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Stell to Retire after Nearly 40 Years of Bringing Law, Medicine & Ethics to Life in the Classroom

Lance Stell
Lance Stell

Before joining the Davidson faculty in 1976, Samuel E. and Mary West Thatcher Professor of Philosophy Lance Stell had formed a distinct impression of the college.

On the way to Florida, the Hope College tennis team and the Davidson team met unexpectedly and decided to play a match. The encounter was memorable in part because the match was closely contested, coming down to a third set of doubles, as well as for the heckling from one Hope player in particular (Stell insisted it wasn't him). A fed-up Davidson player finally flipped the bird at the Hope player's wisecracks, Stell recalled. Davidson coach Harry Fogelman immediately rushed to the court, grabbed the player's racket, and said, "We forfeit. Davidson gentlemen do not do that."

"We were all shocked," said Stell. "That was one of the most amazing things that I ever saw as a tennis player."

At the time, he was a typical college student debating which of his three passions to follow: medicine, law or philosophy. His aversion to lab work and persuasion, coupled with a proclivity toward theory and argument, led him to study philosophy and pursue a doctorate degree at the University of Michigan.

While at Michigan, Stell developed an interest in Chinese philosophy and language, which led him in a different direction. He became a fellow for the Center of Chinese Studies and opted to write his dissertation on Marxism, Maoism and normative theory.

"I then had the choice between taking a Fulbright to study Chinese in Taiwan or a job teaching philosophy at my alma mater. And that turned out to be a momentous decision, because I took the job and my interests moved in the direction of political philosophy and ethics," Stell said.

The decision kicked off his teaching career, and he landed at Davidson seven years later. He was appointed a professor of philosophy in 1976 and received tenure in 1979. From 1983 to 1998 he served as chair of the philosophy department.

Stell also taught in the humanities program for 10 years, which he said was like receiving the undergraduate education he never had. "Being able to learn much more about literature, art and theology than I knew was very enriching and a meaningful opportunity to collaborate with faculty from various departments," he said.

In the philosophy department, he developed two new classes: "Chinese Philosophy" and "Philosophy of Law," allowing him to explore past interests. He said he began teaching law at 30,000 feet because students didn't have law backgrounds, but found that studying arguments from real law cases was the better approach.

"I exposed the disagreements that exist in topics we view as important, such as the status of the unborn," he said. "I've enjoyed helping students see how nuanced these controversies can be-not in the abstract or a hypothetical case, but a case that occurred and developed in reality."

To ground his medical and health care ethics courses in reality, Stell incorporated his work with the Carolinas HealthCare System (CHS). He had previously served on the ethics committee at the CHS, and in 1990 the opportunity arose to spend his sabbatical there exploring medicine.

He said, "It turned out to be a life-changing experience because it created a linkage to the college, and I learned the nuts and bolts of medicine and surgery." That linkage permitted students in his "Health Care Ethics" course around-the-clock access to the hospital, along with a semester of observing staff, completing clinical rotations and receiving counsel from physicians.

In 1999, Davidson invited Stell to serve as director of the Medical Humanities Program, and he has ever since.

Merging Interests

Lance Stell
Prof. Lance Stell participates in a panel discussion on “Gun Rights, Responsibilities and Regulations.” A sportsman himself, Stell once coached Davidson’s co-ed rifle team.

Stell has found that his interests in law, medicine and ethics regularly intersect outside of the classroom. He is often asked to act as an expert witness on law cases involving medical malpractice and was nominated to the United Network for Organ Sharing ethics committee. He began serving on North Carolina Medical Society's committee on ethical and judicial affairs in 2003 and received the John Husk Anderson Award in 2005 for outstanding contributions from a layperson-the highest award they give to a non-physician. For the past 12 years he has worked with the Mecklenburg County Bar association's grievance committee.

His research articles have ranged in topic from gun control and gun policy to medical futility, but most exemplary of his research interests are his articles on the physician's relationship with the medical products industry. "Many think it's a toxic relationship, but I think it's productive, important and central in order to benefit patients," he said.

During retirement, Stell plans to write a new edition of his book A Physician's Guide to the Legal and Ethical Aspects of Patient Care.

"I think I've been incredibly lucky to have these outside opportunities while also teaching at a place with such terrific students," he said.

During his last semester Stell is co-teaching the course "Sex, Drugs, and Guns" with Associate Professor of Philosophy Paul Studtmann; he plans to end it with a bang-literally. After a semester of studying the moral and legal issues associated with the topics, students will take a trip to the shooting range.

"I think one of the most valuable things you can do as a professor is to engage students and provide them with something worth thinking about," he said. "How you do that is a perpetual puzzle for any teacher, but for me it's also been a phenomenal ride."