Remembering William F. May, Ph.D.

William F. May

The Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility Remembers its Founding Director William F. May, Ph.D.


“…a university does not fully discharge its duties to the students if it hands out knowledge – and the power that knowledge yields – without posing questions about its responsible use.”

-William F May, Ph.D.

The Cary M Maguire Center for Ethics & Public Responsibility celebrates the life and legacy of our founding director, William F. May, who passed away on October 27, 2023. Dr. May’s wisdom, compassion, and scholarship will be long remembered at SMU and his influence felt around the world. In his memory, we pledge to continue to uphold the values he cherished: the pursuit of knowledge, empathy for others, and a commitment to ethical living.


Dr. May began his career in higher education as a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Princeton University in 1948.  He continued to distinguish himself as the winner of the Downes prize at Yale where he graduated magna cum laude and where, in 1962, he completed his Ph.D.  He rose through the ranks to become a full professor and chair of the Department of Religion at Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.  After the Supreme Court’s Schempp decision (1963) made it clear that religion could be taught at public institutions, Dr. May founded and chaired the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University where he served from 1966-1980.  In 1980, Dr. May was appointed the Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., Professor of Christian Ethics at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University. As Southern Methodist University founded its Cary M Maguire Center for Ethics & Public Responsibility (1985), Dr. May was tapped to hold the first Maguire University Chair of Ethics and serve as the founding director of the Center, a position he held until his retirement in 2001.


“Bill May began leading the Maguire Center the same year that I joined SMU,” said SMU President R. Gerald Turner. “As a Presbyterian minister, he brought a fundamental sense of morality to his work, and many of the Maguire Center’s current programs were established at his hands. His legacy endures through the impact that the center continues to make on our campus.”


Dr. May was a former president of the American Academy of Religion and a Founding Fellow of The Hastings Center, where he co-chaired its research group on death and dying. Dr. May received post-doctoral fellowships from the Danforth Foundation, the Lilly Endowment, Inc., and the Guggenheim Foundation, and has lectured widely in the United States and abroad. Indiana University honored him with its Distinguished Teaching Award in 1970 and the American Academy of Religion presented him its Outstanding Teaching Award in 1993. From 2002 to 2004, Dr. May also served as a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics. In 2007, Dr. May was named the Cary and Ann Maguire Chair in American History and Ethics at the John W. Kluge Center


Dr. May was a prolific writer.  In addition to numerous journals and book chapters, May is the author of The Ethics of Giving and Receiving, The Physician's Covenant: Images of the Healer in Medical Ethics, and The Patient's Ordeal. His thoughtful, introspective writing challenged readers to reflect deeply on the ethical dimensions of the human experience.


“Bill May elevated the discussion of ethics in each encounter.  From the board room to the White House, he was a fierce advocate for the ‘correcting our vision’ that occurs when we use ethics as the lens through which we judge what ought to be,” said Rita Kirk, current William F. May Endowed Director of the Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility. “He never let us forget our responsibility to set our sights higher, to enact a better vision.”


Dr. May was a mentor and inspiration to countless students and colleagues. His profound influence on the lives of those he touched extended far beyond the realm of academia. His dedication to teaching and ethical discourse was renowned, earning him the admiration and respect of his peers and students alike.


“Professor May’s breadth of vision set the direction for a whole generation of scholars who applied theological ethics to public policy and professional ethics,” SMU Cary M. Maguire Professor of Ethics emeritus Dr. Robin Lovin says. “His clear thinking and writing gained showed us how to engage other disciplines in the university and speak to wider audiences. His own work on medical ethics, especially, will be read for a long time to come, but his influence will be felt through all of the students and colleagues who have tried to follow his lead.”