships, faculty and curricular development, and interfaculty collaboration.

A smaller fund, the Lester Kissel Endowment in Ethics and Values, will be earmarked for “initiatives in ethics that reach beyond the traditional classroom and that seek to improve, in this country and abroad, the moral character of men and women not only in the professions but in all walks of life.” This fund will enable the center to develop new initiatives such as practitioner seminars, summer workshops, international conferences, and Internet projects. The first center event to be supported by this fund – “Doing Good and Doing Well in the Entertainment Media” – was held on April 4 at the ARCO Forum of the Kennedy School (see Gazette article of April 12), when a panel of television producers and Harvard faculty members discussed the roles and responsibilities of those who write and produce for television, and how they handle social and ethical concerns.

“Lester Kissel had the vision, from the beginning of the center, to see the value of the study of practical ethics,” said Dennis F. Thompson, Alfred North Whitehead Professor of Political Philosophy and director of the University Center for Ethics and the Professions. “His wise counsel and steady support through the years, culminating in this extraordinary bequest, ensure that the center will continue to flourish. The faculty, fellows, and students who will benefit from his gift will be better able to pursue the ideals of moral leadership and public service that he cared about so deeply.”

Kissel, who died last spring at 98, was for many years a leading lawyer in New York City. He was a student of Hindu philosophy and made frequent visits to India to explore the concept of human values in this context. His longstanding interest in values in public and professional life led to his commitment to the ethics initiative at Harvard, beginning with early conversations and correspondence with former President Derek Bok, and later with President Neil L. Rudenstine. In reflecting on Kissel’s encouragement of the study of ethics and values at Harvard, Bok said: “I know that Lester [Kissel] was proud of all that Dennis Thompson and others accomplished in promoting this subject and that he would be delighted to see this work continue and grow with his support.”

President Rudenstine, in acknowledging the bequest, said:

“Lester Kissel was, over his long, accomplished life, a constant friend of the University. He was also an early supporter of the serious work of uniting ethical and moral considerations with the demands of practice in the professions. His extraordinarily generous bequest will ensure that moral reflection about public issues and professional life will always have a place in scholarship and teaching at Harvard.”

Founded in 1986, the University Center for Ethics and the Professions encourages teaching and research about ethical issues in public and professional life, and is at the center of a what is now a well-established movement at Harvard to give ethics a prominent place in the curriculum and on the agenda of research. Part of the center’s mission is to help meet the growing need for teachers and scholars who address questions of moral choice in such areas as business, education, government, law, medicine, public policy, and social science. By gathering together those with competence in philosophical thought and those with experience in professional education, the center promotes a perspective informed by both theory and practice. Martha Minow, professor of law, is acting director of the center this year while Thompson is on leave.