Q & A with Marc Marenco Director, Pacific Institute for Ethics and Social Policy & Professor of Philosophy

by Steve Dodge

The Pacific Institute for Ethics and Social Policy is celebrating its fifth anniversary of full operation this year. Philosophy Professor Marc Marenco has been director of the Institute since its founding. Marenco holds a doctorate in philosophy from Oxford University, a master’s in divinity from Yale University, and a bachelor’s degree in religious studies and philosophy from California State University, Chico.
The mission of the Institute is to develop and sustain strategic community partnerships to address the complex and urgent social problems facing us regionally, nationally and internationally. Examples include the rapid rise of genetic science and technology and the tension between homeland security and civil liberties since 9/11.

Can you tell me how and why the Pacific Institute was founded?
In the 90s there was a lot of pressure in higher education to move away from a cloistered, purist, specialized focus; to become more engaged in the big issues of the day and to do this in a more systematic way. So people like [former Pacific President] Faith Gabelnick, Dean Marvin Kaiser from Portland State University, [Pacific Optometry faculty member] Paul Kohl and Biology Professor Lisa Sardinia motivated the faculty to establish a center that would be an educationally robust interface between the University and the public. The community is really hungering for non-political dominated discourse on public policy — genetics, health care, security — there is a hungering for a conversation that actually leads somewhere, that may be unpredictable. I attribute our success in large part to that hunger. We have somehow gotten people who don’t trust each other to trust us.

How did you first get interested in philosophy?
I was originally interested in teaching religious studies as an intern at Berkeley and then while continuing my studies at Yale. I had gotten interested in the philosophical dimensions of theology. A visiting professor from Oxford was a neighbor and he encouraged me to continue my explorations. I spent five remarkable years at Oxford. Despite my name (I was adopted), I am half Scots and half English, and one of the highlights was exploring the countryside. I took a six-day bicycle trip from Oxford to Edinburgh for the International Arts Festival. I hardly saw a car and farmers welcomed me to camp on their property. It’s a whole different mindset.

Did you have any earlier interests in these areas?
I think I was always a preoccupied person. I have always been interested in how everything is connected. There is no more interesting area than philosophy when your subject is virtually everything — the questions of mortality and meaning, the biological and social origins of human beings. I’m one of those people who can’t sleep at night until a question is answered. When I was in seventh grade I built a CB radio and wondered “how does this work?” and pondered the nature of light and waves and particles, which took me deep in at an early age, not just on how it works but what it means. When I was eight or nine, I shot a bird and it had a profound effect on me, that I was actually the cause of this bird’s death. It was still warm and I tried to revive it. The questions it raised about values inevitably lead to questions about meaning.

Who is or was your favorite philosopher and why?
I have a favorite philosopher and a most influential philosopher. My favorite philosopher is Iris Murdoch. She is most well known as a novelist, but was trained as a philosopher at Oxford and her books are permeated with rich philosophical insight into the human condition. The philosopher with greatest intellectual influence on me is clearly Immanuel Kant. His recognition that the assumptions we must give up when doing science are precisely the assumptions we must accept when authentically expressing moral commitments, has been a central conundrum of my intellectual life.

What is your favorite non-academic pursuit?
Once one is bitten by the philosophy bug there are no purely non-academic pursuits. Anything and everything becomes an occasion for reflection and connection. When not focused on teaching or duties associated with the Institute, I am absorbed with the lives of my wife Anna and my children, Daria and Paul. They are an endless source of pleasure and insight to me; by far the best and most profound thing I’ve done with my life. A lesser but nonetheless important part of my life is music. I was once a music major and find the ability to make music a wonderful way to spend one’s time and a love one can pass on to one’s children. Another activity we seem to enjoy, oddly enough, is messing around with our trailer; a poor man’s way to see the world. We took our trailer to Disneyland for a two-week holiday this year.

Can you tell me a bit more about the Institute’s structure, including your role as part-time director and part-time philosophy professor?
When we looked at institutes and centers around the country we discovered that the most successful ones seemed to be run by faculty who have been released from teaching time to pursue development of the program. Because I have been involved in the development of our Ethics & Policy in Healthcare program for many years, much of my teaching falls within the College of Health Professions. I still teach at least one course a year to undergraduates and remain a member of the Department of Philosophy. My training as a philosopher and my skills as an educator are now used in many non-traditional ways, including the development of curriculum for seminars and conferences on subjects like genetics, national security and health policy reform. Getting the concepts right to make all this happen has not been easy for everyone involved, but I think we have a model that works.

What needs to happen to ensure the continuance of
the Institute?

I am happy to say that the Institute has become part of the warp and woof of University life as well an established and respected institution within the region. Right now we are working hard with our Institute board in collaboration with the University development office to make the work of the Institute more visible to those with financial capacity to give to our vision. I would love to see the development of an endowed chair of Public Philosophy to make the position of director of the Institute perpetual. There may also be someone with capacity to simply endow the Institute in their name, something that is quite common in other parts of the country. More importantly we are working to make sure folks who know about us and appreciate our work are asked to contribute either time or money (or both) to our vision.

How do you decide on topics and gather panelists?
Our Institute is not dedicated to a particular issue or set of issues, but we have consistently focused on three major areas: genetic science and policy, impact of national security initiatives and health policy reform. We also work with other programs; I have a very keen interest in the impact of technology on psychological development, education and cultural self-understanding. We will be working with the Berglund Center for Internet Studies and the Center for Gender Equity on a series this fall dealing with iPods, cell phones and the World Wide Web. We found some fascinating folks in education, law enforcement and psychology to be panelists on this one. The town hall will take place on October 25. We’ll also be running four or five community seminars for students, faculty, parents and interested citizens four weeks before the town hall.

In the five years of the Institute’s existence, what was your most satisfying program?
Well, I’d say that receiving $257,000 from the National Institutes of Health [for a conference and series examining genetic science, religious belief and public policy] would meet the criteria… It was a wonderful program that’s receiving rave reviews and has opened lots of doors to do more work on genetic science and policy issues in the Pacific Northwest.

What was the oddest or funniest thing that’s happened
during your tenure?

One moment that I’ll not forget took place at a town hall we did one month after 9/ll. A man in a red bow tie stood up and identified himself as the chief of police of Hillsboro… I began to look for security thinking he was nuts but as he talked he convinced me it was plausible he was who he said he was, Ron Louie, Chief of Police of Hillsboro. He said something that summarized for me how many folks thought at that time. “When I heard that they’d detained 400 people in connection with the twin towers I felt good. [Then] I woke up the next morning in a cold sweat thinking, was that legal…?” [Editor’s note: Louie later became a key Institute panelist on issues of security.]

What kinds of new programs are on the horizon?
A certificate of competency in specialized areas of healthcare ethics, an NIH research grant proposal building on the “Faithforum on Genetics” program, expansion of faculty development opportunities in community engagement programs, continuing education offerings in ethics and policy in each of the health professions, and student internships in Public Philosophy, National Security Issues, and “Ethics and Policy” for pre-health professional students in the College of Arts and Sciences.


For further information:

Pacific Institute for Ethics and Social Policy Website





Photo: Rob Rosenow