Philosopher and Medical Ethicist Leonard M. Fleck Named University Distinguished Professor

Leonard M. Fleck has been named University Distinguished Professor, one of the highest honors bestowed upon faculty members by Michigan State University. Fleck, who is appointed in both the Center for Bioethics and Social Justice in the College of Human Medicine and the Department of Philosophy in the College of Arts & Letters, has been a member of the MSU faculty for nearly 40 years.

During his career, Fleck has received several awards for his work. This latest honor recognizes his unwavering dedication to advancing knowledge through exceptional teaching, public-informed research, and generous service to the academic community.

Close-up portrait of person smiling into camera in front of a brown background.
Dr. Leonard M. Fleck

“I’m very honored. I’ve always felt very supported by my faculty colleagues — in the College of Human Medicine, the College of Arts & Letters, and several other colleges at MSU — as well as by the College of Human Medicine leadership,” Fleck said. “There’s just lots of things that they have done for me that were really important at various moments in my career.”

Fleck describes himself as a philosopher, medical ethicist, and health policy analyst. He joined the university in 1985 when the Center for Bioethics and Social Justice was known as the Medical Humanities Program.

“I’m very honored. I’ve always felt very supported by my faculty colleagues — in the College of Human Medicine, the College of Arts & Letters, and several other colleges at MSU — as well as by the College of Human Medicine leadership,”

Reflecting on the support he has received, Fleck cited examples from his early years at the university including when he was invited to join the Clinton administration’s Task Force on National Health Care Reform in 1993, an opportunity that required him to be away from campus for five months while living in Washington, D.C. With support from his MSU salary and his colleagues covering his teaching obligations, he was able to participate in what he describes as a very important part of his career development.

When asked what inspired him to pursue a career in higher education, his own college experience came to mind.

“I really liked many of my professors. It seemed like they enjoyed what they were doing,” Fleck said. “I just really loved the philosophy courses that I had. That was really what precipitated my choosing to pursue graduate work in philosophy and imagining myself as a university professor.”

In the Classroom at Home and Abroad

At this point in his career, Fleck has taught thousands of students of all levels. He is a past recipient of both a College of Human Medicine Distinguished Faculty Award and a University Distinguished Faculty Award.

This summer, he has been in London teaching the “Medical Ethics and Health Policy in London” course through MSU’s Office for Education Abroad. This is his thirteenth time teaching the course.

“By and large, I am proud of everything I have done in the classroom by way of contributing to the education of not only future physicians, but students who were going off in other kinds of health care directions,” he said. “I’ve always enjoyed teaching. I’m comfortable in the classroom. I find that I can be creative and engaging and I can tell funny little stories from my own life.”

Pursuing a Just and Healthy Society

In his research and scholarship, Fleck is currently exploring philosopher John Rawls’ concept of public reason and its role in addressing complex bioethics issues that require a public policy response. At the heart of this are longstanding themes of Fleck’s work: liberalism, pluralism, rational democratic deliberation, and community dialogue. It is a challenging societal question that Fleck has worked to address: how can we set aside our individual beliefs and come together to solve public policy issues?

Fleck had two books published in 2022: Precision Medicine and Distributive Justice: Wicked Problems for Democratic Deliberation (Oxford University Press) and Bioethics, Public Reason, and Religion (Cambridge University Press). This year, he’s been published in The American Journal of Bioethics, Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, and the Journal of Clinical Oncology. He has written extensively about precision medicine, targeted cancer therapies, and the role of community dialogue in addressing controversial issues of ethics and public policy related to emerging genetic technologies.

Another issue that has Fleck’s attention is the aging population in the United States. Limitations on health care spending have to exist, and the goal is to determine those limitations in a way that is “fair, just, and compassionate.” This theme of justice is also longstanding in Fleck’s work.

An Exceptional Colleague and Mentor

Recently, Fleck and College of Human Medicine student Aakash Dave collaborated on research related to precision medicine and cancer screening. They co-authored an article that was published this year in the Journal of Clinical Oncology and presented their work at the 2023 CBSSM Research Colloquium at the University of Michigan.

Through his work with Fleck, Dave has received ample opportunity to grow as a researcher and prospective physician.

“Working with Len has been an absolute honor over the course of the last year. He has devoted nearly 40 years to Michigan State University, and his work ethic is unbelievable,” Dave said. “What truly distinguishes Len is his persona. Never have I left a meeting with him without a smile on my face. Len is a gem, not only as my mentor, but as a valuable asset to our university, our country, and many others across the globe. He is the heart of our bioethics center.”

In recent months, Fleck ran into at least three physicians who were students of his in 1985 and who are now retired. He admits that the full-circle moment feels a bit weird, but at the same time concedes that it says something about his own endurance.

(Story written by Liz McDaniel and originally published on the College of Human Medicine website)