Class Decides Whether To Donate Professor's Kidney

January 2, 2011

NPR Staff

Most college students write papers and read academic journals as class assignments. But how often does 5 percent of a final grade depend on deciding the fate of the professor's internal organs?

Professor Michael Taber of St. Mary's College of Maryland asked the students in his Altruism and Egoism class to decide whether he should donate a kidney.

"I was trying to come up with an exercise that would allow them to apply some of the concepts and some of the discussions that we were having in the seminar to a real issue," Taber tells NPR's Jacki Lyden.

After all, if only one kidney is required for survival, couldn't it be considered selfish to hang on to a complete pair? Is it immoral not to donate?

The otherwise theoretical discussion gets complicated when it's about a real person. "The decision to do something as intimate and personal as literally giving a part of oneself is not simply like whether or not to donate, say, even a sizable amount of money to a good cause," Taber says.

The exercise wasn't just hypothetical, either; Taber has been seriously considering donating a kidney. Even so, "I told [the class] at the beginning of the semester that I did reserve the right to not take whatever their recommendation would be," Taber says.

Turns out, Taber didn't need to hedge his bets. Contrary to his prediction, the students decided to let him keep his kidney.

"It was very clear that they believed that this would be a very good thing to do; an excellent thing to do, going above and beyond in all the usual sorts of ways we would talk about such charitable actions," Taber says. "But they felt uneasy making that recommendation to somebody they know -- namely, me."

That uneasiness resulted in a less-than-decisive paper, despite the instructions to write a hard-and-fast ruling. "They were deliberately backing off what they were, in some sense, assigned to do," the professor says.

They might have copped out a little, but the students still received an A on the assignment. And Taber gets to keep his kidney -- for now.  He says he may revisit the question in a few years. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.